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Thread: Church Incense

  1. #1

    Default Church Incense

    There are occasionally inquiries about church incense on the boards, so I have decided to share some of the information that I have collated on the subject:


    'Memorials of the Church of SS. Peter and Wilfred, Ripon', Vol. III (1888):

    Frankincense and 'Sclateincense' were used for doubles and festivals, but rosin for ordinary occasions (209, 217, 222).
    https://archive.org/details/publicat...igoog/page/n31


    The pages in parenthesis relate to the rolls from 1401-2, 1470-1471 and 1484-1485, respectively. See below for further commentary on this source:

    'A History of the Use of Incense in Divine Worship' (1909):

    At Ripon in the fifteenth century they used rosin on some days for incense (Memorials of the Church of SS. Peter and Wilfred, Ripon, Surtees Society, 1888; vol. 81, p. 217: Cnf. p. 209). Frankincense was used on doubles (Ibid., 209): and incense called Sclate-incense on major doubles (Ibid., 217 : Cnf. 222).
    https://archive.org/details/historyo...0atch/page/316


    "Sclate" is an archaic form of slate. Block benzoin could arguably be described as slate-like in appearance. Benzoin almonds and large tears (grades 1 & 2) are often also slate-like in form, but not in colour. Solid storax was often molded into blocks or cakes; larger pieces of the black variety in particular resemble slate, both in form and colour.

    There are various accounts for the use of other materials in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, but they mostly appear to have been employed for fumigating and deodorising purposes during the plague. Out of respect for what they went through, I don't feel that it would be right to try to emulate the smell for perfumery purposes. I will therefore refrain from discussing such materials. Suffice to say that frankincense continued to be used.

    There is one account entry for frankincense, cinnamon and charcoal in 1752.


    'Notes and Queries: a Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men,...' (1856):

    Incense (1st S. xii. 495.) — In answer to the inquiry of R. H. S. respecting the composition of the incense used in Catholic churches, I beg to inform him that the church recognises only simple frankincense (Thus). This, however, is of different kinds and degrees of purity, and the gum called olibanum is accounted the best, and is chiefly used in Rome. It is customary to mix other ingredients with the olibanum or frankincense in many places; but the former ought to form at least one half of the composition. The articles most commonly employed to add greater fragrance are gum benzoin, storax, and aloes, and sometimes cascarilla bark, cinnamon, cloves, and musk. But many persons are deceived by the sweet smell of some things, and mix them with frankincense, forgetting that when burnt they emit a very different odour. F. C. H.
    The particulars of the composition of the better kinds of incense are kept secret by the various manufacturers. What is used in the churches at Rome is nothing but pure "gum olibanum."
    https://archive.org/details/notesque...01seco/page/80


    'The Encyclopædia Britannica', ninth edition (1881):

    For the manufacture of the incense now used in the Christian churches of Europe there is no fixed rule. The books of ritual are agreed that Ex. xxx 34 should be taken as a guide as much as possible. It is recommended that frankincense should enter as largely as possible into its composition, and that if inferior materials be employed at all they should not be allowed to preponderate. In Rome olibanum alone is employed; in other places benzoin, storax, aloes, cascarilla bark, cinnamon, cloves, and musk are all said to be occasionally used. In the Russian Church, benzoin is chiefly employed. The Armenian liturgy, in its benediction of the incense, speaks of "this perfume prepared from myrrh and cinnamon".
    https://archive.org/details/in.ernet...9351/page/n743


    'The Parson's Handbook' (1899):

    As for the incense itself, it is wisest to avoid compounds. Nothing is so good as simple Gum Olibanum, which is indeed frank or pure incense. It can be bought at any large apothecary's for about 1s. 5d. a pound, and is cheaper as well as pleasanter and fresher than the compounds, which are for the most part rather sickly and stuffy. Sometimes two oz. of Gum Benzoin and one oz. of powdered Cascarilla bark are added; but, beyond doubling the cost, they make little difference.
    https://archive.org/details/theparso...ruoft/page/106


    Sixth edition (1907), additional footnote:

    If there are complaints abont the incense, they should not be dismissed as mere prejudices, but care should be taken that no benzoin or storax be mixed in the incense, since these ingredients do affect certain people; and less charcoal and incense should be put into the censer. In many churches enough incense is burnt to fill a cathedral, and the servers often need checking.
    https://archive.org/details/parsonsh...ruoft/page/190


    'The Science of the Sacraments' (1920):

