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.
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)
30 “You shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of acacia wood shall you make it. 2A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth; it shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height; its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3And you shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides round about and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold round about. 4And two golden rings shall you make for it; under its molding on two opposite sides of it shall you make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. 5You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 6And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with you. 7And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. 9You shall offer no unholy incense thereon, nor burnt offering, nor cereal offering; and you shall pour no libation thereon. 10Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year; with the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations; it is most holy to the Lord.”
11 The Lord said to Moses, 12“When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. 13Each who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. 14Every one who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. 15The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for yourselves. 16And you shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting; that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for yourselves.”
17 The Lord said to Moses, 18“You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base of bronze, for washing. And you shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, 19with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, lest they die. 21They shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die: it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his descendants throughout their generations.”
22 Moreover, the Lord said to Moses, 23“Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred and fifty, and of aromatic cane two hundred and fifty, 24and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin; 25and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; a holy anointing oil it shall be. 26And you shall anoint with it the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, 27and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils and the laver and its base; 29you shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. 30And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 31And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32It shall not be poured upon the bodies of ordinary men, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an outsider shall be cut off from his people.’ ”
34 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), 35and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; 36and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. 37And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord. 38Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”