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Incense-burner by Unknown Sabaen artist
English silver penny, Obverse: knot bust, with hand holding sprigby Unknown Anglo-Saxon artist
The Tabernacle of Moses from the Codex Amiatinus by Unknown English artist

Unknown Sabaen artist

Incense-burner, 2nd century BCE–1st century BCE, Limestone, 9.5 x 10 cm, The British Museum, London, 1915,0710.6, Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

Unknown Anglo-Saxon artist

English silver penny, Obverse: knot bust, with hand holding sprig, 720–40, Silver, 12.13 x 12.38 mm; Weight: 1.05g, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, CM.1807-2007, © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge / Art Resource, NY

Unknown English artist

The Tabernacle of Moses, from the Codex Amiatinus , Before 716, Illumination on parchment, 500 x 335 mm, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, MS Amiatino 1, fol. 2v–3r, By permission of the Ministry of Culture

Let my Prayer be Counted as Incense

Comparative Commentary by

In the eighth-century text, the Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, the Northumbrian Benedictine monk, the Venerable Bede (672/3–735) tells us how in 716 Abbot Ceolfrid made a fateful journey to Rome to present the Codex Amiatinus ‘to the body of the venerable Peter ... head of the Church’ (f.1v; see O’Reilly 2009, Farmer 1965). Before setting off he kindled incense and prayed at the altar before giving his brethren a kiss of peace, ‘thurible in hand’: a pious ritual before his last farewell, as a supplication of divine comfort to his tearful community, and as a linkage to shared ancient worship customs.

The Codex Amiatinus is one of three complete Latin Bibles made in Northumbria: one for each of the twin monasteries, and one intended as a gift to the Pope in Rome—the only one to have survived intact, though ‘hijacked’ to a monastery in the Apennines, as Ceolfrid died en route. It is extraordinary not only in its dimensions (it weighs 34 kg!), but as one of the major Anglo-Saxon intellectual achievements. Its text preserves the most faithful edition of St Jerome’s new Latin translation of the Bible, and the artistic and calligraphic standards are such that until the end of the nineteenth century the Codex was believed to have been sixth-century Italian work.

Bede himself was most probably one of the contributors to the Codex. Some years later, he wrote a commentary on the Tabernacle based on the book of Exodus (24:12–30:31), discussing it allegorically and didactically. There we find a clue for the labelling ‘ALTAR THYM’ in the illumination: it is the abbreviated Greek term for incense (incensum sive thymiama). Incense, Bede tells us, represents prayer, to be offered morning and evening, whilst the Altar of Incense, placed in front of the curtain in the Sanctuary, is seen to signify Christ himself—‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1:14)—as mediator between God and humankind. This is a pointer to why in the Codex illumination the golden Altar is positioned centrally within the Tabernacle.

Much of the language of the Bible is concerned with imagery derived from nature, and with the fragrances that permeate the Holy Land. Plants symbolize life, growth, abundance, regeneration, and are the subject of many parables. Aromatics such as hyssop were prescribed for cultic purposes and personal cleanliness, while incense is mentioned 170 times. The humble incense burner from Yemen reminds us of the widespread use of aromatic substances in sacrificial practices, but also of their economic importance, and of the complex networks of commerce and cultural contacts that spices engendered.

Incense seems to have been particularly special to Bede: on his deathbed, he distributed his ‘treasures’ amongst his close friends: incense and peppercorns, aromatic tokens from the Holy Land. To him, their smell would have conjured the sacred landscape of the hallowed places about which he so often wrote—a prefiguration of Paradise.

In Anglo-Saxon medicine and belief, knowledge of the virtues and healing powers of native plants was steeped in ancient tradition; in art, however, vegetation motifs were a later, sophisticated import from the Mediterranean world, allusive to Christian ideas and culture.

The coin examined is a case in point: it is roughly contemporary with the Codex Amiatinus and just as innovative and intellectually ambitious. Its imagery, above and beyond the primary impression of pure sensory delight in the sweet scent of a plant, emphasizes the religious importance of the sense of smell as a gateway to human–divine relationship and invites an expansion of our olfactory imagination. It alerts us to the fact that, as with incense, we are in truth smelling salvation. It is one of a thematically interconnected group of five coins. Each illustrates one of the bodily senses and the way it opens access to the experience of God, and each offers a meditation on the transubstantiation of sensory material into the sacred immaterial.

Through burning, incense changes its materiality, becoming a fragrant smoke travelling heavenward to God. Likewise, it transforms our longing into prayers, bringing them to His presence. Through incense, believers’ olfactory experiences and practices are elevated to a sacred sphere transcending time and space, and spanning the practices of different faiths.

 

References

Ashbrook Harvey, Susan. 2006. Scenting Salvation. Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Farmer, D. H. (ed.). 1965. The Age of Bede (London: Penguin)

Holder, Arthur G. (trans.). 1994. Bede: On the Tabernacle, Translated Texts for Historians, 18 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press)

Marsden, Richard. 2011. ‘Amiatinus in Italy: The Afterlife of an Anglo-Saxon Book’, in Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent, ed. by Hans Sauer Joanna Story (Tempe, Arizona: ACMRS), pp. 217–43

O’Reilly, Jennifer. 2009. ‘‘All that Peter Stands For’: The Romanitas of the Codex Amiatinus Reconsidered’, in Anglo-Saxon/Irish Relations Before the Vikings, ed. by James Graham-Campbell and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Oxford University Press)