The Lord said, “You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood.” (Exodus 30:1)
Scent has an incredible ability to unite the present with the past. That has made perfume useful in church services since the earliest times, not only in the form of incense, but also mixed into the oils and waxes used for lamps and lights commanded to be burned in the house of the Lord. If Pope Francis were able to transport himself back to 1566 to the coronation of Pope Pius V, he would find himself embraced by the same reassuring fragrances in St Peter’s.
The ancients believed precious gum-resins such as frankincense and myrrh had a mystical property: when burnt, they united heaven and earth by creating a smoky pathway so that their prayers could ascend to reach the gods. This phenomenon was to give us the name perfume, from the Latin per fumum – through smoke. But it was the Egyptians who began to use perfume in everyday life, and would employ expensive perfumed oils to anoint the heads of their guests of honour and other distinguished people.
During their enslavement in Egypt, the Jews learned the art of perfume-making from the Egyptian priests, whom they often assisted in its manufacture. This knowledge, including the practice of anointing, travelled with them in their exodus as they fled their captors. Hence when Jesus was sitting at a table in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, “there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard, very precious, and she brake the box and poured it on his head.”
In Exodus, Moses was commanded by the Lord to erect an altar to burn incense on, to create the holy oil of anointing, and to create a holy incense. Early Christians were put to death because they would not offer incense to idols, since this symbolised worship.
The main materials used were cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh and galbanum, still used today as important materials for worship and for anointing. Thus at every British monarch’s coronation since at least the time of Edward the Confessor, oil of anointing and incense are used, symbolising the Church conferring sanction on the monarch’s divine right to rule. Queen Elizabeth II felt her anointing was such a sacred moment that she refused to allow it to be televised.
The precious materials used to make incense were a symbolic element of religious homage, as when the three Magi recognised the divinity of Jesus Christ: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
In Christian Europe the first anointed kings were the Carolingian monarchs in the 7th century. The greatest of the Carolingian monarchs was Charlemagne, who was crowned by Pope Leo III in Rome in 800. The oil of anointing used – which is blessed – is a perfume made from a blend of roses, jasmine, orange, cinnamon, benzoin, ambergris, musk and civet. It is applied with four Knights of the Garter forming a cross and holding a silk pall over the sovereign. The scented oil is then applied to the monarch in the sign of the cross, and makes a direct reference to the anointing by Zadok the Priest. As Shakespeare put it, “not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off an anointed king.”
It is remarkable how one breath of a scent can take us back to precious moments in our lives and make us feel safe and reassured. Queen Elizabeth’s speeches have done the same for many around the world in this time of crisis. Perfume and monarchy are both steeped in ritual and tradition; they both bestow comfort through familiarity, which is needed now more than ever. Thank God for both of them.
Roja Dove is the founder of Roja Parfums
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