Fragrance in Literature: The Cathedral Joris-Karl Huysmans(on incense and Christian spiritual tradition)


St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral, Brussels,

From The Cathedral

It was scarcely possible to see; the sanctuary was lighted only by tiny lamps from the roof in little saucers of lurid orange or dull gold. An extraordinarily mild atmosphere prevailed in this underground structure, which was also full of a singular perfume in which a musty odour of hot wax mingled with a suggestion of damp earth. But this was only the background, the canvas, so to speak, of the perfume, and was lost under the embroidery of fragrance which covered it, the faded gold, as it were, of oil in which long kept aromatic herbs had been steeped, and old, old incense powder dissolved. It was a weird and mysterious vapour, as strange as the crypt itself, which, with its furtive lights and breadths of shadow, was at once penitential and soothing.

"Or, again, take the substances used by the Church in certain ceremonies: water, wine, ashes, salt, oil, balsam, incense. Incense, besides representing the divinity of the Son, is likewise the symbol of prayer, 'thus devotio orationis' as it is described by Raban Maur, Archbishop of Mayence in the ninth century. I happen to remember also, à propos of this resin and the censer in which it is burnt, a verse I read long since in the 'Monastic Distinctions' of the anonymous English writer of the thirteenth century, which sums up their signification more neatly than I can:
'vas notatur,
Mens pia; thure preces; igne supernus amor.'
The vase is the spirit of piety; the incense, prayer; the fire, divine love.

"Certainly," said the Abbé. "But to return to our monastery. Nowhere, I repeat, are the services performed with so much pomp. You should see it on the occasion of some high festival! Picture to yourself above the altar, where commonly the tabernacle shines, a Dove suspended from a golden crozier, its wings outspread amid clouds of incense; then a whole army of monks deploying in a solemn rhythmic march, and the Abbot standing, on his brow a mitre thickly set with jewels, his green and white ivory crozier in his hand, his train carried by a lay-brother when he moves, while the gold of many copes blazes in the light of the tapers, and a torrent of sound from the organ bears the voices up, carrying to the very vault the cry of repentance or the joy of the Psalms.

"For the crypt, supposing we dig one out, it must certainly be filled with the trees mentioned in the Old Testament, of which this portion of the building is itself an allegory. In spite of climate we must grow the vine and the palm, emblems of eternity; the cedar, which by reason of its incorruptible wood is sometimes thought to symbolize the angels; the olive and the fig, emblems of the Holy Trinity and of the Word; frankincense, cassia and balsamodendron Myrrha, a symbol of the perfect humanity of Our Lord; the terebinth—meaning exactly what?"

"Since, according to the Rationale of Durand of Mende, the sacristy is the very bosom of the Virgin, we will represent it by virginal plants such as the anemone, and trees such as the cedar, which Saint Ildefonso compares to Our Mother. And now, if we are to furnish the instruments of worship, we shall find in the ritual of the liturgy and in the very form of certain plants almost precise guidance. Thus, flax, of which the cornice and altar napery is to be woven, is indispensable; the olive and the balsamum, from which oil and balm are extracted, and frankincense, which sheds the drops of gum for the incense, are no less indicated. For the chalice we may choose from among the flowers which goldsmiths take as their models: the white convolvulus, the frail campanula, and even the tulip, though, having some repute as connected with magic, that flower is in ill odour. For the shape of the monstrance there is the sun-flower."

Having reached the crypt in front of the altar, he round once more the doubtful but soothing odour of that vault, smoked by burning tapers, and went forward in the soft, warm atmosphere of frankincense and a cellar. It was even darker than in the early morning, for the lamps were out; floating wicks only, shining through what looked like very thin orange-peel, threw gleams of tarnished gold on the sooty walls.

"Even then it would be satisfactory to know whether the walls and pillars at Brou ever were really painted; the contrary seems proven. But in any case, though a touch of rouge might not ill beseem this curious sanctum, it would not be so at Chartres, for the only suitable hue is the shining, greasy patina, grey turning to silver, stone-colour turning buff—the colouring given by age, by time helped by accumulated vapours of prayer and the fumes of incense and tapers!"