    More than a hundred varieties of incense are known, and each of the ingredients employed has its own special influence on the higher bodies of man. There is a science of perfumes, and evil powers as well as good may be invoked by such means. Nearly all the incenses prepared for church use contain a large proportion of benzoin and olibanum, as experience has shown that these are both pleasing and effective. Benzoin is almost savagely ascetic and purifying; it deals trenchantly with all the grosser forms of impure thought, and is excellent for use in a great cathedral crowded with somewhat undeveloped individuals. For smaller assemblies of less bucolic minds it needs a large admixture of other elements to produce the best results. Olibanum is the special incense of devotion; its fragrance tends strongly to awaken that feeling in those who are at all capable of it, and to deepen and intensify it where it already exists. A judicious mixture of these two gums is found satisfactory in practice, so it is frequently employed as a basis or central stock, to which other less important flavourings may be added.
    https://archive.org/details/sciences...goog/page/n110


    'A Modern Herbal', Volume 1 (1931):

    There is no fixed formula for the incense now used in the Christian churches of Europe, but it is recommended that frankincense should enter as largely as possible into its composition. In Rome, Olibanum alone is employed: in the Russian church, Benzoin is chiefly employed.

    The following is a formula for an incense used in the Roman Church: Olibanum, 10 oz. Benzoin, 4 oz. Storax, 1 oz. Break into small pieces and mix.
    https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/f/franki31.html


    'The American Ecclesiastical Review' (1944):

    ...an average specimen used by the Church today contains from sixteen to twenty parts of olibanum, one and a half parts of benzoin, one part of cassia bark or cascarilla bark and one half part of storax. Some manufacturers include a small percentage of myrrh or even sandalwood.
    https://www.catholicculture.org/cult...fm?recnum=9067


    'Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing' (1948):

    In Rome nothing else but gum olibanum - pure incense - is used in churches. It has the advantage of being cheaper than any mixed form, and is less stuffy and sickly than fancy mixtures. Other ingredients used are gum benzoin, myrrh, cascarilla bark, red sandalwood, Chinese cinnamon, and rosin. Benzoin should be avoided as its fumes sometimes affect certain people.

    For the ceremony of the consecration of bells, the rubrics of the Pontificate order "tiniana" and myrrh to be burnt. A special thurible, without chains and with a hinged cover, should be used at this function.
    https://archive.org/details/churches...6mbp/page/n229

    ["tiniana" (thymiama) is a general term for incense material (used mostly in the plural) and isn't a particular substance or blend.]


    British magazine article:

    To turn the pure frankincense into incense a number of oils and spices are added to a solution of methylated spirits: 50 millilitres of oil per kilogramme of gum. Usually the recipes are secret and have been handed down from generation to generation but costly oils such as jasmine and sandalwood are used. For one type of incense - Rosa Mystica - fourteen ingredients are added and it would take between two and fourteen days to dry out ready for use.
    https://cofeportsmouth.contentfiles....-_Epiphany.pdf


    See here to get an idea of how church incense is often mixed together. Three of the bottles are clearly labelled 'Liquid Styrax', 'Balsam Peru Synthetic' and 'Balsam Peru Oil'.


    For Athonite style incense, the frankincense is first ground to a powder and then blended with essential oils, etc. The article below details some of the processes involved:

    https://www.draganacmonastery.com/about-our-incense/


    The information regarding the use of water is worded in such a way that it could be taken to mean that the water is added directly to the essential oils. As water is highly polar, the two simply wouldn't mix. Frankincense contains about 21-36% water-soluble gum (Al-Yasiry, 2016; Sailaja, 2014), so it is conceivable that some manufacturers might add it directly to the frankincense powder.

    Talcum powder can cause talcosis and talco-silicosis, so a respirator would be advisable if you handle it on a regular basis, or in any great quantity. However, some of the finer particles may still get through, so I wouldn't recommend that you make Athonite style incense as a profession.

    I hope that this proves helpful.

    Pears
    Last edited by Pears; 19th January 2019 at 03:54 AM.

  2. #2
    Basenotes Member nicotiro's Avatar
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    Default Re: Church Incense

    good stuff Pears,

    totally allergic to Peru Balsam I can understand the restriction.

    I have a Church / wood / pseudo chypre smelling perfume blend that I haven't developed, and maybe I will add Benzoin and other church materials.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Church Incense

    Can't stand to smell like a shrine.
    Currently wearing: Invictus by Paco Rabanne

  4. #4
    Basenotes Junkie grayspoole's Avatar
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    Default Re: Church Incense

    Fascinating notes! Thanks for posting these historical notes.

