One way to tell whether you are dealing with a saint is to sniff them. Osmogenesia, or the Odour of Sanctity, is the sweet and pure aroma that Christian saints and even their dead bodies are said to produce. The floral fragrance of a medieval saint was in vivid contrast to the body odours of others, who were told perfume was sinful and bathing a health hazard. The past was a place of smells both divine and disgusting.
In the Book of Genesis God breathed life into Adam’s nostrils, as shown in this allegory of smell. The Latin poem reads: “The sense of smell, the fragrant flower of the grateful lover / He has love of Hybla, flowering Hymettus, how sweet is this God / He infuses the man of salt with his own great gift of life.”
Pleasant smells were long thought to be divine, with pagan gods feeding on the savoury fumes of a burning sacrifice. In this image the newly born Virgin Mary is shown being bathed and cleaned for her future role as Mother of God, alongside a quote from the Song of Solomon, “the vines with the tender grape give a good smell”.
St Polycarp of Smyrna was an early Christian martyr. Ancient people would have been familiar with the stench of cremation, but when set on fire the saint did not burn with acrid fumes. Instead those watching “smelled a sweet scent, like frankincense or some such precious spices”.
When a fire damaged the sarcophagus of William FitzHerbert, 12th-century Archbishop of York, a sweet smell and oil were seen to flow from it. Before the Reformation in the 16th century, the shrine of St William of York – as William was canonised 73 years after his death – was fitted with spigots to allow pilgrims to fill bottles with the holy perfumed oil.
Simeon Stylites took monastic asceticism to the extreme, spending years alone on a high pillar. He mortified his flesh until it rotted and stank. Yet as he was dying he exuded a heavenly aroma – “neither spices nor sweet herbs and pleasant smells, which are in the world, can be compared to the fragrance” – indicating a state of physical purity.
About the author
Dr Ben Gazur has a PhD in biochemistry but gave up the glamour of the lab to be a freelance writer. He specialises in history, science, and the history of science. Ben Gazur is a writer and author. His book about food folklore is currently being crowdfunded. If you support it, you will get your name printed in the book. Click here to find out more.