Figure 1. Saint Rose of Viterbo, by Alonso del Arco, (Madrid, Latter 17th century), Madrid, Museo del Prado, Inventory number #P005357. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/saint-rose-of-viterbo/093087b7-647d-46c9-a9e1-11fe623fe459
Osmogenesia (Odour of Sanctity)
9th September 2023
by Nuri McBride
Created at:
9th September 2023
Creator:
Nuri McBride
Citation:
[click to copy]
Figure 1. Saint Rose of Viterbo, by Alonso del Arco, (Madrid, Latter 17th century), Madrid, Museo del Prado, Inventory number #P005357. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/saint-rose-of-viterbo/093087b7-647d-46c9-a9e1-11fe623fe459
Smells

Osmogenesia, also called the Odour of Sanctity, is a phenomenon existing within the Christian sensorium in which supernaturally pleasant odours appear, seemingly with no scientific explanation. The Odour was understood by those experiencing it as miraculous. These scents were intrinsically connected to devoutly pious people, usually saints or beati. The Odour was primarily a marker validating a person’s identity as holy (Harvey 2006, 350). A classic presentation is found in the writing of Saint Teresa of Ávila as she recounts the convent’s interactions with the Venerable Catalina de Cardona.

…the fragrance which came from her body was so great, that even her habit, and girdle (after she took it off, they gave her another and kept the old one) were fragrant, a circumstance which excited them to praise our Lord; and the nearer they came to her, the greater was the scent, though her garments were such as ought not to have smelt so sweetly, considering the heat which then prevailed. I know they would not have said this, had it not been true; and thus they entertained great devotion towards her. (Dalton 1853, 190).

Osmogenesia, as defined by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (the future Pope Benedict XIV) in 1738, limited this olfactive experience to a much narrower set of sensations. In this new definition, Osmogenesia served as evidence of angelic, but not divine, intervention. Once combined with other signs of holiness, this angelic intervention could be evidence for beatification. In this definition, the Odour was solely a miraculously sweet smell coming from the corpse of a venerated person after death, as an element of Incorruptibility. While Incorruptibility was part of the Odour’s historic portfolio of sensory experiences, it was not limited to it. This re-assessment effectively created two epochs in the history of Osmogenesia and a shift in how the Church approached the sensory experiences of those witnessing miraculous events.

Development in language and usage also caused confusion as to the nature of this saintly scent. The vernacular phrase Odour of Sanctity was directly interpreted from the Latin, odor sanctitatis. Odour of Sanctity was historically used by the laity to refer to this phenomenon. However, the phrase in both Latin and vernacular could be used symbolically, and this symbolic definition grew broader over time. The technical term in canon law is Osmogenesia, which specifically describes the charisma of divine odours. Yet this phrase was never widely adopted outside of ecclesiastica and academia. To add to the complexity, the phrase odor sanctitatis was sometimes adopted as a synonym for fama sanctitatis (reputation or report of holiness) in canonisation cases.

This term was later assumed by Protestants, who firmly rejected Osmogenesia as a miraculous phenomenon, but used the phrase odour of sanctity euphemistically to describe a general aura of holiness. Indeed, the literature and litany of Christian Europe are ripe with olfactive illusions and floral metaphors to describe a state of grace. For instance, in some versions of the rite of baptism, the priest would touch the infant’s nose and say odorem suavitatis (to a pleasant smell) to expel the stench of sin from the child (Wauters 2021, 21).

A further layer of complication came with the interweaving of Myroblysia and Osmogenesia in the public consciousness. Myroblysia is the ancient belief that venerated remains could exude aromatic, sweet tasting and healing liquid. While Myroblysia is a related mystical phenomenon to Osmogenesia and can occur in the same saint, they can’t manifest at the same time. Therefore, they are two separate miraculous experiences. Spiritual myron has an observable form, and Osmogenesia, while containing an experienceable odour, does not have an observable source. It is the manifestation of the liquid, not the liquid’s odour, that was miraculous in Myroblysia. However, as both phenomena featured olfaction and veneration of the dead, they would sometimes be folded into one phenomenon in the common understanding.

