Figure 1. A rarer example of the adoration of the Magi scene in which frankincense is not just given but burnt, Jacob Gole, after Carlo Maratta, ‘Adoration of the Magi’, 1670-1724, mezzotint and engraving, 25.6 x 17.5cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1888-A-13907
14th June 2023
by William Tullett
Created at:
14th June 2023
William Tullett
[click to copy]
Figure 1. A rarer example of the adoration of the Magi scene in which frankincense is not just given but burnt, Jacob Gole, after Carlo Maratta, ‘Adoration of the Magi’, 1670-1724, mezzotint and engraving, 25.6 x 17.5cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1888-A-13907

Thanks largely to its significance in Christian texts and rituals, frankincense has been a key scent throughout European history. Today frankincense is commonly said to have woody, earthy, resinous, aromatic, citrus, green, balsamic and spicy notes. However, the precise description of its scent has often varied depending on the uses it has been put to. Whilst we might be familiar with frankincense’s place in the biblical story of the three magi, one of whom offers frankincense to the newly born Jesus, and its use in Orthodox and Catholic liturgy, frankincense has also had other applications – especially in the realm of medicine. This has meant that, historically, churches are not the only place the frankincense has been sensed: it can be found in recipes for fumigating houses and ships as well as in censing churches. Whilst for Catholics the feelings associated with frankincense were often strictly religious, following the Reformation, many Protestants refused to sense religious significance in frankincense’s scent. Over time, the religious allegiance of the nose doing the sniffing has therefore become ever more significant to how frankincense is interpreted. 

Odeuropa Smell Explorer

Frankincense comes in many varieties, but contemporary analytical chemistry has examined the constituent odorants present in Boswellia Sacra, which is the most common genus of frankincense used for making burnt incense. These investigations revealed that a-pinene and linalool were among the most important odorants in determining frankincense’s distinctive odor (Niebler and Buettner, 2015). Alpha-pinene – one of the key components of cannabis – gives frankincense its woody, resinous, turpentine, and pine-like qualities (Dravnieks, 1995: 244), whilst linalool – commonly found in lavender, bergamot, and rosewood – brings fruity, citrus, aromatic, and sweet notes to frankincense’s olfactory profile (Dravnieks, 1995: 186). The properties of these molecules may have contributed to frankincense’s historical functions. Alpha pinene has been shown to aid in memory and learning (Weston-Green et al, 2021) and studies have thus shown the memory-boosting properties of frankincense (Khajehdehi at al., 2022). This might link with frankincense’s frequent use in major religious and monarchical ceremonies throughout early modern Europe, ensuring that audiences remembered these key ritual occasions. The molecule also has anti-microbial, antimetastatic, and antibiotic properties. Linalool, on the other hand, operates as a pesticide that gets rid of household ticks, flees, and mites (Beier et al., 2014: 267). This aligns with frankincense’s historical use as a fumigation: as a prophylactic, purifier, and healer. It should also not surprise us that frankincense can also be found in historical recipes for insecticides, for example a 1741 recipe ‘to destroy spiders’ includes sprinkling a room with the water from boiled plantain and then burning benzoin and frankincense, which would then protect a house against the return of spiders ‘till the scent of these things is utterly extinguish’d’ and a new fumigation would be needed (The Family Magazine, 1741: 103).

Figure 1. A rarer example of the adoration of the Magi scene in which frankincense is not just given but burnt, Jacob Gole, after Carlo Maratta, ‘Adoration of the Magi’, 1670-1724, mezzotint and engraving, 25.6 x 17.5cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1888-A-13907

The problem with seeking out the scent of frankincense in historical sources is one of language. Often in sources, especially before 1800, the words frankincense and ‘incense’ are used interchangeably. Even the other main term for frankincense – olibanum – is sometimes used for incense compositions. The incense burnt in Christian churches were a mixture of fragrant gums that included frankincense. In the Bible the Lord’s description of ingredients for incense includes ‘stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight’ (Exodus 30:34). Both in spiritual and medicinal usage frankincense was frequently blended with other ingredients before it was burned. 

