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Many cultures relate fragrances to the spiritual sphere. In Western culture, Christian tradition tends to present olfaction as a ‘spiritual’ and incorporeal sense. Moreover, Catholic religion traditionally attributes to some saints the capacity to emanate celestial fragrances that operate as indexical signs of their exceptional spiritual quality. This particular spiritual gift is known as osmogenesis. Although psychoanalysis and a part of contemporary scholarship and culture tend to place odors and olfaction at the core of bodily life, the parallel and antithetic trend of connecting odors to the sphere of sacredness, spirituality and immateriality remains widespread: traces of this imagery can be found not only in figurative art and literature, but also in the communication strategies adopted by numerous brands to present their perfumes. By reconstructing and discussing some of the main features of the imaginary involving odors and spirituality, both inside and outside the circumscribed sphere of religion, this paper shows that the connection between fragrances and spirit unquestionably remains a relevant esthetic value in relation to olfactory perception in contemporary culture.

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  • 1 This paper is part of the project NeMoSanctI, which has received funding from the European Research (...)

1In many cultures, fragrances are connected to the spiritual sphere. This paper focuses precisely on representations of fragrances as signs of spirit, the divine or immateriality, with a focus on the olfactory imaginary connected to both religion (and in particular Christian and Catholic traditions) and the secular sphere of contemporary perfumery.1

  • 2 In semiotic terms, ‘esthesic’ indicates “the affective and sensible component of experience” (Fabbr (...)
  • 3 Boisson (1997) also observes that negative terms are more numerous and that neutral terms also tend (...)
  • 4 Kleiber, Villaume 2011.

2In order to fully understand these representations, it is necessary to consider them as one pole of a duality according to which odors are seen as the objects of perception both most closely linked to ethereality and most rooted in bodily or material reality. As paradoxical as it may seem, this duality is widespread and is generally connected to the esthesic2 evaluation of odors, a phenomenon that is so deeply rooted as to be encoded in linguistic structures themselves: studying the lexicon related to odors in 60 languages throughout the world, Boisson found that the most relevant and widespread variant regards a division between good and bad odors.3 The oscillation of odors between materiality and immateriality is a challenge for linguistics: Kleiber and Villaume, in a study centered on the French language, show how difficult it is to classify the words indicating odors as concrete or abstract.4 Even though science has demonstrated the materiality of odor, they argue, common language tends to class it as ‘immaterial’ in that it does not refer to a ‘material entity’ understood as something that occupies a portion of space and has a definite shape. From this perspective, ‘odor’ can be considered an abstract noun; however, there is no doubt that odors are perceptible to the senses, and viewed in such a way they should be considered ‘concrete’. Furthermore, they do not indicate simply one property of an object but actually possess referential autonomy, another aspect that confirms their concreteness.

  • 5 Greimas 1987.
  • 6 Le Guérer 1998, 1990, 2001, 2006, Mueller 2006.
  • 7 Dupire 1987.
  • 8 Coulon 2016.
  • 9 Le Guérer 1998: chapter 5.

3In many cases, therefore, cultures articulate the meaning of odor in a complex manner that spans the axes of materiality and esthesic evaluation: on one hand, odor can be connected to the most immediate kinds of materiality, often with dysphoric connotations; on the other, it can be connected to the immaterial sphere and even transcendence, serving as a privileged channel of communication with the sacred.5 The exaltation of pleasant fragrances and their connection with spirituality and divinity is often paired with a dysphoric imagery involving the materiality of the body and the moral domain of vice and corruption (for instance, in Christian tradition, sin and the devil are notorious for ‘stinking’). According to a wide-ranging current of studies,6 modern Western culture, and especially psychanalysis, has repressed odors and the sense of olfaction by virtue of its being human beings’ strongest connection to our own primordial animality. However, this idea also recurs in other cultures. For instance, the Sereer Ndut (Senegal) are scrupulous about hiding and neutralizing corporal odors through meticulous hygienic and deodorant practices, but at the same time they associate olfaction with the spiritual sphere: as Dupire has observed, the ‘odor of the soul’ is the fulcrum of their religious (and medical) representations.7 In Medieval Arabic magic, odorous fumigations were employed as a means of entering the spiritual sphere and communicating with supernatural beings.8 In Egyptian, Hebraic, and Aztec, but also Christian, religions, perfumes in the form of oils and especially incense represent offerings with the power to bring the supplicant into contact with the deity.9