    I loved the smell of incense in the Roman Catholic churches of my childhood, which I recall as mostly, if not entirely, olibanum. Today, I don't mind "smelling like a shrine" from time to time.
    Currently wearing: Muse by Coty

  5. #5
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    Default Re: Church Incense

    Excellent research! Thanks!
    I have this one in my library here too:
    'A History of the Use of Incense in Divine Worship' (1909):
    Paul Kiler
    PK Perfumes
    http://www.PKPERFUMES.com
    In addition to Our own PK line, we make Custom Bespoke Perfumes, perfumes for Entrepreneurs needing scents for perfumes or products, Custom Wedding Perfumes, and even Special Event Perfumes.

  6. #6

    Default Re: Church Incense

    Great contribution Pears. Researching for anything in particular or just good ol fashioned curiosity? Also how did you escapades that inspired your screen name end up? Boxes ticked?

  7. #7

    Default Re: Church Incense

    I know that when I was an altar boy in the 1970s, our priest used mainly frankincense for the incense, but also added a much smaller proportion of myrrh, along with small proportions of two other substances whose names I have long forgotten. I always thought that the frankincense smelled wonderful on the smoldering charcoal by itself, but as soon as he added the myrrh, the smoke took on that bitter and choking aspect that made most of us altar boys detest the entire procedure.

    This was in a Catholic, but NOT a Roman Catholic, church (no, the two words are not synonymous).

  8. #8

    Default Re: Church Incense

    Quote Originally Posted by akguy View Post
    I know that when I was an altar boy in the 1970s, our priest used mainly frankincense for the incense, but also added a much smaller proportion of myrrh, along with small proportions of two other substances whose names I have long forgotten. I always thought that the frankincense smelled wonderful on the smoldering charcoal by itself, but as soon as he added the myrrh, the smoke took on that bitter and choking aspect that made most of us altar boys detest the entire procedure.

    This was in a Catholic, but NOT a Roman Catholic, church (no, the two words are not synonymous).
    Copal or storax?

  9. #9

    Default Re: Church Incense

    Quote Originally Posted by fritter View Post
    Copal or storax?
    It's entirely possible, Fritter, but although I do remember the priest telling me once what they were when I had asked him, it was so long ago that I have long since forgotten. I only remembered the names of the frankincense and the myrrh because of their mention in the Bible and the Nativity narrative, but the other two were certainly unfamiliar words that would have probably just sounded like gibberish to me at the time, so my memory did not retain them.

    EDIT: Upon further reflection, for what it's worth, I do remember that one of those other two substances consisted of nondescript brown granules, and the other was more distinctly blue and crystalline-appearing.

  10. #10

    Default Re: Church Incense

    I'm glad that you found it interesting guys.

    I have just added a couple of excerpts under 'Notes and Queries: a Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men,...' (1856):, so check those out also.

    Palmolive, I have had an interest in the monastic life (of various faiths) since about the age of 18. I also enjoy reading old books and manuscripts, so researching something like this wasn't much of a chore for me. I think your other question would be best answered elsewhere, perhaps via PM.
    Last edited by Pears; 22nd January 2019 at 03:51 AM.

  11. #11

    Default Re: Church Incense

    While I have my own reasons for being interested in the subject, I'm not sure that I would have researched so thoroughly if it had just been for myself. I noticed that there were sometimes inquiries on the boards regarding church incense, particularly around Christmas, so I thought that it would be worth researching the subject as thoroughly as the literature would allow. If there are any questions in the future, then hopefully people can use the information in this thread as a resource.

  12. #12

    Default Re: Church Incense

    Quote Originally Posted by akguy View Post
    EDIT: Upon further reflection, for what it's worth, I do remember that one of those other two substances consisted of nondescript brown granules, and the other was more distinctly blue and crystalline-appearing.
    I'm not aware of any naturally blue plant resins, akguy. Some grades of frankincense are green (Hougari Royal, Hougari Superior, etc.). The pale light from a window could probably make it appear more blue in colour. Some manufacturers dye their incense, so that would be another possibility.

    Hougari

  13. #13

    Default Re: Church Incense

    Quote Originally Posted by Pears View Post
    I'm not aware of any naturally blue plant resins, akguy. Some grades of frankincense are green (Hougari Royal, Hougari Superior, etc.). The pale light from a window could probably make it appear more blue in colour. Some manufacturers dye their incense, so that would be another possibility.