Another complication in tracing frankincense in Europe is that the geographical origins – and the species – of frankincense vary. The different species of frankincense include Boswellia sacra (from Oman, Yemen, and Somalia), Boswellia serrata (from India), and Boswellia papyrifera (from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan). The different species and geographical origins produced a long-running confusion about which was the most traded variety and that which ancient and biblical writers had referred to. In 1869 the George Birdwood published a lengthy account that quoted historical discussions from frankincense from his own day back, through the early modern and medieval periods, and all the way back to ancient authors and biblical text. He claimed that this account ‘settles at last the controversy as to the countries and trees which produce it which has gone on for ages concerning frankincense’ (Birdwood, 1869). In Birdwood’s account he suggested that seventeenth-century poets confused frankincense with benzoin, eighteenth-century botanists mistook frankincense for a species of juniper, nineteenth-century economists confused frankincense with mastic, and traders from the same century assumed that frankincense came from India when really, Birdwood argued, it was only imported from the Persian Gulf via that country. 

Figure 2. The Harvest of Frankincense in Arabia. Facsimile of an engraving in Thevet’s Cosmographie Universelle (1575), reproduced from the 'Bible Educator’, in the Gutenberg edition of The Travels of Marco Polo volume 2.

The way in which frankincense was farmed could also impact the scent of the product. Frankincense is a resin taken from the tree of the species we discussed above. The tree is ‘tapped’ by making incisions into the bark, and allowing the gum to flow. This then hardens on exposure to air into ‘tears’ or round balls. Reckless tapping of trees is one reason – along with cattle grazing and fires – that frankincense production is projected to halve by 2039. Over-exploitation and eco-system degradation through burns and farming thus threaten frankincense’s continued viability (Bongers et al. 2019). In Europe throughout the early modern and modern periods the resulting products were defined as ‘male’ or ‘female’ incense. Given long-standing assumptions about the odourousness of female bodies when compared with men, the olfactory distinction between the two is perhaps unsurprising:

Male incense is the best; it is round, white, fat, and kindles on being put to the fire. It is also called Olibanum. Female incense is described as soft, more gummy, and less agreeable in smell than the other (Calmet, 1832: 538).

Frankincense has often been mixed with other products before burning in Christian ceremonies, further complicating it’s relationship to ‘incense’. Chemical analysis of incense burners used in Christian funerary services in the period from the 1100-1300s in what is now Belgium reveal the presence of frankincense imported from either Oman and Yemen or India alongside other local ingredients including juniper and pine tar (Baeten et al., 2014). This matches what we know from church records in Germany. Whilst many churches do record buying quantities of frankincense to burn, especially on major festival days, we also find a great deal of evidence that different varieties of ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘Jewish’, and ‘Venetian’ incense were used alongside replacements that included saffron and thyme oil (Baum, 2019: 34). Materia medica and botanical texts suggest that ‘white’ incense was likely pine resin that was then mixed with turpentine to form oil of turpentine and sometimes sold as an ersatz form of benzoin (Pomet, 1748: 208). 

During the nineteenth century the selling of religious materials, including incense, became commercialised in many European countries. For example, in the aftermath of the Irish famine in the 1840s the period from the 1850s to the 1890s witnessed a ‘devotional revolution’ in Ireland in which religious observation by Irish Catholics increased in frequency and developed a more Romish and ritual quality. In this period, several dealers in religious articles and goods could be found that were providing the material supplies for this new religiosity. They often advertised in key Catholic publications, such as the Irish Catholic Directory. The 1873 edition of the directory included an advertisement for Monsieur L. Gueret’s ‘Maison Francaise’, an establishment with offices in Paris and Dublin, which sold ‘the best Incense of Jerusalem, guaranteed to be of the same quality used in Rome and all the Churches on the Continent’ (Larkin, 1972: 642). Chemists also got in on the act. An 1893 edition of the same directory contained a full-page colour advertisement for ‘Harrington’s Delightfully Fragrance Incense for the Altar’, pre-packaged in branded tins of varying sizes and sold by by the Cork-based chemist William Harrington and Son (Godson, 2015: 27). It is likely that these kinds of preparations mixed frankincense with other ingredients such as myrrh, benzoin, and pine resin.

