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  • Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination
  • Wendy Mayer
Susan Ashbrook Harvey Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination Transformation of the Classical Heritage 42 Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006 Pp. xviii + 421. $45.

Widely known for her work on asceticism and the Syrian orient, Susan Ashbrook Harvey branches out in this book into a not unrelated field—odors and the role of olfaction in the late antique Christian imagination. The study of smells, good and bad, not only complements recent work on other types of sensory perception, part of a wider focus on the body in cultural studies, but also nuances our understanding of late antique asceticism. The "anti-sensory rhetoric of asceticism cannot adequately be assessed apart from its larger context," she tells us, an important aspect of which is the "sensorily engaging experience of the late antique liturgy" (197). From this overarching premise the structure of the book unfolds.

Chapter 1 surveys the cultural context from which Christian olfactory thought [End Page 574] and practice emerged with particular emphasis on the Greco-Roman and Jewish settings. Here Harvey highlights the comparatively austere olfactory piety of early Christian communities and establishes the importance of biblical tropes for providing paradigms influential in the development of Christian olfactory understanding (e.g., incense as the marker of sacrifice and perfume as the marker of divine presence). Chapter 2 maps the change post-Constantine from austerity to the rich use of fragrant oils and incense within Christian ritual. Theological teaching on the incarnation of the divine and on the order of creation are considered in relation to this new sensory experience along with the role ritual now played in redefining the human body. Chapter 3 argues for the emergence post-Constantine of a Christian consensus that the body yielded knowledge of God in its received olfactory experiences and enacted responses. One of the most important significations accorded smell lay in its capacity to reveal identity. This Harvey explores via the second of two epistemological approaches (cultural habit and scientific inquiry), showing how theological and biblical resources were used to nuance older scientific analyses of olfaction. Chapter 4 explores ascetic rhetoric of the senses (including the "spiritual senses") used to train the Christian in the proper use and appropriate location of sensory experience. The resulting intersection of ascetic discipline, devotional piety, and liturgical community is explored via case studies of the two stylite Simeons. Chapter 5 examines the unsettling nature of ascetic discipline and its violation of both the inherited system of olfactory codes and the system constructed through Christian ritual and teaching. Here the paradoxical notion of holy stench is examined, largely in the Syrian context, for its challenge to inherited meanings concerning moral condition. In Chapter 6 Harvey moves from holy stench to eschatology, completing her study of olfaction by turning to consideration of the resurrected body.

One of the many values of this book lies in the careful delineation of the non-Christian context (religious and scientific) from within which Christian teaching on olfaction emerged. A second lies in the breadth of material that its author surveys. With the exception of Chapter 4 (and to some extent Chapter 5) evidence is drawn from both east and west; and the full trajectory of Christian thought regarding the intersection between olfaction, the body, liturgy, and the ascetic life is traced through to the beginning of the fifth century. Chapters 4 and 5 lean more heavily towards the Syrian context, which is richly treated. The geographical breadth of the rest of the book, however, leaves one wishing that the author had broadened her study in those chapters, too, so that the reader is left with a better understanding of the extent to which Syrian developments deviated from elsewhere in the east and from the west, especially since Chapters 4 and 5 are the key chapters on asceticism. Chapters 5 and 6 are also noticeably short in comparison to the four chapters which precede them, and again one wishes that the topics of holy stench and eschatology had been pursued just a little further. As it stands, however, this book breaks important new ground, challenging us...


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pp. 574-576
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