Twelve Smells of Christmas – Day Eight: Wholly Myrrh

Most of the incense scents out there have a habit of replicating the experience of being in church for many of us, but some of them have a habit of reproducing particular churches at particular times.

Now, a disclaimer-  for a Protestant, I have a very long experience of Catholic churches. Part of it came from growing up in Rome, and part of it came from having a high church mother who eventually converted to Catholicism: result of such equation, one Protestant with a Catholic education.

To me, myrrh is the smell of St. Peter’s Basilica. I went there on a number of occasions to see services- invariably long and impressive- due to the gigantic size of everything in St. Peter’s, a church designed for titans if ever one was. I was in the habit of staring at the huge canopy over the altar on its twisting black and gold columns just to bring the whole cyclopean pile down to the human dimension, only to find of course that the canopy itself was enormous, a sunshade for Gargantua.

The smell floating about on the air was incense and frequently a mixture of frankincense and myrrh.  Primarily myrrh sticks in my memory. Frankincense I associate with Vanilla Tonka, but myrrh is always St. Peter’s.  This has made wearing the resin tricky for me, it smells so ecclesiastical.  I keep looking around me for the altar boys and lo and behold they’re me.

In order to avoid an impression of holier-than-thou-ness in  such a secular thing as a perfume, I look for out of the way ingredients.  One such element is vanilla, and for a time I played happily with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s Coeur de Vanille. That contained so much vanilla that the myrrh was effectively over run by its hedonistic neighbor, but myrrh hangs in there as grim as sackcloth and ashes.  The vanilla invariably ran out long before the incense did.

More successful was my long collaboration with Keiko Mecheri’s Myrrh et Merveilles.  That partnered the myrrh with aldehydes.  M&M was actually by way of being a variation on Serge Lutens La Myrrhe which was not in the export line, and was not therefore available in the US.  I liked it and wore it for a year or so until once again the medicinal bitterness of the myrrh wore through the charm of the perfume like a nagging partner wears through the charm of cohabitation.  It was time for a divorce, and I haven’t found a myrrh based scent since that does not end up in bitterness and regret. That is, the bitterness of the myrrh on my skin, and my regret, wholly sincere, that I parted with so much money in order to buy it in the first place.

ON my last trip to NYC though I did try out the real La Myrrhe and it was a very refined version of myrrh indeed.  It almost convinced me that I could wear incense. That perfume wore its religious convictions so lightly, it reminded me of the conversation of  an old cardinal with whom my father lunched sometimes.  A more urbane man never existed, and I have no idea to this day if he was a believing Catholic. Talking to him you would never have known, or been able to hazard a guess what he actually believed about anything, that’s the result of a proper Jesuitical education.

And so it is with La Myrrhe, which is the result of a proper Serge Lutens composition, brilliantly orchestrated opacity, something there which isn’t there – a solid illusion.

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10 thoughts on “Twelve Smells of Christmas – Day Eight: Wholly Myrrh

  1. Having spent a marvelous day with you, it is the perfect coda to the evening to read this marvelous post by you. Thank you so much, my friend. <3

    "I keep looking around me for the altar boys and lo and behold they’re me." This made me laugh, but…. "I haven’t found a myrrh based scent since that does not end up in bitterness and regret"– this made me doff my cap.

    I have a vial of pure myrrh essence that my mother brought back to me from the Bermuda Perfumery. She and I no longer speak — it's a long, long, long story — but when I pull it out and smell it, I am reminded that the word myrrh means “bitter”. And yet it is so sweet. My heart suffers a pang every time– that is the bitterness, not the scent itself. Strange.

    • Well ditto, I had a wonderful time and I bet Barbara did too. By the way, such treasures of decants! I really should have said at the time. Amour Amour even! However, I spent the entire day with Piment Brulant, and it was wonderfully coquettish, and such fun to wear. Pure fun.
      Myrrh does always end up bitterly and I’m sorry to hear that this is a reminder of family estrangement, there really is nothing so paradoxical as the sweetness/bitterness of myrrh on skin though perhaps it is like the sometimes bitter relations between Mothers and Daughters.

        • How timely and appropriate! The perfume gods/goddesses must have placed it in our path!

          Did you get my email re: the antique store perfume haul? I’m so excited! Read it & reply when you get a chance– I’m prepared at a moment’s notice to go and win you the prize of your choice!

  2. (Antique store perfume haul: so. jealous.)

    And lovely writing. Yes. Nearly as lovely as La Myrrhe itself, which I always think of as being like a pink-and-gold sunrise on blue-shadowed snow.

    It’s odd, I don’t really remember St Peter’s smelling of anything. We’d just had a loooong walk through the Vatican art collections, whooshing past priceless pieces on our way to the Sistine Chapel, because we Just Did Not Have Time To See Everything… so I might have possibly been so distracted. And my feet may or may not have been hurting.

    But I recently tried DSH Twelfth Night, which immediately reminded me of St Paul’s in Mdina, on Malta (which we visited just before going to Rome). I don’t know why, of all the two and a half dozen churches we entered on that trip, only that one had a scent that impressed me. But there it is: it smelled old as well as sacred. DSH Cathedral, despite the name, smells less like that church than Twelfth Night.

    • Thank you kindly Mals, coming from toi meme, that is a real compliment.
      Twelfth Night! Yes that was one of Dawn’s best holiday scents. Had forgotten about it, but you are right, it smelled more like churches than Cathedral, which smelled musty to me-maybe it smells like old incense? Incense long since burned? Would that explain the Malta church?
      St. Peters mostly smelled during services, because they would go around swinging incence. That is where I get my association, watching one of those v. long Easter services, and then a couple of ordinations.
      Having tramped through the V. Museum many times, I know what you mean about your feet. It could be dangerous too, once my Mother was nearly crushed in a Sistine Chapel pile up. Too many tourists with bad translators, and no crowd control back then.

      • Ah. There was no service going on in St. Peter’s when we visited. There were people there, but it’s so BIG that it seemed empty.

        I think you’re right about St Paul’s on Malta smelling of incense long since burned or something – a lot of the place was wooden, and the wood must soak up the incense in a way that marble would not. Oh, and fabric hangings! Lots of those in that church, and I suppose they too would continue to hold incense.

        • You description reminds me of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Have you ever been? Very dark and old and full of the scent of burned out candles.

  3. Pingback: Myrrh-myrrhing | aperfumeblog by Blacknall Allen

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