Sensing Divinity, colloque international, Rome, 23-24 juin 2017
Sensing Divinity/Les sens du rite. Incense, Religion and the Ancient Sensorium
An international, interdisciplinary conference
23-24 June 2017, British School at Rome and the École française de Rome
Organisers: Mark Bradley (University of Nottingham), Béatrice Caseau (Université Paris Sorbonne – Paris IV), Adeline Grand-Clément (Toulouse Jean-Jaurès/IUF), Anne-Caroline Rendu-Loisel (Toulouse Jean Jaurès), Alexandre Vincent (University of Poitiers)
Inscription (gratuite) obligatoire avant le 14 Juin 2017
This conference will explore the history of a medium that has occupied a pivotal role in Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian religious tradition, namely incense. According to Margaret E. Kenna in her provocative 2005 article ‘Why does incense smell religious?’, this aromatic substance became a diagnostic feature of Greek orthodoxy during the Byzantine period, but it is clear that incense was also extensively used in the rituals of earlier polytheistic societies to honour the gods. Fragrant smoke drifting up towards the heavens emblematized the communication that was established between the mortal and the immortal realms, and which helped to define the sensory landscape of the sanctuary.
Although several studies have drawn attention to the role of incense as an ingredient in ritual and a means of communication between men and gods, there remains no comprehensive examination of the practical functions and cultural semantics of incense in the ancient world, whether as a purifying agent, a performative sign of a transcendent world, an olfactory signal to summon the deity, a placatory libation, or food for the gods. Moreover, recent archaeological research has provided evidence (alongside literary, epigraphic and iconographic evidence) that the physical origins and chemical constituents of incense are complex and diverse, as are their properties: resins, vegetable gums, spices, and a welter of aromatic products that could be paraded, ignited and experienced within the religious domain.
This conference sets out to compare approaches across a range of disciplines (archaeology, anthropology, history, philology, art history, church history) in order to examine the role and significance of incense in ancient religion, and compare it to later aromatic practices within the Catholic Church. By adopting this cross-disciplinary and comparative approach, we hope to move beyond a universalist approach to religious aromatics and reach a more sophisticated understanding of the religious function of incense in the Mediterranean world: we hope to identify continuities in both the practice and interpretation of incense, as well as to identify specific features within individual historical contexts and traditions.
During the two days of the conference, incense will be approached as a historical phenomenon. We will interrogate its materiality, provenance and production, as well as the economic and commercial aspects of the incense trade. The conference will also examine the mechanics of incense use and the various ways it was integrated into various Mediterranean rituals (following the lines of enquiry set out by N. Massar and D. Frère), as well as its role within religious topography. The properties associated with the term ‘incense’ will be evaluated in the context of work by M. Detienne on The Gardens of Adonis (1989): what components of incense make them effective and potent within ritual? And what mechanisms and processes are used to release their aromas? The perception of incense by the various participants of the ritual – deities, priests, assistants, spectators – will receive particular attention. This approach will be informed by the recent research synergies of the organisers: M. Bradley, whose edited volume Smell and the Ancient Senses (Routledge, 2015) is informed by binary scheme of the ‘foul’ and the ‘fragrant’; A. Grand-Clément and A.-C. Rendu-Loisel, who lead the Toulouse research project on Synaesthesia that is dedicated to the interdisciplinary and comparative study of polysensoriality in ancient religious practice; and A. Vincent, who is engaged in the study of sensory perception in Roman ritual in his work on the Soundscapes programme (Paysages sonores).
In the spirit of interdisciplinarity and historical anthropology, we also welcome contributions from Byzantine and Medieval scholars, as well as church historians, to help provide a comparative perspective on the use and significance of incense in the ancient world, and we hope to use the conference’s setting in Rome to examine current practice in the use of incense and aromatics. The conference will also provide an opportunity to examine first-hand the material properties of incense through a practical workshop around incense-production and burning, allowing participants to handle a range of aromatic products and experience their various multi-sensory properties. This workshop will be co-ordinated by A. Declercq, the scientific researcher on the Synaesthesia project at Toulouse. It is hoped that the conference will attract a wide audience, both academic and members of the public, and disseminate widely the diverse recent research around incense. Furthermore, as a continuation of this meeting, the outcome of the practical workshop will be presented as the Musée Saint-Raymond at Toulouse in November 2017, as part of an exhibition on ‘Greek rituals: a sensible experience’, currently in preparation.