The symbolic use of scent, shifting community understandings, and colloquial adoption of the phrase caused confusion as to whether the phenomenon of Osmogenesia should be considered a physical or metaphorical odour. However, ample evidence in beatification testimony, lay traditions, and hagiographies supports divine odours (miraculous and tangible, but not observable) firmly ensconced in the Christian sensorium centuries before the 18th century and continuing far after. In this text, Osmogenesia and the Odour of Sanctity are used interchangeably to describe the charisma of divine odour attached to a venerated person.

Osmogenesia emerged from the experiential ecstatic worship and ancestor veneration of early Greek and Roman Christian communities (MacMullen 2010, 603). The Odour featured heavily in the hagiographies of the Middle Ages, and a considerable percentage of Early Modern Europe believed in, or experienced, preternatural odours connected to the saints. Using these older understandings of the Odour dramatically increases the range of sensory experiences. The Odour could occur before, during, and after death. These living presentations of the Odour often created challenges for the modest saint who would be inundated with requests to smell, touch, or kiss their bodies. Venerable Giovanna Maria della Croce actively sought to mask her Odour with clothing and malodorous elements in the name of modesty (Thurston 1952, 229). The Odour could also come from miraculous wounds such as internal and external stigmata (Park 1994, 6). Osmogenesia could attach itself to those that interacted with the body, with the smell persisting even after washing, as in the case of the witnesses of Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint Mary Margaret of the Angels, and Saint Rosa of Lima (Feuillet 1671, 40, 41) (Hallett 2013, 103, 164).

Nevertheless, the scent did not need to be bound to the saint’s body. It could be experienced with items and locations significant to the holy person. The Odour of Sanctity could also appear as a sign of the saint’s intersession or to indicate the saint’s death at a remote location. The Odour could serve as evidence of the invisible presence of angels or celestial bodies, as in the case of Saint Catherine of Ricci,

Her room was often filled with a most delicious fragrance, although it never contained any perfume; but this sweet smell was believed to proceed from the bodies which the blessed saints of paradise took in order to visit her (Anonymous 1853, 440).

While the Odour’s primary purpose was to identify saintly individuals, it could also become attached to other embodied forms of miracle-working. Saint Ludwine’s odiferous relic and Saint Teresa of Ávila’s aromatic body both provided healing for those who interacted with them. In the case of Saint Teresa, her hagiographer Father Ribera, recounts the story of an anosmic nun who could not join in her sisters’ reverence for Teresa’s divine odour after the saint’s death. However, upon kissing the feet of Teresa’s corpse, the nun’s senses miraculously return, and not only could she smell the Odour, but it clung to her nose and hands (Hallett 2013, 103).

In its original role, Osmogenesia serves not as a singular sign of holiness but as a type of olfactory theology within the Christian tradition (Evans 2002, 197). This expanded understanding of the Odour operated similarly to divine odours in pre-Christian traditions, creating tension between Church doctrine and living practice. This olfactive tension became part of the larger post-Tridentine debate on the nature of miracles in canon law. It questioned what sensory experiences should be expected from a miracle and how valuable sensory data was in assessing if an event was indeed miraculous.

Odeuropa Smell Explorer
Smells

The olfactive profile of the Odour of Sanctity was not a specific scent but a range of pleasant odours. The nature of these smells was influenced by the state of the Christian sensorium and the availability of materials in the olfactory culture at the time of the miracle’s reporting. However, these odours can be broadly categorised as indescribable and describable smells. Indescribable versions of the Odour are presented as a pleasant scent, to which the reporter does not attempt to elucidate their experience in common sensory language. The smell is miraculous and, therefore, beyond human understanding and communication. Non-olfactive descriptors such as divine and heavenly stand in for sensory language, and allow the reader to imagine any odour they associate with those concepts. As in the account of Saint Rosa of Lima’s Odour,

After her death, a great servant of God, kissing respectfully this instrument of penance, felt himself interiorly inflamed with the love of God, and was at the same time perfumed with a heavenly odour, which was a sign to him that Almighty God had accepted this new sort of torture, which the blessed Rose had invented to mortify herself. (Feuillet 1671, 41).