Durtal found the old Abbé tormented by rheumatism, but as ever, patient and cheerful. They talked a little while; then, seeing that Durtal was looking at some little lumps of gum lying on his writing table, the Abbé said,—
"That is incense from the Carmel of Chartres."
"Indeed!"
"Yes, the Carmelites are accustomed to burn none but genuine true incense. So I begged them to trust me with a specimen that I might procure the same quality for our cathedral."
"It is everywhere adulterated, I suppose?"
"Yes. This substance is found in commerce under three forms: male incense, which is the best if unadulterated; female incense, which is mixed with reddish fragments and dry grains called marrons; finally incense in powder, which is for the most part a mixture of inferior resin and benzoin."
"And what have you there?"
"This is male incense; do you see those oblong tears, those almost transparent drops of faded amber? how different from that which they use at Notre Dame; it is earthy, broken, full of scraps, and it is safe to wager that those knobs are crystals of carbonate of lime and not beads of pure resin."
"Why," said Durtal, "this substance suggests to me the idea of a symbolism of odours; has it ever been worked out?"
"I doubt it; but in any case it would be very simple. The aromatic substances used in the Liturgy are reduced to three, frankincense, myrrh, and balm.
"Their meaning is known to you. Incense is the Divinity of the Son, and our prayers which rise up like vapours in the presence of the Most High, as the Psalmist says. Myrrh is repentance, the sufferings of Jesus, His death, the martyrs, and also, according to Monsieur Olier, the type of the Virgin who heals the souls of sinners as myrrh cauterizes the festering of wounds; balm is another word for virtue.

"We know too that our sins stink, each according to its nature; and the proof of this is that the saints could detect the state of men's consciences merely by the smell of their bodies. Do you remember how Saint Joseph of Cupertino exclaimed to a sinner whom he met: 'My friend, you smell very badly; go and wash.'
"To return to the odour of sanctity: in certain persons it has been known to assume a natural character almost identical with certain familiar scents. Saint Treverius exhaled a fragrance compounded of roses, lilies, balm, and incense; Saint Rose of Viterbo smelt of roses; Saint Cajetan of orange-blossom; Saint Catherine of Ricci of violets; Saint Theresa by turns of lily, jasmine and violet; Saint Thomas Aquinas of incense; Saint Francis of Paul of musk;—I mention these at random as they occur to me.

"There are certain essences mentioned in the Old Testament prefiguring the Virgin. Some of them are interpreted in other senses, as spikenard, cassia, and cinnamon. The first represents strength of soul; the second, sound doctrine; and the third, the sweet savour of virtue. Then there is the essence of cedar, which in the thirteenth century symbolized the Doctors of the Church; and there are three specifically liturgical perfumes: incense, balm, and myrrh; besides the odour of sanctity, which in the case of some saints could be analyzed; and the demoniacal stench, from a mere animal smell to the horrible nastiness of rotten eggs and sulphur.
"We must now inquire whether the personal fragrance of the Elect is in harmony with the qualities or acts of which each was, on earth, the example or the doer; and it would seem to have been so, when we remark that Saint Thomas Aquinas, who composed the admirable sequence on the Holy Sacrament, exhaled a perfume of incense, and that Saint Catherine of Ricci, who was a model of humility, smelt of violets, the emblem of that virtue, but—"

The Mother enabled them to prove in her person the authenticity of the incredible tales they had read during meals, of the Lives of the Saints. She had the gift of bilocation, appearing in several places at the same time, shedding a trail of delicious fragrance wherever she passed, curing the sick by the Sign of the Cross, scenting out and discerning hidden sins as a hunting dog puts up game, and reading souls.

And these transparent hangings were like flowers, redolent of sandal and pepper, fragrant with the subtle spices of the Magian kings; a perfumed flower-bed of hues culled at the cost of so much blood in the fields of Palestine; and here offered by the West, under the cold sky of Chartres, to the Virgin Mother in remembrance of the sunny lands where She dwelt and where Her Son chose to be born.

He finally thought no more of the rest, listened to nothing but the divine eloquence of their lean slenderness, regarding them only under the semblance of tall flower-stems deep in carved stone tubes and expanding into faces of ingenuous fragrance, of innocent perfume, while Christ, touched and saddened, blessing the world, seemed to bend from His throne above them to inhale the delicate aroma that rose from these up-soaring chalices full of soul. Durtal was wondering—what potent necromancer could evoke the spirits of these royal doorkeepers, compel them to speak, and enable us to overhear the colloquy they perhaps hold when in the evening they seem to withdraw behind the curtain of shadow?

"It is true that as a remedy against the dejection caused by myrrh we may apply the 'hymelsloszel' (Himmelschlüssel), which is—or appears to be—Primula officinalis, the cowslip, whose bunches of fragrant yellow blossoms are to be seen in moist woods and meadows. This plant is 'warm,' and imbibes its qualities from the light. Hence it can drive away melancholy, which, says St. Hildegarde, spoils men's good manners, making them utter speech contrary to God, on hearing which words the spirits of the air gather about him who has spoken them, and finally drive him mad.

