Leaving behind a divine fragrance

Scent culture originates from religious life. Thus, references to religious practices, feasts & thoughts are a recurring theme in our posts. Today, 15 August, Christians celebrate the Assumption of Mary. It is a day abounding in histories of scent practices.

Scholars have long noticed that idealized biographies of saints and religious figures often refer to incense and other scent practices. The story of today’s feast reminds us of scent as an undeniable weak signal. Actually, this is a function scent tends to perform pretty frequently today. Think about energy providers adding a smell to the gas supply so we are able to sniff out a gas leak straight away.

The idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus was bodily taken up into Heaven at the end of her earthly life made its first appearance in texts from the third century. And a first visual artifact capturing this subject was found on a sarcophagus  in Zaragoza in Spain dated c. 330! In the early 8th century  John of Damascus (d. 749) set out what later became the popular subject of numerous paintings. Accordingly, Mary died in the presence of the Apostles. But when her tomb was opened upon the request of St Thomas, it was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven:

“A precious ointment, when it is poured out upon the garments or in any place and then taken away, leaves traces of its fragrance even after evaporating. In the same way your body, holy and perfect, impregnated with Divine perfume and abundant spring of grace, this body which had been laid in the tomb, when it was taken out and transferred to a better and more elevated place, did not leave the tomb bereft of honor but left behind a Divine fragrance and grace, making it a wellspring of healing and a source of every blessing for those who approach it with faith.”

John of Damscus, Homily 1 on the Dormition 12–13 [PG XCVI, 717D–720C]

Apparently, nobody witnessed how Mary was bodily taken up into Heaven. Instead, the apostles, as the above image by Juan Cabezalero illustrates, vaguely sensed an extraordinary scent when opening her tomb. In interviews on the role of scent at the workplace people often mention the odor of a fellow co-worker or of a boss as a signature in space. Thus, a meeting room or a corridor might conserve an invisible presence of someone who has just left. In fact, scent is even used in police investigations as an unequivocal sigh of a recent presence. According to John the divine fragrance was unmistakable. We might miss the scientific proof and look down on this story as an ephemeral and transient impression. However, as scent enthusiasts we might also look at it as a narrative to build on.

The above passage by John of Damascus is widely known and a common point of reference in intellectual history. “Scenting Salvation”, a scholarly book by Susan Ashbrook Harvey, discusses an additional apocryphical account on the assumption of Mary known as the Transitus Mariae. The oldest version of this story survived in Syriac and most likely dates to the late 5th century. According to Harvey this text varies the idea that divine action is made know through fragrance.

In our days some of the fragrant practices of 15 August seem to gain new popularity as a google image search reveals. “Mary, who is a human creature, one of us, reaches eternity in body and soul”, said Pope Francis last year. For those who are afflicted with doubts and sadness, “and live with their eyes turned downwards”, the Feast of the Assumption is a call to “look upwards” and see that “Heaven is open”, continued Pope Francis.

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Claus Noppeney


Evans, S. (2002). The Scent of a Martyr. Numen, 49(2), 193–211. Harvey, S. A. (2006). Scenting salvation: Ancient Christianity and the olfactory imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press. Kleinberg, A. M. (2015). The sensual God: How the senses make the almighty senseless. New York: Columbia University Press. Kügler, J., Bechmann, U., & Wünsche, P. (Eds.). (2000). Die Macht der Nase: Zur religiösen Bedeutung des Duftes Religionsgeschichte: Bibel: Liturgie. Stuttgarter Bibelstudien. Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk. Thurlkill, M. F. (2016). Sacred scents in early Christianity and Islam. Studies in body and religion. Lanham: Lexington Books. Wourm, N. (2003). The smell of God: Scent trails from Ficino to Baudelaire. In B. Martin & F. Ringham (Eds.), Sense and scent: An exploration of olfactory meaning (pp. 81–98). Dublin, Eire: Philomel Productions Ltd.

Juan Martín Cabezalero: La Asunción de la Virgen. ca. 1665.