Scent: Sacred and Secular

According to the Vedic texts, some of the world’s most ancient documents, in ancient India fragrant woods were lit and fed with consecrated perfumed ointment and offered to the Hindu gods. In Hindu mythology there are five heavens and they all abound in perfume. The Jupiter of the Hindus, Indra,is always portrayed with his breast tinged with sandalwood, while Kama, the god of love, had a bow and arrow tipped with flower blossoms. The god Brahma was born from a lotus flower which grew from Vishnu’s navel, and the principal ornament of Brahma’s heaven is the blue champak flower, which, on earth, is white and belongs to the Magnoliaceae family. It has a lovely, overpowering scent and is still cultivated for perfumery.

In the first millennium BC the priests were the perfumers, and the skill of grinding up pastes to make incense and unguents, using hundreds of ingredients, was considered a mysterious and esteemed art. High priests kept the sacred fires burning by sprinkling incense on charcoal in censers at the altars. At Heliopolis the sun worshippers burnt gum resins at dawn, myrrh at noon and kaphi (more commonly spelled ‘kyphi,),a mixture of aromatics,at sunset.

In Europe, in the Middle Ages, gardening was restricted – because of the constant threat of invasion – to protected places. Aromatic and medicinal plants were cultivated in the cloistered herb gardens of the monasteries, where the monks and nuns manufactured scent for its medicinal properties. Their knowledge of alchemy and their recognition of the curative powers of scent helped them in their development of new recipes for perfume and medicine. Monks had their own distilling equipment and various orders like the Dominicans, the Carthusians and the Franciscans vied with each other to make the best scents and herbal extracts. When they began to distribute them, their perfume preparations made their monasteries famous throughout Europe.

Perfume has been made by the Dominican monks at the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica at Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, since the 1220s. It is the oldest pharmacy in the world and was founded when the friars began to distil herbs and flowers to make essences, fragrant waters and elixirs. The perfumery and pharmacy still exist, and as you walk into the Officina Profumo the aroma of the herbs, leaves and flowers of the Tuscan countryside, its woodsmoke,lilacs and pine, the twiggy smell of rosemary in summer, the herbal mimosa-like smell of the yellow broom and the wild woody smell of the cypress haunt the vaulted chapel.

The preparations made in the monastery became celebrated not only in Italy but throughout Europe, and medicines were ordered from as far afield as China. Over the years each new abbot set out to devise a new recipe to add to the fame of the Order. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Officina was handed over to the Italian state, but all the original recipes – which the friars invented and perfected over the years – are still kept there. In the fifteenth century Fra Angelo Paladini made an almond paste, a lily water and a cosmetic vinegar, which were very popular with the Tuscan courtiers. In 1707, another abbot, Fra Ludovico Berlingacci,discovered and made his famous ‘Life Elixir’, which included viper flesh.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the scents were bottled and put into small boxes or cases shaped like books, whose covers were embossed with ornamental devices in gold or coloured pigments, and in Pepys’ Letters it is recorded that his nephew John Jackson, who was making a grand tour of Italy, sent his uncle ‘one small book of Florence essences’.

Curative potions made by the monastery, such as ‘Vinegar of the Seven Thieves’,which restored those prone to fainting, and an anti-hysteric water, are all still made, as are all kinds of scented and antique pharmaceutical preparations – from pomegranate soaps to rose elixirs – made from every ingredient you can imagine. There is an iris toothpaste, a myrrh mouthwash and colognes made from Aqua sicilia, mimosa, honeysuckle, tobacco and Spanish leather. A medieval pot-pourri was also made which was left to mature for months and lasted for years.

The Greeks and Romans were known to have anointed different parts of the body with appropriate scents: mint for the arms, palm oil for the breasts, marjoram for the hair, ground ivy for the knees, perfume extracted from vine leaves kept the mind clear and white violets were used to help digestion. St Hildegarde, in her twelfth-century book Le Jardin de Sante (The Garden of Health), wrote about the therapeutic properties of sage, aniseed, thyme, rosemary and, above all, lavender. Plants and animalic substances were researched for their uses to combat plagues and, in the fourteenth century, Olivier de la Haye recommended spreading aromatic plants and sprinkling vinegar and wild roses on floors, as well as burning incense pans of rosemary and juniper berries to disinfect houses. People with maladies disinfected their mouths and hands with an aromatic wine flavoured with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, musk, cloves and mace. Then in 1370 a remedy for many illnesses appeared. It was called a boule de senteur – literally a ball of scent – and was made from aromatic vegetals and animal extracts which people inhaled. These boules de senteur later developed into the more sophisticated pomanders.

Directions for making holy oil can be found in Exodus 30:23-4: ‘Take thou also … three principal spices. Of pure myrrh, 500 shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even 250,and of sweet calamus 250 shekels. And of cassia, 500 shekels, and of olive oil a hin.,A shekel is an ounce and a hin is a gallon, so this is a huge quantity. Incense was made from pulverized spices – especially cinnamon and perfumed cyprinum, the odoriferous leaves of henna – into psagdi (pastilles of incense), which were tinted green with extracts of henna flowers, Cinnamon also infused holy anointing oil.

In the Middle Ages, perfume was also, naturally, used in the churches of the orders who made it. At Mass, resinous incense billowed from censers and vases of scented water were used at baptisms. But perfume also came into general use. Maisons de bain, or bath houses, were built and filled with aromatic herbs and perfumes. A sybaritic scene from a medieval miniature of one of these public bathhouses depicts couples immersed in huge wooden tubs of water, while servants dispense flacons of wine to the bathers. Beside the bathers another couple lie resting in a four-poster bed.

Banqueting rooms were filled with chaplets of roses on feast days and by the fourteenth century violet, orange and lavender waters were used by ladies of noble birth. In 1365 Charles V of France planted a garden of sage, hyssop, lavender, roses and violets. Musk, amber and civet, and oriental cinnamon, benzoin and sandalwood were also much in vogue. Agnes Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII of France, was so enamoured of ambergris that she had her cloaks soaked in the stuff. One of the most popular scents of the time was made from a melange of chypre, Damask rose, sandalwood, aloes, musk, ambergris and civet. Iris roots were also ground into a powder that gave off a soft violet scent, which responded well to the smell of skin and was thought to be aphrodisiac.

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