Describable smells seek to use the aromata of the mundane to explain the qualities of this supernatural experience. However, the most common descriptors were the generic sweet and/or floral. All Osmogenesic descriptors were perceived as pleasant and desirable at the time of reporting. No preference or prejudice seemed to exist between natural or manufactured scents. The sudden aroma of roses or rosewater could equally be a sign of divine intervention.

Describable smells also have a strong symbolic connection to the ritual practices, fauna, and flora of the Christian sensorium. For instance, the most frequently reported descriptors are roses, lilies, honey, balsam, frankincense, and myrrh. Roses and lilies are deeply symbolic of Jesus, Mary, and the Wounds of Christ. The taste of honey is mentioned sixty-one times in the Bible and is associated with God’s grace and abundance. Balsam is connected with healing and funeral rites. Frankincense and myrrh together invoke the Gifts of the Magi and the incense offering at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Semitic triconsonantal root for myrrh, m-r-r, represents both sensational and emotional bitterness in Semitic languages. This double meaning was well understood in the Eastern Mediterranean sensorium of Late Antiquity. Myrrh was often associated with profound sadness and tears in myths of the region. We see myrrh represent this sadness in the gospels. In the crucifixion story, according to Mark, Jesus is offered a drink of wine and myrrh upon the cross, which he refuses (Mark 15:23). This is a mixture of sweet and joyous wine combined with bitter and sad myrrh, two contradictory flavours and states that Jesus will not imbibe together. Myrrh’s obvious connection to sadness may not have translated into the European Christian sensorium in quite the same way, but its connection to Jesus certainly did, which in part explains myrrh’s central liturgical role in both chrism and church incense.

Other reported versions of the Odour reflect both domestic comforts such as bread and apples, or exotic imports like cinnamon, clove, and ginger (Evans 2002, 193). While Osmogenesia was primarily an olfactive experience, it could include the appearance of taste without physical material (Smith 2007, 25). Mary of Oignies experienced both living Osmogenesia as a sweet aroma emitting from her body during prayer, and the taste of honey in her mouth at mass (Walker Bynum 1987, 115).

Fragrance profiles did not remain static over time. The heavy resins and spices of the early hagiographies were replaced by a dominance of roses in the 17th century, violets in the 19th century, and even the risqué inclusion of tobacco. Unsurprisingly, shifts in the Odour’s profile appear to coincide with the introduction and availability of odiferous materials to the Christian scentscape. This can create unique aromatic snapshots of holy odours over time.

For instance, several factors were needed to include tobacco as part of Christian odours. Firstly, it needed to be introduced to Europe, which occurred in roughly 1528. Nothing resembling tobacco is mentioned in relation to the Odour prior. However, tobacco was associated with pagan rites, and the Church disapproved of its use during the liturgy. In 1583 the Synod of Lima banned the use of tobacco by local priests (Dickson 1954, 150). In 1642 Pope Urban VIII issued a bull forbidding the use of tobacco in churches worldwide, to which priests faced ex-communication for violating. In 1650, Pope Innocence X expanded the bull to include most Church properties. The Church never forbade the laity from smoking but did not want the clergy to use tobacco, though they certainly did, especially snuff. It wasn’t until 1725, under Pope Benedict XIII, a consummate snuff user himself, that the bulls were rescinded, and the use of snuff was even permitted in Saint Peter’s Basilica (Goodman 2005, 75). However, tobacco was a serious matter before 1725; several saints faced discreditation due to tobacco use. In the case of Saint Joseph of Cupertino, who died in 1663, the Odour of Sanctity was reported by the monks of his order and was said to have a sweet tobacco scent. However, Saint Joseph of Cupertino was a snuff user, and his promotor fidei argued that they were merely smelling his earthly tobacco and that divine scents wouldn’t include an aroma tied to indulgence like tobacco. His Odour was successfully advocated on the grounds that there were two odours being perceived simultaneously, a profane scent of tobacco that clung to his garments and hands unevenly and dissipated after death, and a divine sweet scent that was pervasive and endured death (Acta Sanctorum 1866, 1004).