  • 10 Ibidem: chapter 6.
  • 11 Fontanille 2004: chapter 1.
  • 12 This argument is reinforced by the reference to Le Guérer’s association between blood and perfume i (...)
  • 13 It is not my intention to extensively discuss this theory here but simply to note that, even though (...)
  • 14 Leone 2013, Yelle 2016: 214.
  • 15 Greimas 1987.

4Basing his theory on Le Guérer,10 the semiotician Jacques Fontanille11 argues that odor constitutes the emanation of the very vital principle of a being and considers the common association between sacred beings (e.g. saints and sacrificial victims) and fragrances to be a figurative syntaxis and semi-symbolic system relating the emanation of odor to a dynamic process of intimate movements corresponding to vital functions (i.e. blood circulation and breath).12 The fragrances emanating from live beings enjoying a sacred status thus become the fragrance of life itself. This theory is further proof of the fact that cultural ideas of olfaction tend to call into question the border between materiality and immateriality.13 The difficulty in defining this border with precision can be grasped by considering the breath: it is well known that many cultures relate something as material and perceptible as breath to an immaterial idea of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.14 According to Greimas, the word ‘Atmen’ as it is used in German has a concrete referent preceding its spiritual meaning, in that it indicates the somatic manifestation of breath.15 Even the word ‘anima’ reflects this duality:

  • 16 Messner 2020: 1166-1167.

What is anima? Philologically speaking – the root of the word is ane- ‘to breathe’, similar to Greek ánemos, ‘breath, wind’ – anima indicates a primal, life-giving pronouncement, felt but not seen. Seemingly derived from the idea of a vital principle, the word gained in various contexts a wide range of meanings spanning from living being, soul, mind, or spirit to others like passion, anger, feeling and more.16

5In what follows, therefore, I will focus on some of the main aspects of the Christian and Catholic religious imagery connecting odors to the spiritual domain, and then propose a reflection on the enduring character of some features of this imagery, especially those connected to fragrances in contemporary secular culture and, in particular, the discourse surrounding the art and business of perfumery.

Olfaction as a ‘spiritual’ sense?

6A famous passage from 2 Cor 2: 14-16 likens the disciples’ pastoral action of disseminating the knowledge of God to spreading the fragrance of Christ:

14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.

7Encountering the divine word and truth is thus described as perceiving a fragrance. As mentioned above, this pleasant fragrance is placed at one pole of an esthesic opposition in which it stands against the negative fragrance of death, understood as the end of bodily life without transcendent continuation. Paul’s metaphor has enjoyed considerable success. For instance, in Iacobus de Voragine’s 13th-century Golden Legend we find the following interpretation of the name of Saint Ambrose:

Ambrose is said of a stone named ambra, which is much sweet, odorant and precious, and also it is much precious in the church, and much sweet smelling in deeds and in words. Or Ambrose may be said of ambra and syos which is as much to say as God, for Ambrose is as much to say as amber of God, for Ambrose felt God in him, and God was smelled and odoured by him over all where he was.17

  • 18 To cite only a few examples: Ciravegna 2008, Tarantola 2006, Goso 2020.
  • 19 For discussions of this subject, see Le Guérer 1998, Volli 2020.

8Catholic theological and apologetic literature continues to make generous use of the metaphors of the ‘perfume’ of charity, Christ, or the Gospel.18 Part of the pertinence and efficacy of this device stems from the traditional imagination of paradise as an aromatic garden:19 in this sense, the perception of a divine fragrance works as an indexical sign that allows the subject an initial experience of a whole that will be discovered in its richness after death. As we will see, this idea of fragrances as the anticipation of something longed for also survives in the secular imagery surrounding the use of perfumes.

