Worldly Things

by Katy Kelleher
Image by Walden Green. [A collage of a black-and-white image of a nun, overlaid with a scan of pink flowers on a vine.]

This essay is part of Scent Access Memory, our editorial series with Dirt.

In a cramped gift shop off the plaza in downtown Santa Fe, I bought myself a vial of anointing oil. Made in a monastery in America (though I don’t know which one), it reeks of rose—not unpleasantly, but it is clearly of another era. It is no modern rose, lightened with grassy green notes or darkened with smoke and booze. It’s a simple, pungent floral assault. 

I’ve only used it once, and it was because I was feeling desperate, in pain and alone. The oil didn’t heal my hurts, nor did my other monastery-made perfume purchase, a vial of Acqua della Regina (the Queen’s Water) from Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. This one smells like neroli and leaves. It’s almost too fresh to be worn, and about as old fashioned as perfumes can get. The first iteration of this scent was developed by Dominican friars in the 1530s for Caterina de’ Medici, a gift commissioned by the King of France. Although this is the oldest perfume available for purchase from Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, they do have some waters whose general recipe dates back centuries further, to the time of the Black Death. Back then, it was believed that bad clouds carried the plague, and one way to avoid dying was by smelling like something better than the diseased “miasma.” Rose water wasn’t just a beauty product—it was a preventative medicine. 

The Great Sales Hall in Chapel of San Niccolo, courtesy Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. [A former chapel with vaulted ceiling and frescos. Wood and glass cabinets and a wooden table hold glass bottles and viles of perfume and fragrance.]

I think this is why I’m so fascinated by monastery shops, monk-made perfumes, and objects crafted by Shakers, Quakers, nuns, and acolytes of all stripes. (I’m currently eyeing Monastique Fragrance of Avila, made by carmelite nuns in Kew and I’ve got a shopping cart started at the Saint-Vincent Abbey’s online shop.) These products feel essential in a way that few things do; they exist both within the world of capitalism (they’re for sale, after all) but they have an added urgency to them. They’re steeped in the mysticism of authenticity. They’re god-made, a reminder of what fragrance once was: a form of science, a form of magic, a form of worship. 

This is, according to historian and author Chris Gosden, the “triple-helix” of human understanding: religion, science, and magic. Sometimes they’re called the three pillars of thought. For much of history, these categories weren’t all that discrete. Magical thinking was a part of scientific inquiry and religious institutions also functioned as laboratories and data centers. In Europe, this meant the monastery was not only where Gregor Mendel came up with the theory of inheritable traits, but also where innovations in timekeeping, astronomy, chemistry, and navigation occurred. The medieval monastery garden was also an extremely valuable source of culinary and medicinal herbs—not to mention a work of spiritual art in its own right. 

The conflation of pleasure products (beauty items and luxuries) and medicinal ones can feel like a new thing, born of the internet—thanks to the magic-heavy marketing of wellness culture and the tired “self care” discourse—but it’s always useful to remember that our current moment is a continuation of past trends. Although perfume isn’t nearly as popular in contemporary China as it is elsewhere around the globe, ancient Chinese women were known to wear floral “nectars” made from lily, lotus, and chrysanthemum. The same fragrances were set at temples as offerings and used in religious rituals. In Egypt, men and women both wore scented water, and some sources say that ancient Egyptians “believed that perfume had magical powers and was a gift from the gods.” And in 2004, archeologists began excavation on a Bronze Age perfume factory on the island of Cyprus that was likely in operation some 4,000 years ago. It’s been theorized that this large facility may have marked a shift in how ancient Greeks used scent; it clearly was more than just a religious matter. Fragrance was both cosmetic (a word that stems from the Greek kosmos, signifying not only adornment but also order and righteousness), religious (the word perfume comes from the Latin perfumare, through smoke, referring to Church offerings), and secular (hence the massive building devoted to making pretty smelling oils). 

One of my favorite things about history is how often we find ourselves relating to the people of the past. When I read about the ingredients used in perfumery many thousands of years ago, I’m always struck by how consistent our preferences have been. We want to smell like trees (agarwood, cyprus, sandalwood), flowers (lilies, roses, lotus, jasmine), grasses (vetiver, lemon grass, reeds), fruits (lemon, orange, fig), and sweet, animal musks (civet, ambergris, musk deer). Throughout history, there have been sacred scents, like myrrh and balsam, and there have been royal scents, like the Queen’s Water or Cleopatra’s famous perfume or the scented oils beloved by the Dragon Empress. And this is what I imagine I’m getting from the monk-made scents. We no longer look to religious authorities for cutting edge knowledge, and this is a good thing. But we still need elements of magic and spiritualism in our lives. For most of human history, perfume was a way to distinguish oneself as special, and this specialness took many different forms. It was about being pleasing, but it was also about being powerful, holy, and healthy.

Katy Kelleher is an art, design, nature, and science writer living in the woods of Maine. Her work has appeared in the pages of the New York Times, The Guardian, American Scholar, and Town & Country. She’s written online for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Jezebel, and others. She’s a frequent contributor to The Paris Review and spent several years writing a popular column on color, Hue’s Hue. Her book is The Ugly History of Beautiful Things.