The commercialisation of incense production meant that there were attempts to adulterate products and thereby make them cheaper. Whilst it is clear that frankincense was the preferred scent for incense in French Catholic churches during the nineteenth century, that might not always be what congregants could smell. In 1856 the Dominican friar Father Rouard de Card warned that fresh tears of incense resin should always be used rather than the powdered variety. Rouard warned that the latter was often adulterated with the vanilla-scent of benzoin or crystals of carbonate of lime (de Card, 1856: 81-2). Indeed, two letters in an 1856 issue of Notes and Queries both agreed that ‘the incense used in the churches at Rome is nothing but pure “gum olibanum” but added that many churches in other European countries blended frankincense with benzoin, storax, or aloes and sometimes cinnamon, cloves, and musk. This was also the case for the commercial brands such as ‘Martin’s Fragrant Incense’ and ‘Dr Piquot’s Canonical Incense’ that were distributed through retailers (‘Incense’, 1856: 80).  

The withholding of incense from Protestant churches from the sixteenth century onwards meant that Catholic and Protestant churches emitted very different scents. Some of the most interesting descriptions of incense-filled churches come from Protestant noses, more accustomed to less perfumed places of worship, when they visited Catholic churches in other parts of Europe. In 1829 the traveller Henry Edwin Dwight felt that the different between the ‘Protestant metropolis’ of Berlin and Italian cities was clear: ‘You smell it in the incense which you inhale as you enter one of the churches; and your nose perceives its effects in the dirty priest or monk who happens to be near you’ (Dwight, 1829: 119). The notes of an English traveller to Tenerife, a small island under Spanish rule, described the scent on entering the Laguna Cathedral in 1895 (now replaced by an early twentieth-century building):

The instant I breathed the incense-saturated air of Laguna Cathedral, a whole flood of delightful memories rushed back on me. In England our churches smell of nothing particular, unless it be of varnish, fresh paint, and general newness, mingled with a soupçon of escaping gas: you could not tell where you were by the scent. But a Spanish Cathedral has a smell quite peculiar to itself; it seems to breath as it were the very essence of Catholicity, and if you were taken in blindfold you would know at once you were in a Catholic church. It is as if the fumes of the incense, burnt for ages within the walls, had impregnated the very stones (Jeffery, 1895: 258).

The smell of incense gave the space of the church its olfactory uniqueness and also made it a place in which a sense of history and pastness could be felt.  Of course, it also covered up a range of less pleasant smells. This was precisely why many nineteenth-century Anglicans wanted to reintroduce incense into Anglican churches, for how could anybody prefer ‘the smell of gas and drains and unwholesome air to the sweet smell of gums burnt in censor’ (‘Diocese of Dublin’, 1879: 264)?

For Protestant noses the smell of incense often conjured up an image of Spain in particular. In 1827 the British army officer and traveller Moyle Sherer described a visit to Antwerp. He noted that ‘the very sounds and the very smells’ of Antwerp were ‘Spanish’ with ‘the smell of incense issuing from the door of every church and chapel’ (Sherer, 1827: 17). For travellers on the continent, the smell of incense was an important olfactory marker of day and night. In Spanish cities during the morning and evening one might pass by churches and smell incense ‘breaking out in gusts of ambrosial fragrance’, but during the night the ‘church doors are shut, and the paradise smell of incense, that puffs out all day far into the street and into the market-place, is gone up to heaven like an exhaled prayer’ (Thornbury, 1860: 66, 176).

Incense also travelled outside of the church on the clothes of worshippers. In late mediaeval and early modern Catholic churches incense might be burnt throughout the day. At Antwerp’s Church of Our Lady in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the saying of mass throughout the day at over 50 side altars in its chapels meant that the average visitor would leave with the scent of incense lingering on their clothing (Wauters, 2021). Similar experiences can be traced in later sources. For example, when one woman was considering converting to Catholicism and visting St George’s Catholic cathedral in London on Palm Sunday it was the lingering scent of the censer on her clothing when she returned home that told her children where she had been: ‘the little children quickly detected the smell of incense… and with faces all smiling and curious, came a chorus, “O Mamma, where have you been?”’ (Bellasis, 1895: 119).