9Christian religion has proposed several taxonomies of the senses, generally based on their proximity to matter. In the hierarchy of the senses proposed by the Fathers of the Church, olfaction tends to occupy a high position since it is not directly related to matter. The idea of olfaction as a sense which is particularly distant from matter also has an antecedent and parallel in the Hebraic tradition:

  • 20 Nadav 1992: 4.

According to the Talmud (Berakhòt 43b), the sense of smell is the only sense from which the soul derives pleasure, while all the other senses provide pleasure to the body. Moreover, according to the midrashim, the sense of smell was the only sense that was not directly involved in the sin of the tree of knowledge. In the book of Genesis, it is said that Eve “saw that the fruit was good,” and that Adam “heard his wife’s voice,” and of course, they both touched it and ate it. However, the sense of smell did not play a direct role in this, and thanks to this fact the sense of smell is the most spiritual of all the senses. Smell allows us to discover and distinguish extremely subtle realities which are completely hidden from the other senses.20

10Saint Augustine, who battled fiercely against the temptations of the senses, believed that the most dangerous temptations arousing bodily appetites come from sight, while olfaction is the less dangerous sense: “The sense of smell does not trouble me greatly with its attractions. I do not miss sweet tastes when they are absent, but neither do I refuse them where I find them. I am even ready to do without them altogether” (1961: 237, Book 10, chapter 32). Thomas Aquinas, based on the distinction between ‘natural’ (i.e. physical) and ‘spiritual immutation’, considers sight to be the most spiritual sense because it entails no natural immutation at all. Smelling and hearing are less spiritual than sight because they entail a component of natural immutation, but they are nevertheless more spiritual than taste and touch, the senses which are the most material and affected by natural immutation (Summa Theologiae, Quaestio 78, art. 3):21

But in some senses we find spiritual immutation only, as in ‘sight’ while in others we find not only spiritual but also a natural immutation; either on the part of the object only, or likewise on the part of the organ. On the part of the object we find natural immutation, as to place, in sound which is the object of ‘hearing’; […] and we find natural immutation by alteration, in odor which is the object of ‘smelling’; for in order to exhale an odor, a body must be in a measure affected by heat. On the part of an organ, natural immutation takes place in ‘touch’ and ‘taste’ […]. But the organs of smelling and hearing are not affected in their respective operations by any natural immutation unless indirectly.

  • 22 Regarding the hierarchy of the senses and spiritual senses, see Lingua 2006: especially Part 1, and (...)

11This hierarchy, however, does not end with the five senses comprising physical perception. Indeed, in the Christian and Catholic tradition the material senses are matched by corresponding spiritual ones: there exist earthly odors but also spiritual ones; there is a bodily and physical sense of smell, but also a spiritual one.22 When perfumes are involved, it is not always easy or possible to distinguish the borders between bodily and spiritual olfactive experience. This is true in part because the value of bodily aesthetic experience lies in its pointing toward its divine source and the development of the spiritual senses, as Dionysius the Areopagite argues in De Coelesti Hierarchia (5th century, caput I):

  • 23 Dionysius Areopagite 1894: 16.

For it is not possible for our mind to be raised to that immaterial representation and contemplation of the Heavenly Hierarchies, without using the material guidance suitable to itself, by counting the visible beauties as reflections of the invisible comeliness; and the sweet odours of the senses as emblems of the spiritual bounties; and the material light, as a likeliness of the gift of the immaterial enlightenment […].23

12The experiential path between sensual and spiritual smell can therefore be imagined as a bridge, a continuum, and this can make it quite difficult to distinguish the border between immanence and transcendence. In a passage likely invoking Paul, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, in his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (1259), describes the acquisition of the sense of spiritual smell as the result of the faithful soul’s yearning to master the Word:

  • 24 Bonaventure of Bagnoregio 2002: 17-18.

