When I was 16, my first vacation to Europe surprised me. But at the end of the trip for a long time to stay with me rather than the Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace or canals of Venice, but ordinary aspects of life: the locals take for granted the things: road marking and the color of the logo, posters, a local snack food in the shop window, and the place of the sound and the smell of the most important.
Saints have a smell. Well . . . some saints do. The odor of sanctity (Osmogenesia, or Odore di santità as the Italians say) is the opposite of odore di zolfo—the stench of death, sulfur. This odor of holiness comes in a variety of different forms. For some saints it is a smell that begins to exude from their body after death—often combined with incorruptibility, for others it is a sweet fragrance that they unexplainedly emit during their lifetime. And for some it is in the form of sweet smelling liquids that leak from the tomb housing the saint’s corporeal remains. One of the most striking stories of the odor of sanctity is that of St Simeon Stylites (died A.D. 459) who lived 37 years atop a pillar with his skin slowly rotting beneath the objects of mortification he wore. The saint was said to exude the smell of perfume. Tragically the pillar upon which he stood was destroyed by a missile in Aleppo in 2016.
So what does the odor of sanctity smell like? Virtually all cases describe it as sweet, with notes of honey, butter, roses, violets, frankincense, myrrh, pipe tobacco, jasmine, and lilies. It is also accompanied by a sense that the smell is otherworldly. In the 2nd Century, St Polycarp’s body, while burning at the stake, was said to fill the air with the smell of incense, and St Therese of Lisieux (her incorrupt corpse protected with a thin layer of wax is pictured above) smelled of roses, lilies, and violets. The wounds of stigmata are also said to emit a saintly odor.