Given incense’s cultural significance and its widespread use for spiritual and medical purposes, it should not surprise us that it featured in theatrical productions too. Initially, this meant frankincense made its way out into the streets. Incense was often a part of religious processions in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For example, in 1462 when the head of St John the Baptist was brought to Rome, burning incense could be found lining some of the streets along which the relic passed (Bowles, 1961: 160). Similarly, late medieval royal entries into cities might accompanied by the burning of incense – linking the performance of monarchical and divine power through scent (Dugan, 2008: 231). Despite Protestant concern around the use of incense, later monarchical processions still perfumed the streets of major cities with incense. At the coronation of James II in 1685 and George II in 1727 the ecclesiastical part of the procession included ‘The groom of the vestry, in a scarlet robe, with a perfuming-pan in his hand, burning perfumes all the way from Westminster Hall to the Quire-Door in the church’ (Littledale, 1866: 32). 

Figure 3. An image showing a perfuming pan burning incense as part of the coronation procession of Kings James II of England. Francis Sandford, The History of the cofonoration of James II: The choir of Westminster in number 16; the groom of the vestry; the organ blower; two sackbuts, and double courtal; gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, in number 32. New York Public Library, b14470408.

Frankincense also entered the atmospheres of streets in other contexts. In late-medieval Europe cycles of mystery, miracle, and passion plays were performed in the streets of cities to celebrate key dates in the Christian calendar. These were centred on the performance of key biblical stories, usually by the city’s guilds. In the English Coventry Corpus Christi plays, which may have been witnessed by a young William Shakespeare (Davidson, 2016), frankincense was burnt by as part of the staging, and we can find payments for frankincense used for that purpose in the accounts of the Weaver’s guild. These would have been accompanied by the strewing of flowers and rushes along the streets, which would have released further odours as the audiences moved from street to street and crushed them beneath their feet (Groves, 2020: 36). 

In the early modern period, as the numbers of public venues for watching plays grew, incense migrated into indoor and outdoor theatres. In the period 1573-1642, when the censing of images and altars was being forced out of English churches by reformation zeal, at least 10 plays performed in England used incense on stage. The use of incense conjured up memories of the same scent that was disappearing from churches and offered a way of exploring the religious divides between Catholic and Protestant, past and present, that the reformation had thrown up (Pickett, 2011). Seventeenth-century playwrights - including Ben Jonson and Shakespeare - made extensive use of incense and thereby played on the religious and medical associations of burnt resins and gums (Preedy, 2022: 219). Frankincense on the seventeenth-century stage might evoke a plethora of associations for the audiences, including contemporary liturgy, ancient mythology, and the history of the early church (Kennedy, 2011: 26). Other plays might use incense to set the scene and transport audiences from the European theaters to the location of the on-stage action. In William Lower’s 1639 play The Phaenix in her Flames, frankincense is burnt during the prologue, as the words urge the audience to imagine themselves to an Edenic Arabia:

This aire shall be perfum’d, and every sense 

Delighted with sweet smelling frankincence 

And aromatick fumes. For please you know, 

Gentle Spectators, from our Sceane doth grow 

Abundance of such fragrant stuffe, you’ll see

A Play that breathes Arabian spicerie...
(Kennedy, 2011: 13) 

In the nineteenth century frankincense could also be found on stage. In 1891 frankincense was burnt – with other floral scents distributed via spray bottles – as part of a theatrical interpretation of the biblical Song of Songs, produced by the symbolist Paul-Napoléon Roinard. The reaction was not quite as intended, with many in the audience falling into fits of either sneezing or laughter at the scented smoke and sprays (Shepherd-Barr, 1999: 155). In literature and the arts, the odour of frankincense was ever more firmly associated with the ‘East’. Smoky burning frankincense was one olfactory element, alongside the smell of opium and hookah pipes, of Orientalist stereotypes that flattened the world beyond Europe into a generic land of despotism, backwardness, and – above all – sensuality. Gustave Flaubert’s massively popular 1862 novel Salammbô, a story of violent sensuality set in ancient Carthage, illustrated the evocation of the ‘orient’ via scent: the text is populated by a never-ending train of slaves holding pans of burning incense. Alfonso Mucha captured the mood of the novel in his 1896 illustration of Salammbô offering an incantation to the Gods, surrounded by burning perfumes. The trails of scent wind like silken ribbons up to the heavens as the bare-breasted Salammbô shouts the names of the divine skyward. Throughout the early modern and modern periods frankincense had been associated with the ‘East’, but in the context of symbolist and orientalist novels, paintings, and theatrical works it ancient, pagan, and mystic qualities rivalled and in some cases overpowered its Christian meanings.