Therefore the soul, believing, hoping and loving Jesus Christ, […] it recovers its spiritual hearing and sight, hearing to perceive the sermons of Christ, sight to consider the splendors of His light. Moreover when by hope it longs to capture the inspired Word, through desire and affection it recovers its spiritual smell. While by charity it holds fast the incarnate Word, as one taking delight from Him and as one passing over into Him though ecstatic love, it recovers taste and touch. With which senses having been recovered, while it sees and listens to its spouse, it smells, tastes and embraces Him, as a bride can sing repeatedly the Canticle of Canticles, which had been written for the exercise of contemplation according to this fourth step, which no one lays hold of, except he who accepts it, because there is more in affectual experience than in rational consideration. For on this step, with its interior senses repaired to sense the Most High Beauty, to hear the Most High Harmony, to smell the Most High Fragrance, to take a taste of the Most High Savor […], the soul is disposed towards mental excesses, that is through devotion, admiration and exultation […].24

  • 25 It is interesting to note that, when describing the persistence of odors and tastes, Proust compare (...)

13Given this heuristic and aesthetic value of agreeable fragrances, it is not surprising that histories of conversion and other autobiographic writings sometimes mention them as features that provoke, or contribute to provoking, epiphanies or moments of sudden illumination. This evocative power of fragrances is often connected to the memory of the past (à la Proust),25 but it can also be related to spiritual experiences in which the subject is persuaded to reach a dimension that transcends ordinary space and time. A good example of this kind of epiphanic experience is provided in the epistolary novel Obermann by the French writer Senancour (first published in 1804):

  • 26 Senancour 1910: 101-102.

I passed some flowers set out on a wall breast-high. A single jonquil was in bloom. It is the strongest expression of desire, and it was the first fragrance of the year. I caught a glimpse of all the happiness meant for man. That indescribable harmony of creation, the vision of the ideal world, was rounded to completeness within me; I have never felt anything so sudden and inspiring. […] I cannot picture to myself that power, that vastness which nothing concrete can display; that form which nothing can reveal; that conception of a better world which may be felt, but never found in Nature; that heavenly radiance […].26

  • 27 James 1917: 467.

14In commenting on this passage in his masterpiece about religious experience, William James defines this kind of epiphany as “a transient lifting of the veil”.27 In Senancour, the first and most powerful stimulus leading to this ‘lifting’ is the fragrance of the flower, immediately associated with desire. Indeed, fragrance operates as a metonym, an indexical sign indicating the presence of an unattainable whole. It is likewise desire, and more specifically the longing to “capture the inspired Word”, that Bonaventure argues leads the believing soul to recover a sense of spiritual smelling. Both material and spiritual fragrances are therefore placed in a dynamic of desire, consistent with the role attributed to olfaction as a sense that can lead to spiritual knowledge, with the latter intrinsically related to a state of blissful pleasure. This dynamic can also be seen in the ritual practice of burning incense during Catholic mass: according to Catholic liturgy, the ascent of the fragrant fumes of the incense symbolizes the ascent of the faithfuls’ prayers to heaven and God. Prayers express the desire of a soul and its longing for communication with the deity; in light of the spiritual imagery connected to odors, therefore, climbing perfumed smoke is the best symbol to represent this desire and the praying soul’s connection to transcendence.

Fragrances of sanctity

15In Christian literature, there is a recurring metaphor comparing the soul of saintly persons to a flower which is humble in appearance but emanates a celestial fragrance. This topos, which casts fragrance as a sign of the spirit and places it above the vanitas of the beauty that strikes the eyes, is not only typical of Catholicism but can also be found in other Christian denominations. For instance, the prominent Puritan theologian and leader Jonathan Edwards wrote in the 18th century:

  • 28 Edwards 1999: 215.

