My childhood was spent believing that Roman Catholics had strange practices and ceremonies that were not part of the right way of worshipping God that we Baptists followed. 1 I broke away from all formal religion as a teenager, but I retained a lack of understanding of the need for highly decorated vestments, gilded surfaces, statues and pictures of The Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels, and of incense. Clearly, all these are important to Catholics, and have a special meaning for them, with the smoke from smouldering incense representing the passage of prayers from Earth to Heaven, or as a symbol of spiritual purification, with the three swings of the censer representing a blessing by The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Of course, the use of incense is not confined to Catholicism within Christianity, and it is used widely in some Eastern religions, but it is this formal use of incense that seems, to an outsider, to be such a feature of Catholic worship. Its smell pervades churches and cathedrals after incense has been used in religious ceremonies.
Cathedrals were often built on a very grand scale, as impressive structures to honour the magnificence of God. If they are awe-inspiring now, just imagine how they must have appeared to people 600 to 1000 years ago, a time when many great cathedrals were built in Europe to cement the power of Rome and to create the sense of wonder at the importance of the Christian story. One Cathedral continues to hold regular services that are so well-attended that queues form long before the scheduled start and the Cathedral becomes packed, with all seats taken and standing spaces, especially those in the transept and near the crossing, especially sought after. This is the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, and it is important as the site where relics of St James the Apostle are kept. It is the finishing point of the Camino (The Way of St. James), an ancient pilgrimage route with several starting points, 2 still popular with both believers and non-believers. Is this why the Cathedral is packed for some services? The answer to this question is partly yes, as the pilgrimage brings so many visitors, but the real reason is that those crowding the cathedral are doing so to see the use of a censer: Il Botafumeiro. It is 1.6 m in height and weighs about 100 kg when loaded with glowing coals, so it is quite different to the average thurible.
In previous centuries, when the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela was filled with pilgrims, it can be imagined that Il Botafumeiro had a deodorising role, as well as that of the religious symbolism provided by the smoke of the smouldering incense. Originally slung from beams, a mechanical device was mounted high in the crossing during the Renaissance to allow the giant censer to be swung through the transept. The current Il Botafumeiro dates from the mid-nineteenth century and is tied to a rope and operated by a team of men who pull their individual connecting ropes downwards in unison, starting, and maintaining, the swing of the censer. We can see the splendour of the operation, and its accompanying music, in a video clip taken at the time Pope Benedict visited the Cathedral. His Holiness looks a little bemused by it all, while Monsignor Guido Marini, the Papal Master of Ceremonies (standing on Pope Benedict’s left), seems marginally more involved. I wonder what the Holy Father was thinking?
I have made two visits to Santiago de Compostela and, on both occasions, saw Il Botafumeiro in action. On the first occasion, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but found the spectacle to be high theatre and it is this theatre that visitors come to witness. Certainly, I was very keen to attend a second performance. Of course, it has its roots in religious practices, and it must mean a great deal to the devout who attend the ceremony, but the religious symbolism becomes lost in the scale of the entertainment, whatever the protestations of the clergy. After all, Il Botafumeiro, like the Cathedral, was designed to impress and I’m sure that the Baptist believers with whom I grew up would be appalled by it all. Yet their plain chapels can be places of high emotion during the theatre of their services of total immersion baptism, or when evangelical fervour begins to take hold. They are all manifestations of the role of religious ceremonies and perhaps these are as important as beliefs to most who attend.
1 Wotton, Roger S. (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.