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Aromas, fragrances and perfumes

· ​In the Old and New Testaments ·

I once received an invitation to take part in a very famous scent festival. I initially thought that the person who had contacted me had made a mistake: in fact, although I am very fond of perfumes, especially those made from flowers and citrus fruits, I am far from being an expert in this field. I tried to dissuade her, explaining to her that I was a Biblicist, that obviously I dedicated myself to the Bible and that I knew nothing about scents at the technical level. “Yes, yes, I know”, she immediately answered me, “but you have written a book entitled El perfume del Evangelio [The Perfume of the Gospel: Jesus’ Encounters with Women, Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2012] and this is why I asked you to come: it is precisely this aspect that interests us”. In short, in the end I accepted that unusual invitation and drafted a report on perfume, on the aromas and fragrances mentioned in the Bible, illustrating the subject with texts from both the Old and New Testaments. For although it may seem strange, the pages of the Bible are steeped in perfumes, balms and aromatic oils, most of which are exotic and very precious, which poets use as metaphors to express the inexpressible, to reveal mystery and to approach the divine. These perfumes often signify, or perhaps it might be better to say suggest, sublime feelings such as love or gratitude.

Domenico Morelli, “The Song of Songs” (detail, 1980)

In the enchanted garden of the Song of Solomon the woman beloved is a field of lilies which her beloved gathers. It is a garden in which he strolls, inhaling aromas of juniper and cinnamon, scents of spikenard and aloes, essences of myrrh and incense. In fact the perfumes are not substances external to the person but rather an expression of her personality, a reflection of his desire and love. In a certain sense they are a projection of the person who opens to the other, to the search for a gesture, a gaze, a caress, a sign. These perfumes are a very powerful means of communication. They can even inundate a house with their fragrance. This is what the author of the fourth Gospel tells us of the incident known as the anointing of Bethany (cf. Jn 12:1-8). To the great amazement of all those present, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anoints Jesus’ feet with a pound of the costly ointment of pure nard. And, as was to be expected, given the quantity and type of perfume poured out, the house was filled with its fragrance. Judas was shocked at the apparent waste and Jesus defended the woman’s action, interpreting it in the light of the Paschal mystery. That is, he intended it as an announcement of his death, burial and Resurrection. We may deduce from the text that Mary poured so much perfume over the Teacher’s feet that she was obliged to dry them with her hair. Her hair absorbed the scent from Jesus’ feet and she felt enveloped in its fragrance. From that moment, the perfume of Jesus was also the perfume of Mary. The scent of nard, now shared, spread through the whole house, filling the most hidden corners with its aroma. In this scene Mark and Matthew discover the expansive force of the Gospel which spreads through the world like the scent of nard.

And if we are speaking of biblical perfumes, we cannot fail to mention the gesture of the nameless woman sinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee in an episode in Luke’s Gospel (cf. 7:36-50). Here too the person who anoints with a perfume is a woman, the anointed one is Jesus and this woman’s gesture is disconcerting to those at table, especially to the master of the house. Even if, to tell the truth, what shocks Simon the Pharisee is not so much the sinful woman’s action as rather the attitude of Jesus, who accepts her kisses and caresses without reservation. We know nothing about the woman of the perfume – this is what we like to call her – not even her name, but we sense that she had suffered deeply and that on one occasion Jesus had stretched out his hand to her. Upon learning that Jesus was in town, she did not hesitate to go and find him to express her gratitude to him. Instead of words, she has recourse to actions. These freely given actions, overflowing with tenderness but totally inconceivable in her culture, enable her to communicate with the Teacher in silence, through her kisses, tears and caresses. This woman’s anointing expresses gratitude. Her hands stroke Jesus’ feet with slow and rhythmic gestures, as if she were seeking to come out of her own body to explore the body she was caressing. Her hands, dripping with perfume like those of the beloved woman in the Song of Solomon, touched Jesus’ feet gently and delicately. As in the scene at Bethany, the fragrance envelops both the disciple and the Teacher. The scent of the woman is also the scent of Jesus.

Flemish Master, “The Woman of Bethany” (detail, 1510-1520)

So far we have spoken of perfume in relation to flesh and blood women, but to conclude there is a surprise. This is a really beautiful text which is found in a book of wisdom known as the Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Yeshua ben Sira, Sirach or the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Precisely in the middle of this Book, in chapter 24, we listen to the voice of Wisdom personified who speaks of herself and of the mission that the Lord has entrusted to her. And she does so in a most evocative way which recalls the earthly Paradise of Genesis, the exuberant Garden of Eden. Trees, plants, fruits and fragrances describe her trajectory and her expansion in Israel. It is necessary to read the whole text, but here I cite only verse 15: “Like cassia [cinnamon] and camel’s thorn, I gave forth the aroma of spices, and like choice myrrh I spread a pleasant odour, like galbanum, onycha and stacte, and like the fragrance of frankincense in the tabernacle”.

The woman Wisdom expresses herself in these words. She is a perfume who emanates fragrance and a sweet smell, a scent with strong cultural connotations since the ingredients mentioned are those used to prepare the oil for anointing and for liturgical incense. Her aim is to perfume the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, the place of the divine presence, as we read in the Book of Exodus (cf. 30:23-24). So who could doubt the liturgical role of the woman Wisdom? As I said at the outset, I am not an expert, but my passion for perfumes, especially the biblical ones, increases with the passing years.

Nuria Calduch-Benages

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