From En Route
The Virgins had faces almond-shaped, elongated like those ogives which the Gothic style contrived in order to distribute an ascetic light, a virginal dawn in the mysterious shrine of its naves. In the pictures of the Early Masters the complexion of holy women becomes transparent as Paschal wax, and their hair is pale as golden grains of frankincense, their childlike bosoms scarcely swell, their brows are rounded like the glass of the pyx, their fingers taper, their bodies shoot upwards like delicate columns. Their beauty becomes, as it were, liturgical. They seem to live in the fire of stained glass, borrowing from the flaming whirlwind of the rose-windows the circles of their aureoles. The ardent blue of their eyes, the dying embers of their lips, keeping for their garments the colours they disdain for their flesh, stripping them of their light, changing them, when they transfer them to stuffs, into opaque tones which aid still more by their contrast to declare the seraphic clearness of their look, the grievous paleness of the mouth, to which, according to the Proper of the season, the scent of the lily of the Canticles or the penitential fragrance of myrrh in the Psalms lend their perfume.

The sudden silence in the church roused Durtal. He rose and looked about him; in his corner was no one save two poor women, asleep, their feet on the bars of chairs, their heads on their knees. Leaning forward a little, he saw, hanging above him in a dark chapel, the light of a lamp, like a ruby in its red glass; no sound save the military tread of the Suisse, making his round in the distance.

Durtal sat down again; the sweetness of his solitude was enhanced by the aromatic perfume of wax, and the memories, now faint, of incense, but it was suddenly broken. As the first chords crashed on the organ Durtal recognized the "Dies iræ," that despairing hymn of the Middle Ages; instinctively he bowed his head and listened.

A noise recalled him to St. Sulpice; the choir was going, the church was about to close. "I might as well have tried to pray," he said to himself, "it would have been better than to dream in the empty church on a chair. Pray indeed? I have no desire for it. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and wax, I prowl about it, moved even to tears by its prayers, touched even to the marrow by its psalms and chants.

Ah, those charitable churches of the Middle Ages, those chapels damp and smoky, full of ancient song, of exquisite paintings, of the odour of extinguished tapers, of the perfume of burning incense!

That morning the chapel, cold and dark, sparkled, lighted by groves of candles; and the odour of incense, not adulterated as in other churches by spices and gums, filled it with a dull smoke; it was crammed with people. Crouched in a corner, Durtal had turned round, and like his neighbours looked at the backs of the thurifers and priests, who were going towards the entrance. The door opened suddenly, and he saw, in a burst of daylight, a red vision of the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, passing up the nave, turning from side to side a horse-like head, in front of it a big spectacled nose, bending his tall form all on one side, blessing the congregation with a long twisted hand, like a crab's claw.

All was so rapid that he asked himself if he were not dreaming; the mass was over. Behind the iron grating resounded mournful psalms, slow chants drawn out, weeping, always on the same notes, wandering lights and white forms passed in the azure fluid of the incense. Monseigneur Richard was sitting, mitre on head, interrogating the postulant who had returned to her place, and was kneeling before him behind the grating.

In that church, covered with ex votos, plastered even above the arches with inscriptions on marble celebrating the joy for prayers granted and benefits received, before that altar of Our Lady where hundreds of tapers pierced the air blue with incense with the gilded blades of their lances, there were public prayers every evening at eight. A priest in the pulpit said the rosary, sometimes the Litany of Our Lady was sung to a singular air, a sort of musical cento, but it was impossible to say whence it was constructed, very rhythmical, and continually changing its tone, now fast, now slow, bringing with it, for a moment, a vague recollection of seventeenth-century airs, then turning sharply at a tangent, to a barrel-organ tune, a modern, almost vulgar, melody.

While Father Maximin, vested in a copy of milky white, woven with a cross in orange yellow, placed the Host in the monstrance, the thurifer put down the censer, on the coals of which melted tears of real incense. Contrary to what takes place in Paris, where the censer, swung before the altar, sounds against its chains, and is like the clear tinkling of a horse which, as he lifts his head, shakes his curb and bit, the censer at La Trappe remained immovable before the altar, and smoked by itself behind the officiants.

"The brothers recite near him the prayers of the dying, and at the moment of his death the response 'Subvenite Sancti Dei' is chanted in choir. The Father abbot incenses the body, which is washed while the monks sing the Office of the Dead in another room.

The way then was free, and it seemed at first easy enough to plan it out, but to extract the charm of the legends needed the simple language of bygone centuries, the ingenuous phrases of the days that are dead. Who in our time can express the melancholy essence, the pale perfume of the ancient translations of the Golden Legend of Voragine, how bind in one bright posy the plaintive flowers, which the monks cultivated in their cloistered enclosures, when hagiography was the sister of the barbaric and delightful art of the illuminators and glass stainers, of the ardent and chaste paintings of the Early Masters?

A sharp perfume which burnt the nose as a spice burns the tongue, the perfume of myrrh, floated in the air, the crowds surged; behind the grating from which the curtain was withdrawn, the nuns standing sang the hymn of Saint Ambrose, "Jesu corona virginum," while the bells of the abbey rang a peal; in the short aisle leading from the porch to the choir, a bending line of women on either side, a cross-bearer and torch-bearers entered, and behind them appeared the novice dressed as a bride.