The Odour of Sanctity: When the Dead Smell Divine

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Author’s Note: An earlier version of this article was originally published with The Order of the Good Death

We moderns live in a sanitised blur of white smells, but odours, both pleasant and foul, were essential components of life to our predecessors. Olfaction links us to our most primordial fears as well as our deepest desires. The pre-Modern nose marked time with scent; delineated sacred space with incense, the foul and the divine were understood by how they smelt. The link between offensive odours, the body, and immorality is well established in the psyche of dominant Western society because of this olfactory heritage. 

Miasma, the corrupted air thought to carry the plague, was blamed partly on a community’s immorality—their spiritual actions manifesting as a physical stink believed to induce death. Even today, there are vestiges of Miasma Theory in the popular imagination, hence the frequency of lemon and lavender in Western cleaning products, two popular plague preservatives. Things are not truly clean unless they smell clean!

Our olfactory ability connects us to the animalistic acts of the body. Yet almost every religion also employs fragrance to create a sense of spiritual otherworldliness. Our ability to smell is exceedingly mundane and magical at the same time.

St Therese of Lisieux's body wearing a nun's habit while lying on a white bed surounded by flowers
St. Therese of Lisieux’s body at her funeral

The body’s putrefaction has long been presented as theological evidence of the transient and base nature of the material world. In her book Scenting Salvation, Susan Ashbrook Harvey recounts the tale of a monk in love with a woman that died. In this anecdote, the monk “cures” himself of his desire and grief by digging up the woman’s body, soaking his garments in the fluids found in her coffin and smelling the repugnant items whenever tempted. 

The moral of the story is clear; earthly desires lead to nothing but the rot of the grave. While the siren song of a beautiful temptress may use superficial glamour to hide evil intentions, odour will always reveal one’s truth. If it stinks, it’s earthly and therefore wicked. If it smells nice, it’s connected to the abstraction of the spiritual world and is therefore good. 

Yet, if corrupt smells are a sign of a corrupt nature, what happens when a holy person dies? It is in this Western mind-body dualism that the concept of the Odour of Sanctity is born.

The Odour of Sanctity

The Odour of Sanctity, formally known as Osmogenesia, is a supernaturally pleasant odour coming from the body or wounds, usually after death. It was presented as a physical sign of the spiritual superiority of the person. While gods and supernatural beings are often associated with pleasant aromas, the Odour of Sanctity is attached explicitly to human bodies and is primarily a Western phenomenon. The concept arose in the early Middle Ages with roots in the early Christian communities of Greece and Egypt. 

Still, it didn’t gain considerable traction as a sign of sainthood in the Catholic Church until the Early Modern period. It wasn’t formally recognised as part of the beatification process until 1758 by Cardinal Lambertini (who later became Pope Benedict XIV) and has since been downgraded to a favourable sign of holiness. While the Odour of Sanctity is strongly associated with, and for a time was a sign of incorruptibility, the phenomenon was not limited to officially venerated saints.

 Both Catholicism and the Eastern Church developed a robust apocryphal pedigree around smelly heretic preachers and saints alike. Modern theologians will say that the Odour of Sanctity is metaphorical, that it’s an ontological state of being. While that may be true now or for religious scholars of the past, it was indeed taken and preached as a literal odour to the laity.

A dead body touched with the Odour of Sanctity can’t just smell ok. It has to possess the mysterious presence of a supernaturally pleasant odour with no earthly origins to the smell. The scents can be brief or persistent, attached to the body, grave, bathwater of the dead, or objects the person touched.

In the case of St. Padre Pio, his spectral scent of roses and pipe tobacco visited people after his death and was considered a sign of his saintly intercession. All Odours of Sanctities are described as pleasing, with notes of honey, butter, roses, violets, frankincense, myrrh, pipe tobacco, jasmine, and lilies being the most frequently reported accompaniments. The scent is also always culturally specific and deeply intertwined with symbolism.

Icon of St. Polycarp's martyrdom, man in loin cloth with a halo being set on fire with flames all around him, a man on his left with a sword, a man on his right with a spear
Icon of St. Polycarp’s martyrdom

St. Polycarp, the 2nd century Bishop of Smyrna, was martyred by being burned at the stake. In the late Medieval telling of his death, his burning body smelt like a brazier of frankincense and myrrh instead of charred flesh. St. Polycarp didn’t just smell miraculously like any incense. His martyrdom was olfactory connected to the Holy Temple’s incense and the gifts of the Magi. In the use of frankincense and myrrh, the writers of St. Polycarp’s story connect his death olfactory to the concepts of the blessings of Jesus and sacrifice.

St. Therese of Lisieux was one of the most popular fragrant saints. She was reported to smell of lilies, violets, and roses upon her deathbed. Coincidently, her most often attributed quote is: 

The splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent…If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness“. 

I should also note that violet absolute was synthesised during Therese’s lifetime, making a material that was once the most expensive fragrance component in the world, affordable for all and the de rigueur fragrance of respectable women. 

To the Victorian palette, violets represented chastity, modesty, and feminine virtue. Lilies and roses also have a long association with Jesus and Mary. Therese’s Odour of Sanctity creates an olfactive tableau of Therese, the respectable modest woman, alongside the Virgin Mary and Jesus. 

Before 1875 however, the scent of violets would not have been readily identifiable to the general population, and no primary sources associated the Odour of Sanctity with violets before that time. 

There is also an active association between the Odour of Sanctity and Stigmata, with a supernatural floral odour reported to emanate from the wounds of a stigmatic. Stigmatic Osmogenesia is reported as the smell of roses, which is deeply symbolic of the wounds of Christ.