The soul of a true Christian […] appeared like… a little white flower, as we see in the spring of the year; low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom, to receive the pleasant beams of the sun’s glory; rejoicing as it were, in a calm rapture; diffusing around a sweet fragrance, standing peacefully and lovingly, in the midst of other flowers round about […].28

16In the framework of Catholicism, this topos enjoyed particular popularity in the 20th century when the Church increasingly promoted an ideal of humble sanctity, one lived out in everyday life rather than through spectacular manifestations. Thus, for instance, in the discourse he delivered in French for the beatification of Frère Bénilde, Pius XII (1948) compared the simple and ordinary life of the blessed to the small violet, hidden in the grass and only perceivable through its fragrance. The use of flower fragrances as symbols of saintly virtues can also be found in Catholic liturgy:

  • 29 Cattaneo 1950: 1399, my translation.

According to the Catholic Church’s liturgical regulation, flowers must adorn the saints’ urns in the churches and the coffins during the funerals of children, to symbolize their purity. Flowers are therefore a sign of purity and innocence, which are represented especially by their fragrance, intense even though immaterial, like the spirit. Since they are the most beautiful part of the plant, in the Christian tradition flowers symbolize the most beautiful and elevated part of the human person: the flower represents the ‘charisma’, the spiritual gift that characterizes the saint.29

17These olfactory metaphors can be interpreted as particular formulations of the general and ancient idea that saintly figures diffuse the fragrance of God (see above). In the Catholic tradition, however, the idea that a pleasing fragrance emanates from the body of the saints exceeds simple rhetoric and is believed to constitute a perceptible phenomenon known as osmogenesis.

  • 30 Ponzo 2020.
  • 31 On which see Marchis 2006: 11-12.
  • 32 For instance, Qigong, which brings together traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts, Buddhism an (...)
  • 33 Ponzo 2020.

18As I have explained elsewhere,30 osmogenesis is a charisma (namely, a spiritual gift) consisting in the capacity of some saints to emanate a pleasant fragrance which can be perceived in their presence, but can also remain attached to their corpse, clothes, personal objects, and rooms after their death. In some cases, the faithful may also perceive this aroma while they are praying to ask for the saint’s intercession. The fragrances emanated by the saints are often flowery scents (for instance rose, violet, or carnation), but sometimes also myrrh, resin, and spices. Pio of Pietrelcina, Theresa of Avila, and Polycarp are some of the saints endowed with this charisma. On the contrary, saints such as Claire, Philip Neri, Bridget of Sweden, and Hilarion had the capacity to smell the stench of the sin committed by people nearby.31 This practice of associating deities, supernatural beings or individuals possessed of powerful spiritual qualities with the mysterious emanation of agreeable fragrances is common to many cultures; for instance, it can be found in Greek and Egyptian religion, as well as in oriental traditions.32 In these cases, the fragrance emanating from the holy person functions as a perceptible sign of their exceptional spiritual quality and, as I argue in a recent paper,33 it can thus be considered the olfactory correspondent of the aura or nimbus, that is, the visual representation of the spiritual halo surrounding the holy individual.

  • 34 Tiziano (1516-1518), Assunta, Venice, Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari; Poussin, L’assompti (...)
  • 35 Alzona 1977.
  • 36 For further reflection on Alzona 1977, see Ponzo 2019.
  • 37 Dostoevsky 2009.
  • 38 Süskind 1986.
  • 39 Rindisbacher 1992: 133.

19References to osmogenesis can be found not only in traditional hagiographic texts, such as the Golden Legend, and the individual accounts of the faithful, but also in sacred art and fictional literature. For instance, a visual reference to the flowery smell that is traditionally said to have accompanied the assumption of the Virgin can be found in both Tiziano and Poussin, who painted Mary’s empty coffin as strewn with roses.34 Roses, in this case, work as metonyms of the spiritual smell of the ascending Virgin. In literature, the novel Il ballo della sposa by Minnie Alzona,35 set during the so-called Crusade of the Children, describes the corpse of the child Eustace as giving off the perfume of violets, one of the fragrances most often associated with sanctity.36 In Dostoevsky, the smell of putrefaction emanating from the body of the monk Zosima is interpreted by his co-religionists as a sign that he is not a saint, while the absence of odor surrounding a young boy is conversely interpreted as a sign of sanctity.37 On the contrary, in Süskind’s Perfume, Grenouille’s nanny interprets his lack of odor as the sign of his diabolic nature;38 this reference alludes again to the topic of the purity of infancy, associated with the presence of a pleasant fragrance. In commenting on the multiple references to odors and death in Dostoevsky, Rindisbacher observes: “The odor of corruption, the irrefutable evidence of physical death presents a serious obstacle to a belief in transcendental existence – but in its immateriality simultaneously provides a hint at such an existence. Smell is the liminal marker, the metaphysical sense par excellence”.39