After 1725, however, tobacco use for the clergy was destigmatised. So much so that the Venerable Marie Thérèse de Lamourous in the 19th century wrote, upon seeing the mantle of St. Teresa of Ávila, ‘I remarked everything, even the little stains, which seemed to be of Spanish snuff.’  (Pouget 1858, 80). Saint Teresa, as a 16th-century mystic ascetic who engaged in prolonged fasts, did not wear shoes but hairshirts, and frequently scourged herself, would surely have been horrified to be associated with such an earthly activity. However, the scent of pipe tobacco visiting devotees of the 20th century Saint Pio of Pietrelcina was reported without incidence and discredited on the grounds of bilocation, not aroma. Reports of divine tobacco scents also dramatically decreased after the 1970s, no doubt due to the growing awareness of tobacco’s health effects. Therefore, tobacco’s association with the Odour of Sanctity is a relatively brief window from the mid-18th century to the 20th century. It would be either inappropriate or unavailable at any other time.

While florals were always part of the Odour’s scent profile, they were especially significant to female Osmogenesic saints of the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation brought a renewed interest in Christian mysticism, ascetic movements, monastic renewal, and religious reform. With it came an increase in mystic ascetic saints and beati invested with the Odour. The Carmelite Order under Saint Teresa of Ávila led these reforms and focused intensely on ecstatic consciousness, the legitimacy of embodied mystical experiences, and bodily mortification. In many ways, her approach was an Early Modern reimagining of the ecstatic practices of Early Christianity. Saint Teresa’s ecstasy is firmly grounded in the bodily experience of both pleasure and pain. Her writing invokes a kind of chaste sensuality and spiritual passion that remains grounded in the body (Mujica 2001, 746). Upon her death in 1582, her Osmogenesia mirrored this chaste sensualness. Her Odour used deeply indolic and sexually coded florals to encourage her sisters to remain steadfast in their adoration of the saints.

According to Ribera’s account of the postmortem events in Teresa’s life, nuns at the Alba de Tormes convent, where she had died on 4 October 1582, began to detect a sweet aroma, a scent like honeysuckle or jasmine, emanating from the chapel wall into which her coffin had been sealed. These odors were said to intensify on days commemorating Teresa’s favorite saints. (Slade 1995, 127)

A host of female Osmogenesic saints, such as Maravillas of Jesus, Therese of Lisieux, Rosa of Lima, Mariam Baouardy, and Marianna Fontanella, followed Saint Teresa. Many were themselves Discalced Carmelites like Saint Teresa and mirrored her spiritually embodied passion and riot of hyper-feminine Osmogenesic florals. Their Odours starkly contrasted their lives of austere cloistered order and ritual self-harm. As with tobacco, this specific floral presentation of the Odour serves as an artefact of the Carmelite sensorium within post-medieval Christian Europe.

Figure 1. Saint Rose of Viterbo, by Alonso del Arco, (Madrid, Latter 17th century), Madrid, Museo del Prado, Inventory number #P005357. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/saint-rose-of-viterbo/093087b7-647d-46c9-a9e1-11fe623fe459

Places

The two epochs in the history of Osmogenesia create separate landscapes for experiencing the Odour. Before the 1738 re-definition in Lambertini’s opus De servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione, Osmogenesia could appear anywhere but was always connected to a venerated person. The Odour could appear in the saint’s home or chambers. Saint Rose of Viterbo’s room was reported to smell of roses even four hundred years after her death (Deonna 2003, 186). Many of these saints were associated with monastic and ascetic lifestyles, so cloisters, abbeys, monasteries, anchorholds, and nunneries were also sites where the Odour of Sanctity was experienced (Robinson 2013, 44). The Odour did not just exist in these places but could reshape people’s experiences of the architectural space, disrupting the spatial components and understanding of the buildings to reconfigure them through new meanings (Hallett 2013, 172).

Figure 2. The discovery of St Cuthbert’s Incorrupt Body, illumination from Bede’s Lives, (England, mid-930s), London, British Library. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St-Cuthbert-Incorrupt.png

The Odour could visit someone praying to the saint. It could also be associated with the saint’s possessions. Saint Teresa of Ávila’s private books were reported to emit a sweet odour after her death (Slade 1995, 129). Garments, rosaries, water touched by the saint, and chapels dedicated to them were all legitimate loci for the Odour pre-1738.