Bodily Asceticism & Divine Voluptuousness

In the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, ascetic mystics comprised a large population of those afflicted with this post-mortem perfume, particularly female mystics who lived cloistered lives. These women’s bodies suffered through harsh asceticism and self-inflicted mortification. Yet through the isolation, hardship, poverty, and virginity, these mystics sought to control their bodies and transform them into sacred vessels.

It, therefore, makes sense from their perspective that, if successful, the discarded vessels of these perfected souls should already be touched by a whiff of Paradise. The association of the Odour of Sanctity with cloistered women parallels the profane eroticism of the earthly woman with the chaste eroticism of the sacred woman. In contrast, the worldly woman’s corpse corrupts by its nature and stinks, so the heavenly woman’s body remains pure and fragrant. However, the conversation is still about a woman’s body.

St. Teresa of Avila was another fragrant ascetic and mystic. She lived in seclusion, practised tri-weekly self-flagellation and didn’t wear shoes. The moment she died, her bedside attendants said the room filled with the scent of roses that grew to saturate the building. The convent smelt like it had erupted into bloom, and cascades of invisible blossoms poured from the windows. Her grave held the scent of roses for eight months. The sensuality of the story is part of the appeal. St. Teresa would never have done something so showy in life. Yet in death, the Odour of Sanctity makes such earthly sensualism permissible as divine ardour, just as Bernini captures the divine sensuality of Teresa’s transverberation in the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

Marble statue of a woman in a nun's habit with her head thrown back and she appears to be moning with her mouth open
Detail of the Exstasy of St Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Origins of Divine Odour

So what was it that all these people were smelling? If we couch the religious explanation, are there any earthly ones? Well, firstly, many of the accounts of the Odour were written down centuries after the individual’s death and came out of folk traditions. So there is undoubtedly some gilded lilies.

For others, the nose, like any of our senses, can be fooled, especially when primed. In a time of sorrow and acute stress, a smell that was imperceptible moments earlier can become overpowering. One could rationalise the sickly sweetness of early decay or illness as divine honey. Of course, the more one tells a story, the more it turns to legend and becomes grander. So the whiff of sweetness becomes an eruption of flowers.

Rosa De Lima Painting by Jose Antonio Robles, woman wearing nun's habit witha  crown of roses and roses decorating the corners of the painting
Rosa De Lima Painting by Jose Antonio Robles

I think the overlap of female religious ascetics associated with both the Odour of Sanctity and Anorexia mirabilis (the miraculous lack of appetite) is interesting. Anorexia mirabilis was a form of religiously-induced anorexia that led women and girls during the late Middle Ages and Early Modern periods to engage in prolonged fasts, not in the name of socially acceptable beauty but religious purity.

These women abstained from eating for extended periods or attempted to sustain themselves on communion wafers or stale bread. Some, like Angela of Foligno and Catherine of Siena, refused food but reportedly ate the scabs and drank the pus from the sores of hospital patients. While they indeed were exceptions, their religious communities already practised fasting and food restriction that the particularly devout practitioners exploited in pursuit of spiritual perfection.

In fact, the medical explanation for the Odour of Sanctity is that it is a cultural understanding of the process of Ketoacidosis. Ketosis is a natural process that occurs when the body runs out of glucose and starts to metabolise fatty acids. As Ketosis progresses, it volatilises acetone which produces a mildly sweet smell, unrecognisable to most. Should this devolve into the pathological metabolic state of Ketoacidosis, customarily brought on by advanced alcohol abuse, starvation, or complications from diabetes, the acetone becomes detectable, even overpowering. Someone engaged in prolonged fasts or dying while in an advanced state of Ketoacidosis would have a strong sweet smell.

The Culture of Female Asceticism & Osmogenesia

In examining the lives of 18 women associated with the Odour of Sanctity, who lived over a 700 year time span, all 18 practised some form of food restriction. At the same time, ten entered into the pathological territory of Anorexia mirabilis. Seven cases either died due to self-induced starvation or illness complicated by refusing to eat, supporting the Ketoacidosis hypothesis.

However, these women had many other similarities. 14 were mystics, 15 practised ascetic lifestyles, 14 were cloistered or hermits, 12 practised some form of spiritually-induced self-harm as self-mortification or stigmata.

Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux by Edgar Maxence, woman in nun's habit with large cross on her chest, she is lifting up both hands and is carrying a rose in each, with a  background of flowers
Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux by Edgar Maxence

This data paints not only a medical profile but a social one. Seven cases were part of the Carmelite Order (6 Discalced, 1 Order of Carmel). Two of our later perfumed saints were named after St. Teresa of Avila, who founded the Discalced Order and famously experienced Osmogenesia.

The Discalced Carmelites were known for their extreme austerity. Even if Ketoacidosis wasn’t present at the time of death, it makes sense that women of the same order, leading similar lives, and looking to St. Teresa as a role model would also be associated with the same supernatural phenomenon at the time of their deaths. These women’s dedicated their lives to transcending their physical forms, and nothing is more corporal than the haze of human decomposition. These circumstances create both a motivation for reporting the Odour of Sanctity as well as a cultural norm for its presence.

This is not to say that these nuns were lying about their experiences at the bedsides of their friends and mentors. While hagiographies written hundreds of years after a saint’s death are clearly filtered through a folkloric tradition, the later Early Modern saints have first-hand accounts of their divine odour. Those writings are emotional and deeply sincere. I believe that those people did experience something, and they interpreted that phenomenon through the knowledge system and cultural values available to them. Other people approaching the issue from other systems would see it differently.

It is perhaps the ultimate epitaph for these women to have their corpses associated with the Odour of Sanctity. After years of striving, they were finally given the accolades of perfection and worthiness they so deeply desired.

Some of the Women Associated with the Odour of Sanctity

Further Reading