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.