Of course, crypts, tombs, graves, coffins, relics and reliquaries were also common. In this period, though, one need not be dead to have a relic. The beatification accounts of Saint Lidwine reported that she lived for decades while shedding skin, bone, and parts of her intestines. Her parents kept these remains in a vase which emitted a sweet odour. So many people travelled to witness this miraculous relic and receive healing that Lidwine’s parents, fearing for their daughter, buried the vase in hopes that it would deter the faithful from coming. These reports sufficiently elevated Lidwine to a beata upon her death in 1433. However, she would not be fully canonised until 1892, when she was granted Equivalent Canonisation in consideration of her long-standing, but unofficially recognised, cult (Huysmans 1979, 3rd ed., 254).

Lambertini’s re-definition limited the locations where the Odour of Sanctity could be experienced to areas where the un-embalmed bodies of the Venerated were located. A consequence is that Osmogenesia officially moved out of the realm of the laity’s sensory experience. The Church owned most of these burial sites, and access to venerated remains was strictly controlled. Removing the Odour’s ability to bilocate, manifest, and cling to living people or objects limited the laity’s ability to experience the supernatural outside Church-supervised locations. This moved the official contact with Osmogenesia to the imaginary, to be experienced in the mind through the reading of hagiographies, or as a form of meditation on the aromatic liturgy. This surely contributed to the blurring between metaphor and tangible odour for the laity. 

However, the Church’s desire to control the environment for these experiences did not mean they stopped the laity from having them. For instance, the folk tradition that developed around Princess Élisabeth of France claimed that at her execution in 1794, the Place de la Révolution erupted into an odour of roses upon her death (Maxwell-Scott 1908, 284) (Jonas 2000, 13). This tradition framed Élisabeth as a Catholic saint and royalist martyr (Trouncer 1955, 314; 318), regardless of official approval. However, popular veneration eventually led to official recognition and in 1953, she was declared a martyr by the Catholic Church. However, her beatification is still ongoing as the data presented has yet to meet the current threshold for miraculous.

Figure 3. Le dernier supplice de Madame Anne Elisabeth soeur du Roi Louis XVI, print by Carlo Lasinio, pressed at Darbi (France, 1794), London, The British Museum, Museum number: 1869,0410.1202.
https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1869-0410-1202

Practices

Sensory Witnessing & Metaphysical Transformation

Evans postulates that the focus on sensory witnessing in the lives and testimony of the saints gave a predominately illiterate laity other avenues to spiritual knowledge than the written word.

scent acts as a form of communication in martyrologies and conforms with their role to spread the message of the value of faith, overcoming barriers of illiteracy, different languages and the passage of time (Evans 2002, 49).

In the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, one of the oldest surviving hagiographies, we see this sensory witnessing in Chapter 15.

And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet smell, as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there (Lake 1912, 333).

The witnesses of Polycarp’s miraculous death saw and smelt stimuli inconsistent with the events taking place. Unlike the accounts of Élisabeth of France, the corporal sensory experience of the witnesses was all the proof needed to declare this event a miracle.

Figure 4. In medio ignis, an engraving of the martyrdom of St Polycarp by Jan van Haelbeck, from the Ecclesiae Militantis Triumphi, published by Jean Leclerc IV (France, 1600-1620), London, The British Museum, Museum number: 1863,0509.772. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1863-0509-772

Polycarp’s biographer, as in the other pre-modern narratives, insists that this event is a miracle with a perceivable and experiential component that the witnesses embodied. A critical concept that this early narrative creates is the metaphysical transformation of the immaterial to the material. It is not Saint Polycarp’s body that made the scent of frankincense, nor is it a metaphor, but his faith manifested in the world as a tangible odour experienced by his witnesses. Olfaction’s ability to transgress the bounds of the material and immaterial made it the most appropriate sense in pre-modern Christianity for this embodied witnessing. This transformation is the thaumaturgical essence of the Odour of Sanctity as a miracle. 