Spiritual imagery and contemporary fragrances

20Alongside literature and figurative art, there is a further aesthetic field that refers to the imagery that I have described above, namely contemporary perfumery. It is surprising how many middle- and high-end brands and products reference this imagery, starting from the names of the fragrances themselves; to mention just a few examples: Apparition by Emanuel Ungaro (2004); Incanto heaven by Salvatore Ferragamo (2007); Straight to Heaven by Kilian, created by Sidonie Lancesseur (2007), and in the same collection by Kilian (2007), A taste of heaven, created by Calice Becker and Sweet redemption, created by Calice Becker (2011).

21In many cases, the reference to the religious and spiritual sphere goes far beyond an evocative name to be developed in the verbal descriptions of the perfumes or their video advertising. An excellent instance of the first category – that of the verbal descriptions of fragrances explicitly referring to sacredness – is the case of the perfume creator Laura Bosetti Tonatto, who in 2015 launched a collection of fragrances inspired by the Bible. In an interview, she explains: “I have been studying the Bible, the Genesis, the Canticle of Canticles and the Gospels for more than twenty years: all these texts are rich in passages referring to olfaction, which is the most spiritual sense”.40 Among the fragrances of this collection, one called Incenso delle Chiese di Roma is inspired by the incense of Rome’s churches, since incense “stimulates meditation in all the cultures of the world and is a synonym for prayer” (ibidem); another fragrance, called Nardo della Maddalena, is inspired by the Canticle of Canticles, and a further fragrance draws inspiration from the theme of the Rosa mistica.

22Another interesting case is that of the brand Mendittorosa, founded in Italy in 2012. Its communication is rich in references to religion and spirituality, and indeed one of its collections is entitled “Odori d’anima”. Among the perfumes of the collection “Talisman”, there is Osang, which takes inspiration from the miracle of the melting of Saint Gennaro’s blood that, according to the tradition, takes place each year in Naples. The presentation of the perfume on the official website reads: “OSANG is inspired by this exceptional yearly miracle, a perfume of fluid beauty, the springing blood moving from inertia to a vibrating resurrection. A miracle of love. OSANG is a fragrant celebration of saints and superstitions […]”.41 The paratext surrounding Osang, therefore, seems to allude to the primordial connection between blood and spirit discussed above in relation to Le Guérer (1998) and Fontanille (2004).

23In other cases, the spirit and an immaterial dimension are evoked in the advertising videos for perfumes. A reference to this dimension appears in the videos for the fragrance Miracle by Lancôme. For instance, the 2007 commercial featuring the actress Diane Kruger shows an angelic woman dressed in white.42 She reaches the top of a building and looks down on the world from above. Her movements make the dark clouds move and become bright and, when she blows (and we know the symbolic importance of breath in relation to the spirit) a white light appears that then makes way for a bottle of the perfume. In the 2011 commercial with Uma Thurman, the protagonist walks through a sort of moor and passes through a thick curtain (which could symbolize the passage to a different, spiritual dimension).43 She thus finds herself in front of the rising sun, which she begins to contemplate. The ecstatic expression of her face, looking upward and strongly emphasized in the video, evokes the iconographic tradition of female mystics. The commercial for the masculine version of Miracle, featuring Mathieu Kassovitz (2009),44 also seems to allude to an out-of-body experience: the protagonist, who is walking in a field, blows (again) on a stalk of grass and the perspective of the viewer takes flight until it returns to the protagonist, this time on a bridge. The flight concludes with the sound of breath in one of the protagonist’s hands, raised in the foreground against the light of the sun.

