This site uses cookies...
Cookies are small text files that help us make your web experience better. By using any part of the site you consent to the use of cookies. More information about our cookies policy can be found on the Terms of Use.

The odour of sanctity

· ​Recognizing the supernatural ·

Odore di santità [the odour of sanctity] together with its opposite, odore di zolfo [the odour of sulphur], is an [Italian] expression which for centuries has been part of tradition and not only the popular Christian tradition. These expressions are used metaphorically in the common language too, thus it cannot be denied that they are highly successful concepts. Even today, albeit in ironic tones – and especially in contexts very far from religious ones, which basically continue to take these things seriously – one can hear people say: “I detect a whiff of sulphur here”, to infer the danger of a deception, or that so and so “is in the odour of sanctity”, to define a person who is above all suspicion.

Plate with angels incensing (Limoges, 1170-1180)

These metaphors start from a common conviction that the sense of smell is the best suited and most sensitive sense for understanding the spiritual nature of a phenomenon and especially of a person. It is curious that such an important – I would go as far as saying crucial – task in evaluating whether we categorize someone among those we most appreciate or those we most hate has been allocated precisely to the sense that brings us closest to the animal world, which moreover animals have developed much more than us humans.

An intimacy with the divine has thus been attributed to the sense of smell in such a way as to bring about the fundamental recognition in judging the nature, ambivalent by definition, of the supernatural.

This is a very ancient tradition which preceded Christianity and is connected to a concept of the sacred that is not based on the opposition between body and spirit, at a time – to say it in Cristina Campo’s words – when people were still aware of “the marvellous carnality of divine life”.

The perfume exhaled by the earthly remains of a saint – which ought preferably to have been found incorrupt – were for centuries considered an irrefutable proof of holiness. A concrete and sensitive proof of the victory over death, therefore, of a body which already in its lifetime had been detached from the common human destiny.

This odour was a miraculous proof which could be manipulated with a certain ease, for example by burning perfumes in the vicinity, or which derived from the historical fact that at the time of death the body had been embalmed with perfumes because it was already considered holy. But of course this odour could not be considered a proof of the moral virtues of the candidate for canonization, but rather of his or her “magical” powers.

After the Council of Trent clear and rigid rules were established for the processes of beatification and canonization, transferred for their final and decisive phases to Rome; they were based solely on the heroic virtues demonstrated in the candidate’s life, to which was added the proof of a miracle, almost always of healing, confirmed by science in the person of a doctor. As Cristina Campo wrote further, with the passing of the centuries “every proof was duly overtaken by doctrine but seemed to carry away with it a scrap of the radiant corporeity, the vivid skin of ancient Christian life”.

From this moment the miraculous aspects of holiness, which did also occur, lost the value of proof in the eyes of the institution and lived on solely in the memory of popular religion. However the popular memory was tenacious, as we see from the survival of the metaphorical expressions mentioned at the beginning which have come down to us.

With time, therefore, the idea prevailed that sensory perception is deceptive, that in order to know the world we must have recourse to rationality, to the scientific spirit, setting aside that “liturgy of the human body”, as Catherine Chalier writes, of a “body striving, through all its senses, for a reality that goes beyond it”. This has meant losing the aptitude to distinguish the symbolic dimension in what each person is granted to perceive.

The odour of sanctity and its opposite, the odour of sulphur, refer symbolically to death: in some of the chemical compounds in which it is present in nature, sulphur releases an unpleasant, repellent stench, which is reminiscent of that of the corruption of corpses. The odour of sulphur is an odour of hell because it is an odour of death. And it is significant that it should be pointed out as the element which produces this smell, and therefore that the stench should be ascribed to a single element, specifically sulphur. Everything negative is reduced to a single sensation, that of terror in the face of the decomposition of death.

The odour of sanctity instead is undefined and it can take very different forms: for some saints it is a scent of myrrh, for others of roses or lilies. And there are saints who exhaled a perfume during their lifetime, such as Catherine of Bologna, Catherine of Siena, Lidwina, Philip Neri; and others at the moment of their death, such as Paul, Polycarp, Simeon the Stylite, [Simeon Stylites], Theodore, Elizabeth of Hungary, Joseph of Cupertino, Teresa of Avila, and yet others, after their death, such as Anne, Catherine of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Alexius, Augustine of Canterbury, Anthony of Padua, Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola. For many saints it was merely a scent, for others it was a perfumed oil that flowed from the tomb, which was usually considered to have thaumaturgical properties. The victory over death therefore takes different forms and sensations: if condemnation to death is one and the same for everyone, the ways of perfection are many, perhaps as many as there are human beings.

One question remains: why should perfume rather than light be considered a sign, and not light alone? Scent, half-way between material and immaterial, refers to the mediation between heaven and earth, as moreover does the liturgical use of a perfumed oil, chrism, which constitutes the instrument of consecration. Indeed this scented oil indicates the descent of the Spirit in Baptism, in Confirmation and in Ordination as also in the consecration of kings and queens. The balm of which it is made was always used by medicine as a remedy to corruption in all its forms: this same balm is presented as an immortal substance.

The persistence in culture of a Christian frame of reference to the odour of sanctity, as well as to its opposite, the odour of sulphur, indicates the coexistence within it of a religion of the elite – which privileges moral and philosophical themes – and a popular religion imbued with reality, for some people with superstition, and thus refers to a fragile balance between concrete religion and abstract religion. And the profane use of the expression reminds us that a memory of this tension lives on in the context of secular culture too.

Lucetta Scaraffia




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 24, 2020