The key practices in which frankincense has been used have revolved around burning: either forms of fumigation or of censing. Frankincense had been burnt in Roman temples as a sacrifice and this had been imported from what was then known as the Sabaei, a people in what is now Yemen. Whilst Romans had valued frankincense as a mediator between the mortal and divine, the Sabaei supposedly used plentiful frankincense trees as fuel for heating and cooking and – with familiarity breeding contempt – they burnt styrax to get rid of the odour of frankincense that permeated their homes (Draycott, 2015: 68). 

Frankincense has historically been one of the main ingredients in European forms of incense – powders or pastils of fragrant materials that were burnt to release their aroma. In early Christian practice incense had been condemned but by the fifth century it was regularly used in Christian ritual and devotion. From then on frankincense was burnt as part of Christian worship. Whilst the Protestant churches moved away from incense after the Reformation, it has continued to crop up in some Protestant contexts where revivals of ritualism have occurred and it has continued to be used as part of state rituals such as coronations. 

Historical uses of frankincense have combined medical and spiritual functions (Thurlkill, 2016: 101). In early medieval Europe, the lines between the use of frankincense as an aid in worship and healing were also blurred. Incense – both frankincense and incense mixes that contained frankincense – could be found in recipes for epilepsy, possession, ear pain, and treatments for liver and spleen problems. Sometimes the matter was burnt and on other occasions it was mixed with wine and swallowed (Burridge, 2020). In the thirteenth century incense containing frankincense was also used in cosmetic recipes for face-washes and colourings (Woolgar, 2006: 138). 

In seventeenth-century outbreaks of plague Stephen Bradwell, a London physician recommended that people should keep up fires in the home and ‘Perfume them and all the houshold-stuffe in cold and moist weather with Frankinsense’ (Bradwell, 1636: 15). A ‘preservative’ for ‘correcting the aire in houses’ advised using rosemary, juniper, bay leaves, and frankincense in a pan that could then be moved around rooms to ‘better correct the aire of the houses’ (‘Orders’, 1625). However, frankincense could also be found in a range of other medicinal contexts. For example, John Woodall gave new meaning to the phrase ‘holy shit’ when he recommended that those suffering from diarrhoea should ‘sit over the fume of franckincense… with a chafing dish, and a few coals in a close stool’ (Woodall, 1655: 178). Frankincense fumigations were also used for gynaecological purposes. For example, one recipe aimed at limiting the blood discharged during the monthly period recommended a mix of frankincense, mastic, gum tragacanth, dried eels skinne, horses’s hooves, and sheep’s dung to be burnt so that the patient could ‘receive the fume at the privy parts’ (Bryel, 1639: 361).  In the nineteenth century frankincense might be used for its resinous properties in plasters that were applied to the body (Pereira, 1854: 522, 824). In this latter case, whilst the smell of frankincense might have added to the sensory properties of the plaster, the scent was not the prime reason for its use. 

The use of frankincense as a fumigation to cover up less pleasing odours was recognised in the medieval period. Late medieval sermons on the Epiphany, the date commemorating the visit of the magi to the Christ Child, taught listening Christians that the frankincense offered by the three kings as a gift to the child counteracted the stench of the stable in which it was found (Woolgar, 2006: 119). Incense was often used as part of funeral services for royalty and members of the church hierarchy, to ensure bodies exuded an odour of sanctity rather than one of mortal corruption (Woolgar, 2006: 124, 224). In the eighteenth century frankincense was still being used for fumigation. William Cole (1714-1782), a Cambridgeshire clergyman with Catholic sympathies, might not have been able to burn incense in his Anglican church but he wrote in his diary that ‘incense… which the French use in their churches, are very agreeable to burn, a little at a time, in one’s parlour, immediately after the dinner is removed, to take away the scent of the victuals’ (Walpole, 1937: 102-3). Powdered frankincense (sometimes referred to by the name olibanum) was included late-nineteenth-century recipes for fumigating pastilles that were both ‘of service when it is desirable to quickly remove an unpleasant odour from an apartment’ and useful for ‘the perfuming of apartments for evening parties and similar social entertainments’ (Chemist, 1891: 425).  