24Flight is also found in the commercial for Parfum sacré by Caron, created by Erick Ifergan in 1991.45 The advertisement shows the silhouette of a woman flying, or rather floating in a golden setting evoking either a precious fabric (such as silk) or the sands of the desert. In this case, the body of the woman is deprived of its sensuality to become light and immaterial, ideal and spiritual, somehow reminiscent of the feminine figures of Mark Chagall. The 2014 fragrance Parfum divin by Caudalie, like Uma Thurman’s video advertisement for Miracle by Lancôme, features the motif of the curtain: this time, a young woman passes through a curtain formed of thin bamboo reeds and reaches the bottle of the perfume.46 The dominant color is violet, which many cultures associate with spirituality. Finally, the commercial for Anima by Rheyms (2019) displays a young woman and a young man surrounded by a dazzling white light. They reach the middle of a white corridor and, when they embrace each other, their bodies dissolve in white light, giving way to the bottle and a feminine voice pronouncing the word ‘Anima’.47

25Clearly, the rhetoric of these fragrances’ marketing makes a more or less implicit reference to an imagery based on an idea of spirit. It is not always possible to distinguish to which particular tradition these advertising discourses allude. For instance, while the reference is explicitly stated in Tonatto’s discourse, it becomes much more general in cases such as Rheyms and Caudalie, the discourses of which may also refer to the recent currents of spiritual movements through the use of generic and recurring topoi such as the curtain veiling and unveiling a different dimension, the ecstatic contemplation of something beyond, and the symbology of light and colors. In general, therefore, what appears to be most significant in all of these cases is that the perfume is presented as something which goes beyond sensuality to express and elevate the spirit, bringing the perfume consumers closer to immateriality, a transcendent dimension.

26The reference to the spiritual dimension in the discourse surrounding perfumes emphasizes and sublimates an aspect which is apparently common in the use of perfume:

  • 48 Mueller 2006: 809.

L’une des fonctions du parfum semble être celle d’accompagner et de protéger la personne qui le porte. Il peut également signaler un désir de nous rendre plus ‘visibles’ ou plus accessibles aux autres. Il accomplit en général ses deux fonctions simultanément dans des degrés qui varient d’un individu à l’autre. Les parfums semblent réagir sur nous comme des ‘objets’ invisibles, impalpables, esthétiques et volatiles. […L]es parfums nous permettent de nous projeter hors de nous-mêmes vers des ‘objets’ qui nous ravissent par leur promesse de nous rendre entiers, tout en nous dépouillant temporairement, de notre manque de confiance en nous-mêmes.48

  • 49 Greimas 1987.

27If we accept this interpretation, the reference to the anima, the spirit, and sacredness in the perfumes’ advertising becomes a particularly effective way to figuratively represent this desire to manifest one’s inner self and reach a longed-for dimension or object. As Greimas points out,49 not only is olfaction a “deep” sense allowing humans to communicate with the sacred, but in some cases, such as the Japanese tea ceremony and other ritual practices, olfactive appreciation constitutes what he calls an “introibo” (thus using terminology taken from Catholic liturgy), namely an expectation that delays and exalts the full revelation of the object, be it a cup of fragrant tea, a flower, or a person.


  • 50 See e.g. Caliò 2005: 650, regarding the apparition of the “Vergine della Rivelazione” at the Tre Fo (...)

28Even though psychoanalysis and some contemporary scholarship and culture place odors and olfaction at the core of bodily life, the parallel and antithetic trend of connecting odors to the sphere of sacredness, spirituality and immateriality is also widely diffused. In Western culture, this idea of olfaction as the most spiritual sense can be traced back to the Bible and Christianity, and is still alive in the Catholic cultural practice of attributing the charisma of osmogenesis to very recent and popular saints, such as Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, and relating miraculous and flowery perfumes to the sites of Marian apparitions.50 It is possible to hypothesize that, due to the spread of new religious and spiritual currents which also posit a connection between odor and spirit, this idea has been undergoing new developments and gaining further connotations in the present. The commercials for perfumes analyzed above, moreover, show that a secularized variant of this topos, sometimes partly and sometimes wholly independent from a circumscribed religious sphere, is currently widespread and commonly used by brands to advertise their fragrances. Therefore, even though its specificities change over time and across different cultural and religious traditions, the connection between fragrances and spirit surely remains a relevant esthetic value in relation to olfactory perception in contemporary culture.