Saint-Relic Veneration: Touching & the Resurrection

Saint and relic veneration were crucial practices in the experience of Osmogenesia. The Odour helped validate remains to be turned into relics. When visiting on pilgrimage, the faithful hoped to experience these divine smells to embody and witness the saint’s grace for themselves. Osmogenesia, during prayer, served as a sign of intercession and otherworldly communication. Likewise, aromas coded to the saint through the Odour could also serve as a form of olfactive contemplation, thereby making every chance encounter with a rose an opportunity to meditate on the Rosa Mystica.

As an element of saint veneration, the Odour was grounded in direct interactions with the body. At the time of death, the saint would be washed, shrouded, held, touched and kissed. Their eyes, faces, hands, feet, and hearts were of particular interest. Their bodies were handled during burial and exhumation. They may be divided into relics, or their body cavities opened to explore for internal signs of holiness. Even years after death, relics would be paraded, removed from reliquaries, and potentially touched and kissed.  It was during these tactile interactions with the saintly remains that the Odour was most often experienced post-mortem. This touching was part of the act of venerating the saint and was done in the hope that some of the saint’s pneuma would transfer to the devotee. This could be in the form of healing, visions, ecstasy, or a transfer of the Odour. In the earlier example of Saint Rosa of Lima, the act of kissing Rosa triggers a series of sensations for the priest. It is his kiss that causes him to perceive her Odour of Sanctity and to have it cling to him. Simultaneously he experienced an internal burning ecstasy.

To interact with the saintly body and experience some element of their holiness was a form of individual sensory witnessing, but also a means of olfactive communal connectivity for all those who experienced it (Hallett 2013, 162). As care for the dead moved from a communal act to a commercial one in the 19th century, the social norms surrounding the handling of the dead shifted, as did the concept of the dead body as a vector for contagion. Professionals were to handle the body, and all others were to limit their exposure. Preserving relics became more important than experiencing them. Thus, the type of bodily interactions and communal experiences common in the 16th century would be entirely inappropriate contemporarily. Even in modern orders where death preparations are usually handled within the monastery, specialist members do the bulk of the tactile interactions. Only a chosen few may interact with bodily relics in their roles as caretakers.

Grounded in the Cult of Saints and the need to be close to holy bodies is a desire for the Resurrection as a complete and whole return to the body. There is also a refusal by the laity and ecstatic practitioners to remove the body and sense-knowledge from the experience of religious devotion, despite active attempts by the Church. Lay people understood and knew God through their bodies. Those bodies, after all, would be the same ones reinvigorated with life at the Resurrection. The Odour of Sanctity was the embodied promise of the Resurrection to come, a whiff of the world beyond. Susan Ashbrook Harvey succinctly relates the foundations of this belief:

The odor of sanctity associated with the cult of saints and veneration of relics was another vividly concrete instance of religious encounter carrying eschatological import. Holy smells elicited in the believer’s body an experience of the promised life to come. Concern for religious epistemology characterized late antique Christianity in both its practices and its rhetoric: Christians were taught, exhorted, trained, and encouraged to use their senses and their bodies as instruments for gaining knowledge of God. However, while theologians and religious leaders insisted on the limited nature of bodily experience and sensory knowledge, the ancient Christian lived in a discursive context that continually indicated the contrary. Sense perception and bodily sensation could and did cross the boundaries of the spaces, times, and domains that separated human and divine lives, or present and future dispensations. Hence, ancient Christianity shaped its understanding of the end of time and the final resurrection through a constant referencing of bodily sensory experience as the guide for how and what to expect in the life to come. Christian olfactory piety had as its telos the cultivation of revelatory expectation. (Harvey 2006, 351)

Post-Tridentine Canonisation: The Work of Angels & Perceiving Miracles

Cardinal Prospero Lambertini’s reforms did not challenge the thaumaturgy of miracles in canonisation, only the Church’s ability to validate them (Vidal 2016, 154). The new classification of miracles brought forth by the Cardinal sought to preserve the system of miracle verification while addressing the Reformation’s criticism of the Cult of Saints, internal arguments within canon law, and Baruch Spinoza’s denial of miracles (Laverda 2021, 45). These reforms nevertheless changed the standards of evidence. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, a miracle must surpass the whole of nature, both visible and corporeal, as well as the invisible and incorporeal (Aquinas 1952, 567).