The use of frankincense for both spiritual purposes and for the purpose of covering bad smells in churches could lead to spiritual confusion. In his early-eighteenth-century travels around the Levant the botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort witnessed just such an example of uncertainty. In a church on the island of Mykonos Tournetfort witnessed the disinterment of a recently buried man that local peasants suspected of being a vampire. Masses were said and his heart was removed:

The corpse, however, stank so strongly that they were obliged to burn incense, but the smoke confused with the exhalations of this carrion only increased the stench and began to heat the brains of these poor people. Their imaginations, struck by the spectacle before them, filled with visions. They took the liberty of saying that a thick smoke streamed from the body; we dared not say that it was that of the incense (Tournefort, 1718: 52).

Frankincense’s association with exorcism continued into the nineteenth century. Decadent and symbolist writers amplified the esoteric, spiritual, qualities of frankincense. In an 1891 interview with the French newspaper Écho de Paris, the decadent novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans asked the journalist whether he would like to smell some ‘exorcistic paste’ made of myrrh, incense, camphor, and cloves that had been ‘blessed in all sorts of ways’ and sent to him from Lyon by an admirer of his work on the occult (Huret, 1891: 182).

The scent of frankincense could cross over from the religion into magic and, to sceptical minds, superstition. The intoxicating properties of frankincense when breathed in as smoke or eaten were widely known: throughout the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s religious writers noted that the custom of the Jews had been to offer wine adulterated with frankincense to stupefy and lessen the anguish of those facing execution (Lightfoot, 1655: 71). The influential occult writer Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa describes the use of frankincense in several magical rituals and invocations. He concluded that

Perfumes, sacrifice and unctions exist and spread their odors everywhere, they open the portals of the elements and the heavens whereby man can glimpse through the secrets of the creator. (Agrippa, 1533).

Agrippa’s notes on the use of fumigations in magic continued to be quoted and requoted throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century in manuals on magic, astrology, and fortune telling.  In the nineteenth century European orientalists in Egypt described magical practices that used the fumes of frankincense to put people into trances where they could see and describe the appearance of dead people who had never been known to them when alive (Lane, 1836). Victorian spiritualism, partly inspired by the observances of ‘magic’ outside Europe and partly influenced by older works like Agrippa’s, advocated a whole series of uses for frankincense. These included burning frankincense to ‘consecrate’ crystal balls (Brown, 1859: 8), to fumigate talismans (1841, Raphael: 74), and in conjuring dreams of a woman’s future husband (1887, Dickens: 392).

Feelings and Noses

For late medieval and early modern Catholics the smell of frankincense would have elicited a range of feelings. The scent would have been connected to a particular experience of time and space. First, and perhaps most importantly, the burning of frankincense was an act that transformed a space and placed it outside of ordinary world. As with the sounds of cannon and bells, the use of incense in civic pageantry, royal entries, religious processions, and street performance created a ‘holy’ space that was removed from the mundane rhythms of everyday life. Secondly, the burning of frankincense would have also created a unity and feeling of community among those who were gathered in a church or street. Incense had the effect of olfactory levelling, unifying those who could smell it in the same atmospheric experience. But incense also covered up other rank scents, as its later defenders recognised:

when  the  Church  appeals  to  us  through  our  senses,  it  is  not  right  that  the  sense  of  smell  should  be  rudely  neglected  or  offended:  for  the  congregating  of  many  human  persons together  is  as  productive  of  offence  to  the  sense  of  smell  in  this twentieth  century  as  it  was  in  the  days  of  St.  Thomas Aquinas. (Atchley, 1909: 372).

Covering up offensive odours within the church also had a spiritual dimension, since by ensuring the church was sweet smelling one was also ensuring a respect for the God who was worshipped there. This was one of a number of functions that incense fulfilled in church. Consider, for example, a sixteenth-century English monk’s description of incense’s use:

Reverence of the sacrament; in order, to wit, that by the perfume of incense every evil smell, that causes disgust, may be dispelled.

ii. Driving away of devilish malignant creatures; lest, to wit, the Evil One should devise anything against the sacrifice of the celebrant. For by this kind of smoke all demons are put to flight.

iiij. To signify the devotion and prayer of the celebrant and the assistant’s which by them is directed to God.

iiij. To represent the effect of grace: wherewith Christ is full, as of good odour (Atchley, 1909: 205). 