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1 This paper is part of the project NeMoSanctI, which has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 757314).

2 In semiotic terms, ‘esthesic’ indicates “the affective and sensible component of experience” (Fabbri 2004: 11, my translation).

3 Boisson (1997) also observes that negative terms are more numerous and that neutral terms also tend to be interpreted in a negative light.

4 Kleiber, Villaume 2011.

5 Greimas 1987.

6 Le Guérer 1998, 1990, 2001, 2006, Mueller 2006.

7 Dupire 1987.

8 Coulon 2016.

9 Le Guérer 1998: chapter 5.

10 Ibidem: chapter 6.

11 Fontanille 2004: chapter 1.

12 This argument is reinforced by the reference to Le Guérer’s association between blood and perfume in religious cultures (Le Guérer 1998: chapter 6).

13 It is not my intention to extensively discuss this theory here but simply to note that, even though a connection between blood and perfume can be found in several cultures (in the Christian tradition, for instance, this connection may be symbolized in figurative art by representing stigmata as fragrant flowers, in particular roses, see e.g. the wooden statue of Christ in the Frauenkirche in Munich, Germany), this idea of spiritual fragrances as the perfume of life understood in its most bodily dynamics or vital functions should be thoroughly framed in specific cultural contexts and not considered a universal principle.

14 Leone 2013, Yelle 2016: 214.

15 Greimas 1987.

16 Messner 2020: 1166-1167.


18 To cite only a few examples: Ciravegna 2008, Tarantola 2006, Goso 2020.

19 For discussions of this subject, see Le Guérer 1998, Volli 2020.

20 Nadav 1992: 4.


22 Regarding the hierarchy of the senses and spiritual senses, see Lingua 2006: especially Part 1, and Gavrilyuk, Coakley 2012.

23 Dionysius Areopagite 1894: 16.

24 Bonaventure of Bagnoregio 2002: 17-18.

25 It is interesting to note that, when describing the persistence of odors and tastes, Proust compares them to immaterial souls lingering after death: “Mais, quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir” (Proust 1946-1947: 100).

26 Senancour 1910: 101-102.

27 James 1917: 467.

28 Edwards 1999: 215.

29 Cattaneo 1950: 1399, my translation.

30 Ponzo 2020.

31 On which see Marchis 2006: 11-12.

32 For instance, Qigong, which brings together traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts, Buddhism and Taoism, associates the spiritual presence of the masters with the fragrances of herbs and other pleasant smells and also presents a branch called “Fragrant qigong” because “when exercising, the person can notice a fragrant smell” (see and Ponzo 2020).

33 Ponzo 2020.

34 Tiziano (1516-1518), Assunta, Venice, Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari; Poussin, L’assomption de la Vièrge (1630-1632), Washington, National Gallery of Art. For a semiotic analysis of the visual representation of fragrance in Poussin’s work, see Macauda 2010.

35 Alzona 1977.

36 For further reflection on Alzona 1977, see Ponzo 2019.

37 Dostoevsky 2009.

38 Süskind 1986.

39 Rindisbacher 1992: 133.

40 See also:








48 Mueller 2006: 809.

49 Greimas 1987.

50 See e.g. Caliò 2005: 650, regarding the apparition of the “Vergine della Rivelazione” at the Tre Fontane in Rome in 1947.

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Jenny Ponzo, «The perfume and the spirit: from religion to perfumery»Rivista di estetica, 78 | 2021, 47-62.

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Jenny Ponzo, «The perfume and the spirit: from religion to perfumery»Rivista di estetica [Online], 78 | 2021, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 25 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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