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quinta-feira, 28 de janeiro de 2016

A Saintly Aroma: Scents of Heaven

by: Elena Vosnaki

If the devil and sin itself smell of sulphur, as I claimed in my previous article, A Diabolical Whiff: Scents of Hell, then heaven must be a true olfactory joy ride! The Christian tradition of "the odor of sanctity" of men and women of higher moral virtue who, either during their mortal lives or after their earthy demise, naturally exude a heavenly scent, hints at a fragrant paradise indeed. 
Angels must smell heavenly, that's a given, and perfume companies have used this association many a time to suggest their grace to the public. Just take a sniff ofAngel Face by indie brand Ava Luxe, with its intensely powdery, cloud-like polished aura. But humans, elevated to heavenly levels, could too, or so the story goes. 
There must be those among you who have visited a place of saintly worship. There you yourself might have smelled, or the guides may have pointed out, the suave odors that permeate such places. Sometimes floral, sometimes as pure as resinous emanations of materials known for their use in incense, the puzzling persistence of their existence comes as the proof of sanctity for the pious, a conundrum for the agnostic, or a cause for suspecting cunning trickery for the eternally doubtful...
I won't dispute anyone's faith or lack thereof. That's not my place as a historian nor as a scent author. The matter is that the aroma is quite real, almost palpable, hitting you at the nostrils as soon as you enter such places, for instance at Saint Demetrius, "the Myrrh-pourer" in Salonica, the various ascetaria around the Christian world (places of anchorites) or any such. 
The beliefs and the physical reasons behind these phenomena are fascinating to unravel nevertheless.
In Biblical times, the link between germs and diseases hadn't been made (it had to wait till the 19th century), so the logical leap that foul smells, entering the body at once with one's breath, could carry disease isn't far fetched. No wonder people tried to  protect themselves. In a "fight fire with fire" effort they tried even stronger smells against the inevitable stench of human curruption. Using incense materials, resins and gums high in purefying molecules such as Verbenone (a ketone) or Trans-verbenol (an alcohol), which they collected spending much time and effort, they fought foul odors with pleasant, "clean" ones. 
A lovely thought sprang from that practice. Since these aromatic resins burn without residue, symbolizing the heavenly spirits to whom they ascend to when burnt, and since essential oils represent the very spirit of a plant, could they not be the answer to a prayer against the inavoidability of curruption? 
The practice of embalming knew its apotheosis in ancient Egypt, where the Pharaohs were  mummified using complex aromatic mixes of both exotic and local materials.Myrrh in particular, rich in terpenes, molecules also present in the fresh scent of pine, was essential for the embalming process. Frankincense and fragrant rosin completed the sacred triptych of the tomb. They continued to be used for embalming kings and queens throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.
It's therefore, apropos, that modern audiences will recall such a reference in the 1994 Patrice Chéreau film La Reine Margot, set during the French Renaissance and based on the historical novel by Alexandre Dumas. In the scene leading up to the film's end, Margeurite de Valois (the eponymous Margot) is directing her maid of honors to use a precious pomade on the head of her beheaded lover, Joseph Boniface de La Môle, "in order to retain his beauty". The desire to stop time, for good, is irresistible, even for accursed princesses such as Margeurite, brought to a loveless, arranged marriage with a husband of a rival faith by her conniving mother, the plot-twisting Catherine de Medici. (Both novel and film focus on the days surrounding the notorious St.Bartholomew's Massacre between Catholics and Protestants in France). 
The practice referenced reflects a scene from the Gospels, a woman annointing Jesus's head with nard, a fragrant oil that goes back millenia, scented with valerian root. In the Bible this stands as a prefiguration of his deathly rites and his resurrection. 
If these aromatics, then, can prevent the body from natural putrefaction, could they not prevent a living human being from disease as well?
Further hypothesis: could a saintly, spotless soul, free from sin, not exude these heavenly aromas on its very own? 
Of course it could, people deduced. 
The correlation between delicious smells and the preservation of health, and, what's more, between sweet smells and moral advantage, therefore cemented. Since bad hygiene was the hallmark of a destitute and corrupted life, with the bad scents to accompany it, the ideal of fresh, delicate scent became the emblem of the noble; either in social class, or, what's more, in moral standing. 
In the canonisation standards of the Catholic church, there are two main classifications of those "touched" by the hand of God; the beata (blessed), requiring one miracle to be performed, and the saintly, requiring at least two...
The ontological state meant by the "odor of sanctity" could surely be translated as a figurative state of grace, but could also be interpreted as an actual odor!
A notable example of this "saintly" scent attributed to saints involves the testimonies surrounding Saint Teresa d'Avila (1515-1582, the founder of the Discalced Carmelite nuns), after the demise of whom a heavenly mix of lilyjasmine and violet mingled in inexplicable exquisiteness wafting throughout the nunnery. 
