Transcript Smelling Time Episode 1

You can buy a smell sample for this podcast episode here. It will be sent in de mail internationally.

Caro Verbeek We might think that museums of visual art are all about seeing things. There are lights, there are pedestals, everything to enhance our sense of sight. But the stories and objects in museums are actually part of multisensory realities and often about something completely invisible, and that is smell. Therefore, today, we’ll take you on a virtual tour through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And instead of just paying attention to what is depicted right now, we’ll pay attention to a story that is all about smell. So come with me on this aromatic odyssey.

Now, think about these gifts. Two out of the three gifts are actually scents: frankincense and myrrh. Why did these men bring these particular scents to a newborn child? Well, we need to go back to ancient Egypt if we want to understand this. Frankincense and myrrh were meant as burnt offerings to pay honor to kings and gods. Tree resins, which are very fragrant, were burnt, so the fragrant smoke would rise up to the gods up above. This manner of diffusing scent was called ‘per fumum’ meaning ‘through smoke’. So we now understand where our word perfume comes from. The smoke was supposed to reach the nostrils of divine beings. Every contemporary viewer of this painting would have understood that by offering these fragrances, these royals’ symbolically acknowledged the divine and profane superiority of Christ. He was the king of kings, so to say. 

But this meaning of the fragrant gifts now got lost somewhere over the past centuries. And so did the meaning of one of those scents, which is myrrh. You probably all know frankincense. You’ve smelled it in churches even if you’re not Catholic, as a tourist or if you are interested in architecture. But how about that other substance, myrrh? It’s actually on the sample that we sent you if you have purchased a ticket. And otherwise, try to imagine it because I’ll describe it to you.

Inhale deeply and use both nostrils because they both smell something different, actually also try to inhale it like a dog with short breaths like this (sound of sniffing). And now try to describe it in terms of taste, it’s a bit sweet, but it’s mostly bitter and this is the literal meaning of the word myrrh. It’s also a bit like licorice, a bit like laurel. Many describe it as medicinal. It has this sharp quality to it. But what is so interesting about this quality, this property, is that it actually signifies what it meant because the bitterness of this resin was considered prophetic. It referred to the future suffering of Christ, whereas the sweet frankincense referred to his divinity.

This means that sensory engagement can actually lead to a better understanding of past rituals. Smelling can really stir your imagination and yield historical sensations as if we are present in the past. So my message today: remember, you see more when you smell this was Caro Verbeek curator, educator and art and sent historian and I research and reconstruct lost smells.

The Smelling Time podcast was created for the podcast festival in 2020, by the Dutch Podcastnetwerk and a scent historian Caro Verbeek. With help from International Flavors and Fragrances who provided the smells and Hay Kraanen programmed, not composed, the tune. The other episodes can be found at