    Hougari
    You know, even at the time I just assumed that the blue one was dyed as well, as it was quite distinctly blue, in what seemed a rather non-natural color.

    I wish I could ask my old priest what it was that he used in his incense, but he has passed away quite a few years ago now. Whether the current priest at that parish is still using the same mixture for incense, I could not tell you, and quite possibly neither could he, as our priest made the mixture himself (oddly, right on the spot, each time), and I noticed that the incense smelled somewhat different between different churches within our same faith. So it may have been up to the individual priest to decide exactly what mixture he would use for his specific incense.

  14. #14

    Default Re: Church Incense

    There are some pieces of Hougari/Hojari that are aqua-green and blue-green, but the latter is so prized that it is rarely exported. Truly blue resin would be a different matter though, so we're agreed that it was most likely artificially coloured. Besides, your own eyes would know if something looks natural or not.

    Three Kings are one of the leading producers of church incense, so there's a reasonable chance that your priest may have used their 'Blue' (No 36):

    http://www.threekings.com/en/incense

    You may also want to check out Trinity's 'Powder Blend':

    http://www.trinitychurchsupply.com/t...genic-incense/

    Athonite style incense is sometimes coloured blue, but a Catholic priest may not have been inclined to use such Orthodox incense. Or it may simply not have been stocked by suppliers of the Catholic Church.

    The brown powder could clearly have been anything, but the previously cited literature should help to narrow down the most likely candidates. Benzoin powder is often tan or brown in colour, as are most of the spices and woods mentioned.
    Last edited by Pears; 24th January 2019 at 01:11 AM.

  15. #15

    Default Re: Church Incense

    Pears,

    On the "Three Kings Incense" website (via the link you provided above), the blue #36 incense, at the bottom of the page, looks very much like what I remember our priest incorporating into his incense mix. Although I seem to remember it as looking more sharply granular, but my memory could be faulty.

    It always puzzled me why the priest took the time to make up his mixture of four incense ingredients on the spot, each time, rather than pre-mixing all four components for ease in dispensing it. I used to wonder if there were some liturgical rationale for doing so.

  16. #16

    Default Re: Church Incense

    I'm glad that it jogged your memory, ak. They may since have changed their production methods, 40 years is a long time. They don't mention if they add any fragrance to their no. 36, you'd have to ask. I do know that some manufacturers add lavender to their blue incense (see here, here & here).

    Lavender is used in Three King's 'Vatican' blend and Gloria's 'F8' blend. It was used in Prinknash Abbey's 'Abbey' blend up until about 1945, and may still be used in some of their other blends. So your priest may have been familiar with it's use in certain blends.

    One reason why he may not have pre-mixed the whole batch is that the different components eventually separate out based on their particle size. Larger pieces eventually rise to the top and smaller pieces sink to the bottom. You may have noticed this effect with your breakfast cereal. It's called granular convection.

  17. #17

    Default Re: Church Incense

    Quote Originally Posted by Pears View Post
    One reason why he may not have pre-mixed the whole batch is that the different components eventually separate out based on their particle size. Larger pieces eventually rise to the top and smaller pieces sink to the bottom. You may have noticed this effect with your breakfast cereal. It's called granular convection.
    Ah, that does in fact make perfect sense, Pears! And you are correct, I do believe that the four different components of our priest's incense were of different granular sizes --- I think that the grains of the blue component were distinctly larger than the grains of other components. Also, I could be wrong here, but I also think that the dark brown component was of a much finer grain size than the others. So thanks for clearing up that slightly nagging, 40+ year mystery for me!

  18. #18
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    Default Re: Church Incense

    "Benzoin is almost savagely ascetic and purifying; it deals trenchantly with all the grosser forms of impure thought, and is excellent for use in a great cathedral crowded with somewhat undeveloped individuals. For smaller assemblies of less bucolic minds it needs a large admixture of other elements to produce the best results."

    Quite marvelous, I shall bear this in mind...

  19. #19

    Default Re: Church Incense

    Indeed, it did strike me as being rather snobbish when I first read it, but for historical reasons I thought that it should be included. We can extract the useful information and disregard the rest.

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    Default Re: Church Incense

    Yes absolutely fascinating, thanks so much for the research. Also particularly interesting that that Frankincense should remain so dominant for millennia when there are so many competing substances, it is a very ethereal scent.




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