Pilgrims Rituals in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Like millions before you over the centuries, you finally accomplished the Camino de Santiago and reached the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For 1000, pilgrims reaching Santiago have accomplished various Rituals, which we would like to detail in this article.

The Cathedral of Santiago

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a masterpiece of Romanesque and Baroque art. It is the support and main attraction to the City of Santiago de Compostela which was built around it. It is the resting place of the Apostle Saint James and its historical and spiritual importance for the building of Spain and Christianity as we know it is huge.

Cathedral of SAntiago de Compostela

But to most of its visitors, it is not its beauty or historical importance that they seek. To Santiago’s visitor, the Cathedral has somehow a personal meaning, they all feel deeply linked to it in some way.

For 250,000 pilgrims in 2015, seeing the Cathedral was the accomplishment of a dream. A dream they have been carrying for at least 5 days or 100km but sometimes for weeks or even months. As they walked, cycled or rode the Camino de Santiago on a horse, they have been imagining the moment they would finally see the Cathedral from the Obradoiro Square. It has been their shining beacon, their ray of light after what can be for some a difficult journey, especially during the Medieval Age.

For 11 centuries, pilgrims have dreamed of making it to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, to pay their respect to the Apostle and undergo a series of rituals that complete their inner and physical journey before going home.

Some of these rituals are still popular among new arrivals and we invite you to join the millions who have performed them before you. 

The most popular rituals for pilgrims arriving in Santiago over the centuries

The Old Pilgrim Ritual of Accomplishing the Coscorron

This is no longer allowed by the Church but used to be a very popular ritual for newly arrived pilgrims in Santiago.

While looking at the “Portico de la Gloria” beneath the statue of Saint James, the column’s surface is lines with five grooves and at its base a titan fights two lions. This could be Hercules or perhaps even Christ himself.

Here pilgrims would insert the tips of their fingers and their thumb of their right hand into the grooves of the column and rest their forehead against the statue and say a prayer. They would then get down on their knees and place their arms inside the mouths of the two lions and pray again.

Finally, they would go to the opposite side of the column where they would find another head, Master Mateo’s popularly known as the “Santo dos Croques”.

Statue of Santo dos Croques used for the Ritual of the Coscorron
Statue of Santo dos Croques used for the Ritual of the Coscorron

They would then tap their forehead gently three times on his and ask that he transmit just a little of his great wisdom. This final gesture is the famous “coscorron” (head bump) that is said to have opened the minds of many future architects and great builders.

The Current Pilgrim Ritual of Embracing Saint James Statue

Behind the high altar you will find a queue going up a staircase. Those people are queuing to see up close and embrace the statue of Saint James.

Detail of the High Altar of the Cathedral of Santiago with the statue of Saint James in the middle
Detail of the High Altar of the Cathedral of Santiago with the statue of Saint James in the middle

The statue of Saint James has been sculpted in a polychromatic stone. In his hand he carries a corbel which bears the inscription:

“Hic Est Corpus Davi Jacobi Apostoli Et Ispaniarum Patroni”

It is traditional to hug or pat his statue in order to thank him for the strength that he has given you along the Camino de Santiago, in spite of the heat or the cold, your tiredness, the blisters and any obstacles you might have encountered.

Watching the Botafumeiro Ceremony

The ceremony of the “Botafumeiro” which occurs during Pilgrim Mass on special occasions and every Friday at 7:30pm is a spectacular and very unusual show.

To give you an idea of what it might feel like, try to imagine an extremely large censor – one of the largest in the world measuring 1,60 meters in height and weighting 80 kilos – being set on fire and in motion by eight men (“the tiraboleiros”) and swinging like a huge pendulum from one side of the nave of the transept to the other above the heads of the assembly at quite a considerable speed.

Imagine a strong aroma of incense spreading throughout the cathedral and an almost hypnotic movement of the censor itself.

It is said this ceremony started around the 11th century and its goal apart from the being an important part of the liturgy, being an “oration to God”, or form of prayer, was to fill the cathedral with pleasant smells in order to mask the foul smell of the tired and unwashed pilgrims. It was also believed that incense smoke had a prophylactic effect in the time of plagues and epidemics.

The current pulley mechanism was installed in 1604 and the current Botafumeiro was created by the gold and silversmith José Losada in 1851. However, unless you attend Mass during a very special occasion (Christmas, Semana Santa..) you will probably see the smaller version called called “La Alcachofa” (The Artichoke) or “La Repollo” (The Cabbage). La Alcachofa is a silver-colored metal censer. It was created in 1971 by the sacred art artisans working under the craftsman Luis Molina Acedo.

Shovels are used to fill the Botafumeiro, or the Alcachofa, with about 40 kg of charcoal and incense. The thurible is tied to the rope with elaborate knots. The censer is pushed initially to start its motion. Eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes, producing increasingly large oscillations of the censer. The turible’s swings almost reach the ceiling of the transept. The incensory can reach speeds of 68 km/h as it dispenses thick clouds of incense.

We guess you are now thinking “but … has it ever broken free during a ceremony”?

The answer is yes, but only twice, in almost a millennium. Once in 1499 and again in 1622 and on neither occasion did it harm anybody.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

When the Botafumeiro is in operation, the celebration becomes very crowded, so it’s a good idea to arrive early if you want a good view.

The Botafumeiro is swung every day during the Pilgrims’ Mass on Jacobean years (Holy Years when the 25th of July falls on a Sunday). The rest of the time the rite take place on Fridays at 7.30 pm, and on certain solemn occasions (25 July, religious holidays) or when specially requested by a group.

To ensure the ceremony will take place, you can contact us or the cathedral officials and pay a donation fee of €350.

If, when visiting the Cathedral, you ever find it placed on the Main Altar, it is probably it will be used during the following Pilgrims’ Mass.

The Old Pilgrim Ritual of burning clothes on the Cathedral rooftops underneath the Cruz dos Ferrapos

“Oh, Cruz dos farrapos,
vella e ferruxenta,
agocha a miña alma,
escura e desfeita”.
(José María Máiz Togores)

The Cruz dos Ferrapos is a stone cross located on the rooftop of the Cathedral of Compostela and can be visited as part of the Rooftop tour. At its base is a stone open oven where pilgrims flocked to burn their old clothes used during the Camino after buying new ones in one of the many stands of the Obradoiro Square.

Somewhere in between a spiritual ritual and hygienic measure, the tradition could be linked to ending your old life to start a new purer life.

The guided tour of the Cathedral roofs allows visitors to climb to the very top of the building and look out over the historic centre from the heights. This tour will take you through the interior of the Gelmírez Palace, past the Cathedral gallery (above the Gloria doorway) and up to the roofs of the cathedral. The sensation of the wind on your face, this elevated vantage point, the view… it will all leave you speechless.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

Visits to the roofs are in groups, every hour on the hour however tours fill in quickly especially in summer so plan early and tours other languages than Spanish must be booked in advance. We will be happy to plan this for you.

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Ultreya Tours

Ultreya Tours is a incoming Tour Operator specialized in organizing comprehensive and highly personalized walking tours for groups and solo travelers on the Camino de Santiago. Founded and based in Santiago de Compostela, we know the region of Galicia and the secrets of the Camino by heart. Let us introduce you to our vision of the Camino.

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