Was Marc Jacobs thinking of her when he commissioned Violet, featuring exactly those delicate, feminine, polished floral notes...lily, jasmine and violet? Probably not, but the floral combination still stands as the apex of ambrosial delight fit for heavens. 
Actually, no less than 185 commercial fragrances contain those notes! From Floris Bouquet de la Reine (since queens are not averse to a tinge of borrowed sanctity) to the fittingly called Ciel (sky) by Amouage and Fantasme by Ted Lapidus, all the way to Oriflame's ...Divine
Saint Teresa d'Avila must have inspired many a perfumer for what a "heavenly" scent smells like...
The modern website dedicated to Teresa d'Avila, nevertheless, does not mention her saintly scent. But the scent of violets is strongly tied to another saint...and to another possible physical cause. 
Saint Therese de Lisieux, another Discalced Carmelite and a diabetic, had been reportedly surrounded by the odor of sanctity. A scientific theory that the "saintly" smell is actually caused by ketosis, brought on by starvation through fasting, does actually sound credible, in what concerns simple chemistry and medicine. Let me explain in simple terms. 
Ketosis happens when there is a disrupted metabolism of lipids in the body, accounting for the presence of acetone in the blood of the patient. It comes from either hypoglycemia involving diabetic states or extremely low consumption of carbohydrates in one's diet (this is comparable to the first stages of the Atkins diet for those familiar with the concept). Normally the body utilizes glycose for energy. When there is a depletion of glycose, the body turns to other "fuel", namely the fatty acids in the bloodstream, in order to sustain energy. This is why ketosis is sometimes called "fat burning mode". The process volatilizes acetone in the breath of the person fasting, thus imbuing them with a smell of apple or pineapple! A sweet scent indeed!
Saint Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380) on the other hand, an anorexic in the last years of her life, was surrounded by a fresh, suave scent around her person which persisted around her tomb for several years. The really fascinating fact in her story is that she used turpentine/terebinthin, an oleoresin from trees, a common cure for chronic bronchitis at the time. Now this oleorsein includes two main constituents: α-pinene and β-pinene, isomers responsible for the scent of ...pine. Absorded in the body however these molecules break down to α-ionone and β-ionone, the odoriferous materials responsible for the scent of ...violet and raspberry respectively! 
The persistence of scented notes coming off the body of a saint is not confined to violets or fruit. The scent of roses is often attributed to people who have "the odor of sanctity" around them, as mentioned by Pope Pius XII, referencing the canonisation of Marguerite of Hungary (1943). The odor of roses is proof of her sanctity, and indeed, the suaveness of a saint's odor had been a requisite criterion in the process of canonisation itself. In this case there is the added reason that rose holds an especially potent symbolism in both Christianity and the pagan religions of the past. 
During the Middle Ages the petals of the rose represented the wounds of Christ, but later rose was associated with the Virgin Mary. And this is imprinted on the collective unconscious through the representation of rose in the Rose Window of Gothic churches, seen by millions. 
A scent like Cartier's Baiser Vole Lys Rose combining both worlds, rose, the lily of the Anunsciation and the softness of Virgin Mary's rose, could it be just the thing for a heavenly smell?
Furthermore, there are some mysterious cases of earthly bodies of saints defying decomposition, like that of Catherine Laboure in 1933, who was exhumated with her body intact half a century after her funeral, now reposing on the rue du Bac in Paris in the Virgin's chapel. Her body emitted the scent of soapy softness despite being dead for half a century. Perhaps this was the greatest mystery of them all, at least to the eyes of Christians who did not partake in the wonders of analytical chemistry or the historical knowledge of the embalming materials of the ancient Egyptians and of European royalty. 
Casting aside any artificial mummification, like the injecting of formol to Pope Jean XXII (who lies in the Saint Peter basilica in Rome) and of resins also used to circumvent bacterial action, there are cases of natural mummification happening due to specific soil conditions. 
The saponifying of a corpse's natural fats is doable and is called adipocere, or mortuary wax. Atrocious stories of WWII crematoria are based on solid science, alas. The process is due to the anaerobial bacterial hydrolysis of fat in tissues. In order for this to happen spontaneously, though, there needs to be a good amount of soda bicarbonate in the soil. 
Adipocere was first described by Sir Thomas Browne in his discourse Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial (1658) and visitors of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, might have come across the perfectly preserved mummy of The Soap Lady.
 
"In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat into the consistence of the hardest Castile-soap: wherof part remaineth with us."
 
In our eternal quest to smell delicate, suave, floral or soapy fresh, are we trying to claim the odor of sanctity? And to transpose the desirable traits of incorruptibility to ourselves? The hypothesis is certainly a fascinating one. 
 

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