In other words, it is an act that only God can conduct, as only God is outside of created nature. This type of miracle is classified as supra naturam (above nature) in canon law and represents the highest order of miracles (Vidal 2016, 152). Lambertini’s central dilemma was the difficulty for humans to distinguish between an action that occurs beyond the boundaries of the incorporeal and invisible (supra naturam) or an act simply surpassing corporeal and visible nature, praeter naturam (outside nature). Praeter naturam is the third and lowest order of miracles where both the object and operational action of the miracle exist in nature, but the mode is unnatural. An example would be a grievous wound healing overnight. Healing is a natural process; only the timeframe is miraculous. Lambertini sought to preserve Aquinas’ definition while addressing this issue through the concept of the work of angels (Laverda 2021, 56).

As the Protector of the Faith during the Enlightenment, Lambertini applied Aristotelian philosophy and advanced contemporary knowledge of anatomy to evaluate a potential saint’s fama sanctitatis. He even promoted using medical examinations and autopsies to find physical evidence of sanctity within the body  (Dacome 2017, 44). Through this, Lambertini saw that many miracles, particularly bodily miracles, were classed as supra naturam when, in actuality, they were working within the bounds of nature, making them preternatural. Praeter naturam miracles are still miracles but present an existential uncertainty. As these miracles happen in nature, preternatural acts could be created by any being with the ability to influence creation, such as God, angels, or devils. It could not be confirmed from the miraculous act alone that it was a miracle from God or demonic interference. Previous views held that the actions of angels could not be miracles as angels could not create ex nihilo. Lambertini, however, circumvents this by stating that angels possess sufficient wisdom and art to make their actions miraculous within nature, but that they would not be as perfect as God’s miracles (Laverda 2021, 56). Therefore, these demoted medical miracles would not be thrown out, or classed as demonic, but as the work of angels. As angels work for the benefit of God, these miracles were seen as a sign of holiness, which, when paired with a supra naturam miracle, confirmed the status of the saint. A supernatural miracle was still required alongside the preternatural because canonisation required the direct intercession of God. 

During the elevation of Saint Polycarp, the thaumaturgy of turning an immaterial state into a material odour was seen as supra naturam, but this would not hold post-reform. Dead and dying bodies produced odours naturally; the only difference was the quality of the odour. Lambertini’s decision downgraded scent-based miraculous events to praeter naturam. This ruling re-categorised sensory witnessing from the primary way to experience a miracle to third-class testimony, verifying the corporeal and visible but not the incorporeal and invisible. Odours appear and disappear on the breeze naturally. How could the witness know they were smelling the Odour of Sanctity or a rosebush beyond their visual perception? Indeed, this was the central criticism of Osmogenesia within Protestantism. In a material world, it was reasonable to assume a material source for an odour before that of divine intervention, which would need to be proved beyond all reasonable doubts to be believed. To the Protestant understanding, the pervasiveness of olfactory miracles in the Catholic world was due far more to trickery than to divinity. We see this scepticism in the 18th century travelogues of William Bromley when visiting the Church of Saint Anthony in Padua,

this Chappel is curiously adorned with the most delicate Figures of White marble; the Fryars take care to keep this Sepulchre perfum'd, and the common People are made to believe that to be the Odour of Sanctity, and a sweet Scent from his dry Bones; but this fallacy is easily detected, for this Stone in a Morning smells very strong, in the Afternoon grows more languid, till by the People kissing it, and rubbing their Beads often upon it, the Perfume is spent and gone... (Bromley 1702, 207).

Lambertini’s work was part of a more significant post-Tridentine shift in the dialectical tension within the Church between empirical knowledge (reason) and revealed knowledge (revelation) (Tovey 2004, 31). The spiritual significance of olfaction would likewise shift from, a path that reveals the invisible world, to a means of collecting empirical knowledge of the material world. This change reflected a growing aversion to sense-knowledge during the Enlightenment and was a sharp departure from Jewish and earlier Christian customs.

