You See More with an Olfactory Gaze: the Fragrant Dimensions of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Van Eyck (1430 -1432)

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Twenty years after seeing an image of ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ by Van Eyck as a first year art history student, I finally went to see it on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon. I must admit I held my breath when I distinguished the first contours of the immense tryptic in the St Baafs Church (an extremely mouldy and damp place, not exactly a solemn atmosphere). But I did much more than just looking in order to perceive it better.

Using the whole body

It is impossible to experience its impact on a projected image, while passively sitting on a chair. Its colours are so much more vibrant, the details so much more vivid and visible. And the altar piece requires you to move. It is so huge you need to move your head almost 180 degrees from left to right, and 90 degrees up and down, and since the back is also adorned with depictions you need to do a small procession all around it. This renders the piece a kind of agency and a physical attention as it demands a dynamic effort by the viewer.


The Olfactory Gaze

A few years after my first encounter I became interested in scent and olfactory history. I never consciously thought of the altar piece again. But when I saw it in all its majesty yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice the many fragrant allusions.


  1. In the lower middle panel, right in front of the bleeding Lamb, there are two angels with incense vessels or censers. In the audio tour it said this was meant to ‘honour Christ’. But I know now it’s bit more complicated than that. Sweet and fragrant substances were literally, in the nose of the medieval beholder, a means of communication to God. They did not symbolize prayer, they WERE a fragrant descending prayer in themselves, in a more direct and suitable language than spoken and written words (and not the other way around, as many authors often claim).lam gods wierook 2
  2. Any offering to God in the Bible, is always a burnt offering, no matter if they are animals, or fragrant resins. Only when smoke rises ‘per fumum’, it can reach the nostrils of the divine being (beings in ancient cultures). Smoke transcends the material into immaterial matter and ‘pleases God’. That is why Noah immediately burnt frankincense and myrrh when he found drylands and why Christ was offered fragrant resins by the wise men. Christ himself was the highest burnt (fragrant) offering imaginable. The lamb on the altar signifies this fragrant sacrifice.


  1. In the garden in the middle panel – a depiction of Paradise or the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were expelled – there are at least 70 kinds of plants, fruit trees and flowers. What is very striking is that many of the flowers are and were used by perfumers (priests were the first perfumers, composing perfumes for burnt offerings). In their aromatic and colourful dimension, flowers were thought to give of constant prayers (see point 1). Again, the scent itself was thought to carry meaning, not just to symbolize it. To the right in the lower middle panel, there are irises and lilies. Not just beautiful to look at, but exuding extremely strong perfumes.

Iris en lelie lam gods 2

  1. Hardly distinguishable, in the panel directly next to the garden, on the lower right, there is a procession of people dressed in faint colours. At the back, there is a woman carrying an ointment jar. This must be Mary of Betthany or Mary of Magdalen. The oil in her jar was called ‘spikenard’:

lam gods nardus

“Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”

This paragraph, taken from the gospel by John, meant that Mary acknowledged Jesus as a spiritual and worldly leader. Spikenard was only  reserved for kings, high priests and pharaohs, being very expensive coming all the way from the Himalayas. She must have spent a year’s income on the jar, indicating her wealth. But it also signified something else. Feet were usually only anointed when the person they belonged to was already deceased. She forecasted not only his upcoming sanctity, but also his death. The jar in Mary’s hands is a visual reminder of a olfactory layer in a usually textually narrated story.

This olfactory way of looking at a famous visual piece of art, made it a much more rich, sensory experience; one that made a huge impression on me that I presume will stay with me even longer than 20 years from now.

