The world's greatest incenser swings for Pope

Pope Benedict has just enjoyed one of the great spectacles of European Catholicism -- the swinging of the giant incense-burner of Santiago de Compostela cathedral, known as the botafumeiro (roughly, "smoke-launcher").

Five feet high, weighing 60 kilos, and reaching speeds of 40 miles an hour as it swings 65 feet high across the cathedral nave, the botafumeiro was used in the Middle Ages to purify the air of the cathedral made disagreeable by stinking, sweaty pilgrims. 

The first record of it appears in the world's first tourist guide book, the 12th century Codex Calixtinus, which calls it a Turibulum Magnum. There have been various botafumeiros in the cathedral's 800-year history; the one used today dates from 1851.

Its alarming acceleration and speed are achieved by eight men, known as the tiraboleiros, splendidly dressed in dark red tunics -- they belong to a special fraternity -- pulling down 20 times on a set of ropes while the chief of the tiraboleiros cries out "Una, una, una" to make sure they're all (if you'll excuse the pun) pulling together.

How that causes it to swing in a great arc, I'll leave for the mechanics to explain.

The incense used today for perfuming the Pope is an especially aromatic mixture, brought over especially from Peru.

Judging by Benedict XVI's delighted expression, and the warmth of his reception, the crowds lining the streets of Santiago, and some choice words delivered, as ever, with intelligence and directness, the start of this brief trip has been a success. 

I'll report again during the Mass in a few hours' time which the Pope will be celebrating in the cathedral plaza before 7,000 faithful.

 

 

 

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