Queen Isabel by Alonso Sanchez Coello, circa 1560’s
I discovered the historic sachet recipe in a book of period herbals very early in my aromatic career. For me, the desire was strong to simply recreate the fragrance, and in so doing, experience a sensory moment of Spanish history. But during an idle moment in a Barnes and Nobles, I happened upon a book of Tudor and Jacobean portraiture called “Dynasties” by Karen Hearn of the Tate Gallery in London. And Queen Isabel’s portrait and life story, as well as her fragrant, bejewelled dresses, quite drew me in!
Karen Hearn writes “Isabel’s relationship to Philip II of Spain is articulated primarily through the striking device of the brilliant rose-pink dress. Wearing this colour, which is very unusual in a portrait, was a recognised sign of love. Indeed, there existed a romantic attachment between Philip and Isabel and their marriage certainly inaugurated a period of social and cultural vivacity at the Spanish court. It is, however, difficult to separate personal emotions from political decorum during this period and her portrait would also have been understood in the context of the relationship between France and Spain. The peace treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, signed in April 1559, was sealed and guaranteed by the marriage between Philip and Isabel. Isabel was christened ‘Isabel de la Paz’ and taken to their hearts by the Spanish. Her portrait characterisation as young, beautiful, dressed in warm pink and laden with jewels similarly represented her as a kind of peace-trophy: the embodiment of optimism and love” (Hearn, 57).
Reflecting on the considerable personal and political pressures inherent in Isabel’s union with Philip II of Spain at 14 years of age, I re-visited her recipe with less of a sensory, and more of a historian’s, curiosity.
I soon realized that her Apothecary most certainly took these same personal and political considerations in hand. For Isabel’s recipe was much more than a casual fragrance to make her dresses smell sweet and pretty. Indeed, this recipe is closer in nature to a magical prescription, a concoction if you will, carefully and intentionally designed according to ancient folk meaning and symbolism, even invoking the influence of the stars.
Apothecaries, perfumers, chemists, and pharmacists of this time were well-versed in astrology, astronomy and the celestial correlations and assignations of planetary influences upon the human body. Likewise, many cures, medicines, and perfumes for the human body were carefully designed using plants and medicines that were deemed to be an astrologically harmonious cure for the problem/or malady at hand. Consider this quote by Paracelsus “Every physician should simultaneously be an alchemist and an astrologer” (Junius, 96). In my opinion, the carefully selected, balanced, even romantic, combination of ingredients used in Isabel’s dress powder reflect these philosophies and considerations.
Ingredients in Queen Isabel’s Sachet Powder for Scenting Her Dresses
Red Rose Petals
First, I took note of one of the most commonly used aphrodisiac ingredients of this time period; Coriander. Many herbals of the time period connect Coriander with the fiery, sexual, spicy, active, procreative energies of Mars. But I discovered that Coriander has a dual association with the planet Venus. Certain plants, according to The Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy by Manfred Junius, were affiliated with more than one planetary body. So – the Renaissance-era herbals regard Coriander to contain the masculine, procreative energy of Mars as well as the feminine, alchemical planet Venus within the very seed itself! “As Ishtar or Ashtaroth, Venus was the goddess of sexual love in Babylon, as Aphrodite in Greece… she ruled over love between man and woman” (Junius, 110) Venus, planet and goddess, also ruled over alchemy. Consider the ‘Sacred Marriage’ between Philip and Isabel as well as between France and Spain as Junius continues “This planet rules the arts, harmony, proportion, affection, and the ability to integrate separate things into a whole and to mediate between opposites”.
Next, take note of the Calamus root or Sweet Flag, an herb of the Sun. This herb was believed to lend its solar aspects of the masculine, the golden, consciousness, clarity and its life-giving properties to the user. Quite a powerful combination with the soft, sweet, violet-scented powder of Orris, root of the Florentine Iris, a lunar herb and common fixative in natural perfumery since antiquity. The Moon and its influence were believed to lend Orris the lunar qualities of fertility, conception, a capacity for feelings, motherliness, family and heritage to the user (Junius, 101-105). I don’t believe that this Apothecary’s archetypal marry-ing of Orris and Sweet Flag, the Masculine sun and the Feminine moon, can be overlooked. Like Isabel’s rose-pink dress, this powder was carefully designed and prepared with a specific symbolism in mind.
Finally, in closing, we have the most dominant ingredient in Isabel’s dress powder, the Red Rose of Venus, who speaks for herself! Or as Marina Heilmeyer of the book “Ancient Herbs” writes “All roses, according to legend, were originally white. They turned red only from the blood of Aphrodite, who was pricked by a rose thorn as she rushed to save the dying Adonis. Drops of her blood fell and dyed the rose red; the red rose thereby became the symbol of enduring love…”
Sadly, Queen Isabel died in childbirth, aged 22, in 1568. But her fragrance continues to live on…
The sachets, true to the historical recipe, are available in my Etsy shop through Valentine’s Day 2014.
(Please note that the brocade from the listing photo is now sold out, but they are hand-stitched in two pieces of the plain raw cream silk, as pictured.)
copyright Kirsten Schilling, 2009