Dancing scent and aromatizing movement


In fin-de-siecle poetry one can find many descriptions of scents in flux or movement. For example in Comtesse de Noaille’s poems:


“Sur ta chair le parfum rôde

Comme autour d’un encensoir”


This roughly translates as: “On your body, perfumes rise, like around an incense burner”

Robert de Monstesquiou – also known as Professeur de Beauté – described a scent impression in a similar manner


“N’ oublions pas la suave invocation des parfums,

dont les moites brumes, les bleuissantes

spirales, s’ etirent et se bouclent au-dessus de la

priere pour tous”


Montesquiou speaks of ‘spiraling’ scents that expand and lift up, like a fragrant prayer. These movements definitely enhance the bodily and sensual, even erotic, aspects of scent experiences through words. The authors seem to describe the fumes of odorants that are diffused ‘per fumum’, meaning, through smoke, in a time when incense burners were still very common. Smoke of course rises, changes, expands, and moves in spirals toward the sky (which made ancient people believe it was an excellent means to communicate to the gods).

The Futurists are the only artists I came across that kept using movement-terms to put their finger on the fleeting and ephemeral nature of scents, when incense burners had already become somewhat out of fashion.

In ‘Ritratto olfattivo di una donna’ (1932, ‘Olfactory portrait of a woman’) F.T. Marinetti narrated his frantic search for a woman in a modern city, filled with the fumes of carbon, smoke and fire. But he catches a whiff of her nevertheless. ‘Do not look at her, sniff her’, he wrote in uppercase, as if he tried to educate the nostrils of his readership.

And then one of the most poetic yet concrete description of all the smell trails (sillage) one person could possibly ‘produce’ followed:


 this soft

most agile egg shaped

volume of fresh red perfumes

with on top

3  6  nine spirals of scents of vanilla”

“To the left and to the right globally on the head

moving arches of odor

milky and most fresh

of acacia”

 I could go one like this even longer. But I won’t. It just made me wonder: Isn’t movement an excellent and realistic way to describe scent impressions? Don’t scents always leave an invisible yet dynamic trail? If we could visualize the behavior of odorants, it would be a ballet of appearing and dissolving shapes. Volatile citric notes would move in a fast and upward manner. Heavy basenotes would linger longer and lower to the floor.

During the scent hackaton at Mediamatic, organized by Saskia Wilson Brown (Institute of Art & Olfaction) and Klara Ravat (Smell Lab), (and just a litte help from me) the audience (odience…) was asked to describe 25 hard to classify scents, kindly provided by IFF. After about 12 rounds of labelling them (in which almost everyone kept mentioning sources or memories), we decided to turn to cross-modality and synesthetic language.

Something incredibly interesting started happening when we asked people to express the scents through gestures, shapes and movements.

People didn’t hesitate to make the most expressionistic movements with their fingers, hands, arms and sometimes even entire bodies. Although sometimes there seemed to be a bit of consensus (very horizontally oriented movements, or very firm, or more ethereal gestures), most of the time there wasn’t. But should this really matter? Smells and experience are very closely related. Kant deemed smells unaesthetic because he was convinced it was impossible to ponder on their nature (just on the subjective experience they trigger). I personally feel it is more interesting to study and describe the personal reaction to smell than its static ‘objective’ nature. At least that way we can express to others what goes on inside our brains and bodies when we try to classify the hardly classifiable.

At the end of the two days four participants engaged in a dance in order to communicate a smell in a non-traditional way. They each expressed one ingredient of the perfume they made from the IFF materials. It was silent, yet it spoke a thousand words, and those present were observing in absolute silence (even though we were quite noisy the rest of the time).

One dancer made very outward movements, another one more inward. Someone hugged herself (base note?), another one raised his arms to the sky (top note?). After a few minutes their movements started to synchronize and they walked in a circle. They now embodied the perfume they made as a synthesis. I had no idea what it was supposed to smell like just by looking. But I was ‘moved’, while sitting there quietly and immobile. Movement enables us to express an emotion. In fact, a whole set of emotions. Because that is what perfumes do. They tell an entire story.

the dance was performed by

Boris Raux/ Anna d’Errico/ Sonja Tobé/ Nenad Popov