Similar summarises of the use of incense could also be found in later Catholic works on liturgy and ritual. The Italian priest Bartolomeo Gavanti (1569-1638), who was appointed the lead advisor at Rome on sacred rites by Pope Urban VIII, advised that censing was performed to represent God’s glory, to revere the church, to drive away bad smells, to represent the good odour of Christ, to direct prayer upwards to God, and to drive away demons (Gavanti, 1634: 116). The feelings associated with the smell of frankincense’s use in church were therefore multiple: instantiating reverence and avoiding disgust among the congregation; allowing the devout to feel God’s grace spread through them; and causing demons and other evil spirits to retreat in fear. 

As the Reformation spread across Europe, Protestant feeling on incense exhibited a degree of ambivalence. Among the firebrands of the Reformation the scent of incense aroused disgusted attacks. Martin Luther attacked the ‘effeminate Arab’ who ‘sells balls of incense (Dugan, 2011: 29), associated incense’s sacrificial qualities with Judaism, and argued that, whilst burning frankincense was a mere magical outward show of foolishness, prayer was the true incense that smelled sweetly to God (Baum, 2013: 340-1). However, some Protestant clergymen admitted that incense could be useful in fumigating Churches and taking away ‘the annoyance of sordid filth and cadaverous putrefactions’ (Read, 2018: 182) and thereby avoid disgust. However, for many Protestants writers incense survived merely as a metaphor for prayer that ascended heavenward without any trace of its actual odour (Guild, 1608). 

Some English and Scottish travellers to the continent in the early nineteenth century, being more familiar with the scent-less services of the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, argued that the ‘strong resinous smell of the incense in catholic churches is offensive, especially on first entering’ (St John, 1831: 30). For American travellers the smell of European chapels and churches could also be too much. In 1874 Elizabeth Peake described an attempt to attend vespers at St Peter’s in Rome, which was taking place in one of the large side chapels: ‘The gate of the chapel stood open and I stepped inside for a few moments, but the smell of the incense was so strong that I walked out again’ (Peake, 1874: 300). However, can also detect traces of envy and sympathy in Protestant visitors to the continent. Such reflections often involved patronising stereotypes of poorer Catholics. Travelling up the Rhine river, Thomas Hood noted that ‘a poor old German woman, in a dark, dirty, cold room, without fire, without candle’ could walk to a ‘comfortable, cheerful church’ and enjoy ‘the smell of frankincense, and the sight of grand pictures’, allowing her to ‘share for a while in those pleasures…. For which she had senses given to her by the Almighty’. On the other hand, Hood reasoned, in Protestant churches ‘were make the church as unattractive… as we can’ and ‘take no… pains to please her other senses’ (Hood, 1840, 280-1).

During the revival of ritualism within the Protestant Anglican church in the second half of the nineteenth century, debates often focussed on the intended and actual feelings raised by incense in the average Anglican audience’s mind. The supporters of renewed ritualism attacked the ‘dreariness’ of current Anglican worship that had ‘forced itself upon the eye, the ear, the nostrils of the worshipper; a smell of dust and damp, not of incense’ (Newman, 1887: 443). However, such supporters faced stiff opposition. One opponent of re-introduction of incense noted that they could

understand, for instance, a dreamy class of worshippers not physically averse to the faint sickly smell of incense being edified by witnessing its use. The poetical imagination is fond of comparing its ascending clouds soaring upwards and losing themselves aloft to the ascent of prayer. 

