Transcript Smelling Time Episode 3

Caro Verbeek We might think art history is all about seeing, but many of the stories surrounding famous works of art are actually part of a much more sensory reality and often about something completely invisible. And that is smell. So today we’ll take you on an aromatic odyssey.

We are going to virtually walk around in the beautiful Italian city of Rome and we will hide from the intense heat in the coolness of a church very near the central station, Termini. And that church is called Santa Maria Della Vittoria. We enter and in the back, left from us, we see a marble sculpture and it is extraordinary: it is a floating figure of a woman. Her mouth is slightly open, her eyes are closed, her head is tilted, and she looks as though she’s in some sort of agony or experiencing extreme pleasure. It’s unclear. Her clothes are flowing as though lifted by the wind, swirling and there’s one bare foot pointing to the floor. There are rays of golden beams all directed towards her from the ceiling. There’s an angel standing beside her lifting her dress and actually exposing her bosom, but only to himself, not to us, the viewers. He’s also pointing an arrow at our heart. 

We are looking at the ecstasy of Teresa d’Avila by Bernini made around 1615. This depicted story is based on a vision that Teresa d’Avila had and even wrote down. And she wrote the following:

“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold and at the iron point, there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails when he drew it out. He seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan. And yet so surprising was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

You can understand how this was often explained as an orgasm, but according to Teresa, it was purely spiritual, yet manifested in a bodily manner. While this sculpture might be odorless, Teresa was famous for her so-called odor of sanctity. The moment she died in 1582, her bedside attendants claimed the room filled with the scent of roses that emanated through the whole building and her grave supposedly held the scent of roses for eight months. Even before she died, she had held a salt vessel in the kitchen and it kept smelling sweet. 

During her lifetime, people all over Europe travelled to her convent in Spain to be a nose witness of her divine scent. Everyone knew and felt just by inhaling that Teresa was a saint of the highest order. This had to do with the ancient conviction that God and the devil were thought to manifest themselves through scent: sweetness for God and putridity and sulfur for the devil. Only those with the purest souls obtained by an ascetic lifestyle, not eating, not drinking, praying all the time…only those people could overcome their bodily physical state after death and keep smelling sweet instead of putrid.

Although it might not smell pleasant to us today, you have to remember that the evaluation of scents depends almost completely on context. So in the Middle Ages, sweetness was rare and a sign of divinity. Since these people did not know nail polish remover, they compared this scent to what they did know: sweet flowers such as roses. But every time I smell nail polish or spray paint, I think of Teresa. History is full of interesting but lost smells that really open up different perspectives. So remember, you see more when you smell. This was Caro Verbeek curator of art and scent historians and I research and recreate lost smells.

There is a contemporary explanation for the odor of sanctity, and that is diabetes, also called sugar disease in Dutch. Ketosis is a process of burning essential fats, and when this happens, persons start exuding a very sweet breath. The breath was thought to be the location the soul resided. So people exuding this smell might have suffered from diabetes which smells very much like acetone. So something we all have in our houses, for example, as nail polish remover.

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