The Botafumeiro Thurible – A Breathtaking Video

This video shows you a view of the Botafumeiro in action like you’ve never seen before!


What is the Botafumeiro?

It’s a famous thurible in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This grand, massive object is used to burn incense for sacramental reasons and to give a nice smell to the Cathedral. They are commonly used in most Catholic and Orthodox churches around the world, but tend to be far smaller and operated by altar servers during the Mass. In general they are held by hand from a small chain, but in Santiago de Comostela it is held by huge ropes connected to the roof of the Cathedral and operated by eight men at once.


A typical thurible and incense burning equipment. Source: LooiNL under CC BY-SA licence


The Botafumeiro weighs as much as a man at 80kg and stands at 1.6m high. It is lifted from an antique pulley system installed in 1604. When it’s used, it is filled with an additional 40kg of incense and charcoal that costs 250 euros per use! If you want to learn more about the physics of how it works, there’s a great simulation here from the University of Nantes. The link is in French, but you can get the gist without any knowledge of French (or physics).

The Botafumeiro is filled with 40kg of incense and charcoal that costs 250 euros per use! Click To Tweet

A Troubled History

The Cathedral has used a thurible since its early days, and this form of swinging device for around a thousand years. In ancient times poor pilgrims would arrive at the cathedral after months of travel, and smelt really bad. Aside from the sacramental use, the distribution of incense helped people and especially the priests to cope with the distracting smell of fellow pilgrims!

It hasn’t come without problems. When the first wife of King Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, was en route to her marriage she stopped off at the Cathedral along the way. In the middle of the ceremony as they swung the Botafuermeiro its ropes broke and it was thrown out of a Cathedral window! Fortunately the most recent accident was almost 80 years ago in 1937. In this event and in that of Catherine of Aragon, no one was reported to be seriously injured.

Napoleon’s men took a liking to the grand silver thurible used at the start of the 19th century and stole it! Since then the thuribles used have been less ostentatious and currently there are two in use: the Botafumeiro for the most special occasions and the Alcachofa for more general use.

So when can I see it?

Like we mentioned before, there’s two thuribles in use in the cathedral. If you want to see the most famous Botafumeiro, the official pilgrim office states that you’re only guaranteed to on these occasions:

  • The Epiphany of the Lord – 6 January
  • Easter Sunday
  • The Ascension of the Lord
  • The Apparition of the Apostle – 23 May
  • Pentecost Sunday
  • The Martyrdom of Saint James – 25 July
  • Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – 15 August
  • All Saints – 1 November
  • Christ the King
  • Immaculate Conception – 8 December
  • Birth of Jesus – 25 December
  • Transfer of the body of the Apostle – 30 December

You might be lucky enough to see it on other days too. Off the record, we’ve heard that when large enough groups pay for it then they’ll do it in the daily pilgrim’s mass. That said, it’s understandable to keep it for special occasions when it costs over $300 a display!