Feelings and Noses

The appearance of the Odour of Sanctity was an event rife with emotion that left the witness in a state of awe and wonderment. These miraculous odours validated one’s religious beliefs and were a cause for elation. We see this in the account of Bishop Eberigisilius’s miraculous recovery of the remains of the martyr, Mallosus (Roch 2010, 76).

When the bishop had dug about seven feet down, the scent of an overpowering perfume reached his nose and he said: ‘Since this sweet fragrance surrounds me, I believe in Christ, because he has revealed his martyr to me’. Digging further, he found the holy body was intact. In a loud voice he cried out, ‘Glory to God in the highest’, and he had the entire clergy chant psalms with him (Van Dam 1988, 86).

However, there was also the possibility for terror, particularly for the individual invested with the Odour in life. As John of the Cross recounts, these events that one may perceive as heavenly may instead be the result of demonic temptation and lead to feelings of concern and doubt.

They hear strange words, sometimes seeing those who utter them, and sometimes not. They have a sensible perception at times of most sweet odours, without knowing whence they proceed. Their sense of taste is also deliciously affected ... Still, though all these may happen to the bodily senses in the way of God, we must never rely on them ... inasmuch as they are exterior and in the body, there is less certainty of their being from God ... for the devil has more influence in that which is exterior and corporeal, and can more easily deceive us therein than in what is more interior (John of the Cross 1906 ed, 104).

The Odour of Sanctity is deeply tied to the Christian experience, particularly the remnants of Early Christianity's ecstatic embodied practice. It is present both in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. However, Osmogenesia was rejected within Protestantism. Instead of a sign of holiness, the presence of odours suspected of divinity invoked disbelief and credulity in Protestant onlookers.  

In the Church of St. Eustorgia they preserve the Tomb that contain'd the bodies of the Three Kings, before they were remov'd to Colen. They pretend that the Odour of Sanctity which remains in this Sepulchre compleats the Cure of some Diseases, tho' it never undertakes any that are difficult. (Misson 1714, 358).

This scepticism and rejection were due to the Reformation’s desacralisation of odours, rejection of sensory spiritualism and the removal of aromatic elements of the liturgy. This transformation Baum refers to as the Reformation of Olfaction, 

…early Protestant Reformers challenged the traditional set of relationships between the individual Christian body, the world, and the divine. In many everyday contexts, smell persisted in its traditional function as a marker of boundaries and transition, yet its role in mediating the divine disappeared. The sense of smell effectively became desacralized (Baum 2013, 337).

The central identities associated with the Odour are those of saints/beati and devotees to the Cult of Saints. Official recognition of the saint’s cult by the Roman or Eastern Church was unnecessary for people to experience the Odour. However, changes to the legal process of beatification eventually led to the diminishment of Osmogenesia, first within the process of sainthood and then within the overall Christian sensorium. By the latter half of the Modern period, even those committed to the Cult of Saints may not automatically extend their belief to the physical manifestation of the Odour of Sanctity.

Interestingly, Osmogenesia was rarely reported by the person invested with it but by those closest to them. The noses of family members, fellow order members, congregants, death care workers, devotees, and witnesses were most likely to experience the Odour. Their experiences are most accurately preserved in beatification documentation and testimony. Non-contemporary hagiographies should be viewed as preserving the folk traditions around a saint rather than the faithful reporting of the often nameless witnesses’ experiences.

For the direct testimony, however, it should also be noted that these individuals were not neutral parties, but people committed to the saint’s beatification. There is bias simply by participating in this process, and repeated storytelling shapes narratives; however, we should not view these accounts as exaggerations or self-delusional forgeries. A consistent theme in these narratives is that people in high-stress situations have an olfactive experience that they did not understand, which was inconsistent with their expectations. They interpreted and reconciled their experience through their community’s social narratives and realities. While their interpretation is foreign to contemporary perceptions of odour in society, it does not mean they did not experience an actual aroma or sincerely believed they were witnessing a miracle.
Creator:
Nuri McBride
Citation:
Nuri McBride, “Osmogenesia (Odour of Sanctity),” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed April 21, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/24.
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