The Meaning behind the Fragrant Gifts to Christ, By Caro Verbeek, scent historian
When we see a painting of three lavishly dressed men holding chalices in front of a new-born child sitting on the lap of his mother, we are bound to recognise the so called ‘Nativity scene’ which tells the story of Christ’s birth in a stable. And many of us will remember the nature of the gifts bestowed upon the infant by three kings: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But have you ever wondered why two of the three rulers offered fragrant substances?
To better understand this we have to travel back in time thousands of years and dive into a practice called ‘burnt offering’.
In antiquity resins such as frankincense (from the Boswellia shrub) were burnt ‘per fumum’ (Latin for ‘through smoke’) to make its fragrant emanations reach the nostrils of divine beings. The transformation of a substance into something immaterial (smoke) added to the belief that smells were a perfect means to communicate to the gods.
Because of their economic and spiritual value, resins such as frankincense and myrrh were reserved to gods and kings only and came to signify high status.
Every contemporary viewer of this painting by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (ca. 1485) would have understood that the Biblical royals symbolically acknowledged the divine and profane superiority of Christ; a meaning that got lost somewhere over the past centuries.
And so did the meaning and aromatic quality of one of the scents: myrrh.
We all must have read the word a thousand times, but who knows what it smells of?
This particular gold coloured resin – a substance from the Commiphora tree that ‘bleeds’ myrrh tears after its bark is cut – literally means ‘bitter’. And that is exactly what it (still) smells of. It resembles laurel and liquorice, but it is slightly richer, warmer and sharper, with sweet balsamic undertones. It is this bitter quality that added to the meaning of this particular Christmas gift: it was prophetic. It signified the future ‘bitter’ suffering of Christ.
Fragrant Facts about Frankincense & Myrrh:
- Frankincense is derived from the French term ‘franc encense’ meaning ‘true incense’. ‘Encens’ refers to the act of fumigation/ fire.
- The Dutch term ‘wierook’ (frankincense) means ‘holy smoke’.
- Unesco protects Oman’s endangered ‘Land of Frankincense’.
- Pliny the Elder wrote that shipping frankincense made the land of Arabia the richest region in the world.
- Hatshepsut (1507 -1458 BC) — the only female Pharaoh that ever reigned – made the wise decision to not just import frankincense and myrrh from the ‘Land of Punt’, but the entire trees. These would have to provide in the need for daily burnt offerings (3 times a day!)
- The Bible doesn’t mention which King brought which gift or what their names were. But on paintings it’s always the European king (Melchior) offering gold, and the Asian (Caspar) and African (Balthasar, who was depicted dark skinned after the 1400’s) kings offering frankincense and myrrh, which were only available through import in the region where Christ was born. Myrrh probably came from what is now known as Ethiopia.