But the problem, as the same article pointed out, was not merely to make the metaphorical comparison between incense and prayer but to set up the minister as a ‘sacrificing priest’ and to attempt to mark the actual presence of the Lord during communion (‘Ritualism’, 1874: 8). The Anglian church also debated the precise delivery of incense, attempting to make a distinction incense burnt in an incense boat and incense burnt in a swinging thurible: the former had a pagan origin and was used merely to make the church smell nice whilst the other suggested the liturgical imposition of Catholic ideas around grace. Yet, as one newspaper report of this debate reasoned, it was the same incense being burnt in the church, with the same odour, even if it might take longer to fill the building:

There may be some profound though subtle difference between the smell of incense burnt in a stationary vesse, and the smell of incense swung in a thurible. The one may be primitive and grateful, the other may be, in an Apolcalyptic sense, beastly. But could a man with anything like a Protestant nose be expected to distinguish between them? (‘Anti-Ritualism’, 1868: 382).

Figure 4. Alfonso Mucha, Salammbô, 1896, lithograph, 39 x 21.5cm, Wikimedia Commons via Art Renewal Centre Museum.

The scent of frankincense may have set off some quite different, more decadent, associations in some European minds by the later nineteenth century. In orientalist discourse incense represented seductive, dangerous, and intoxicating femininity. In Joris-Karl Huysman’s decadent novel Á Rebours, the eccentric aesthete Jean des Esseintes develops an interest in perfumery and its histories. In one scene des Esseintes contemplates a painting by Gustave Moreau of the biblical story of Salomé, the daughter of Herod II who demands the head of John the Baptist in return for a dance performed at her stepfather’s birthday. Des Esseintes’ description of the painting is full of orientalist imagery. Having described Herod upon his throne, des Esseintes moves onto the rest of the image:

Around this form, frozen into the immobile, sacerdotal, hieratic pose of a Hindoo god, burned perfumes wafting aloft clouds of incense which were perforated, like phosphorescent eyes of beasts, by the fiery rays of the stones set in the throne. Then the vapor rolled up, diffusing itself beneath arcades where the blue smoke mingled with the gold powder of the long sunbeams falling from the domes.

In the perverse odor of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of the temple, Salomé, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command, her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her face, slowly advances on her toes… (Huysmans, 1884).

The newer orientalist framing of frankincense and the older Judeo-Christian tradition also shared a continuity of sorts. In Oscar Wilde’s highly popular novel The Picture of Dorian Gray the titular character ponders ‘what there was in frankincense that made one mystical’ (Wilde, 1890). Frankincense maintained its vague sense of the spiritual, mystical, and esoterical, even if this spirituality was not always Christian in character. 

Figure 5. Salome Dancing before Herod, 1876, oil on canvas, 143.5 x 104.3cm, Wikimedia Commons via Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

A particularly good example of this new mixture came in the form of the first of the five ‘Salons de la Rose-Croix’, which mixed Catholicism, medievalism, the occult, and symbolist art. The first of these salons, held in 1892 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris called for paintings on five themes that included ‘Catholic dogma’, ‘Oriental theogonies’, and the ‘sublime nude’. The large crowds that gathered to see these paintings would have viewed them surrounded by the odour of incense that was burned throughout the gallery and the flowers that were strewn on the floor by the members of the order, themselves attired in turbans, caftans, and pseudo-medieval dress (Frantisek, 1993: 123).  In the air of the salon Catholicism, orientalism, and the occult all mixed with the fumes of frankincense. Similar uses of incense could be found on stage in symbolist productions. For example, in the staging of his 1893 play Babylone, Joséphin Péladan filled the space of the Champs de Mars central dome with burning incense to create an ‘exotic, ritualistic, and religious atmosphere’ (Frantisek, 1993: 126). 

The combined influence of Christian and orientalist interpretations of frankincense continues to make its presence felt today. A 2019 study of German tourists visiting a frankincense shop in Oman makes this clear. For many tourists, who had just been to hyper-modern Dubai, the smokey frankincense shop located in a souq and filled with the scent of its products evoked a more ‘authentic’ (in this case highly orientalising) idea of ‘Arabia’ as a timeless, old, and unchanging place filled with turban-wearing locals in traditional dress. However, for other visitors, the Christian associations of the scent predominated: one tourist noted that they ‘just known frankincense from the church’ back in Germany, whilst others bought frankincense for relatives who liked to perfume their houses at Christmas time, evoking the story of the magi (Gutberlet, 2019). European responses to the smell of frankincense today are a product of the intertwined histories of the scent as both an imported, exotic, product and a key part of the Christian, spiritual, and magical olfactory imagination.
William Tullett
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