Smelling Disease and Death in the Antwerp Church of Our Lady, c. 1450-1559


  • Wendy Wauters KU Leuven



smellscape, miasmata, spatial experience, parish church, iconology, Antwerp Church of Our Lady


Early modern societies were pervaded by smells and odours, but few traces have survived that offer a glimpse of the olfactory experience. This essay reconstructs this lost early modern ‘smellscape’, focusing on the smell of disease and death in the late medieval Antwerp Church of Our Lady (c. 1450-1559). Bustling cathedrals and parish churches could be a minefield of life-threatening odours, as there was a strong interaction between externally perceived body odour and a person’s inner sweetness. Through devotional objects and liturgical rituals, however, it was possible to protect oneself from the stench of both living and dead parishioners. Exemplary markers for the shared discourse of smell on a medical and spiritual level were aromatic prayer beads and purifying incense.


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Author Biography

Wendy Wauters, KU Leuven

Wendy Wauters is a PhD candidate in Art History (KU Leuven) participating in the Brain-Belspo project Ornamenta sacra led by KU Leuven, UCLouvain, and KIK-IRPA Brussels. After being awarded the Olbrechts Prize for her master’s thesis Een oven vol van menig hoofd en zotten bol, she is now working on a dissertation on the sensory dimension of paraliturgical objects and the spatial experience of the early modern churchgoer, under the supervision of Barbara Baert. Wauters’s recent publications include ‘The Stirring of the Religious Soundscape’, in Christian Discourses of the Holy and the Sacred from the 15th to the 17th Century (2020), and several entries for the exhibition catalogue The World of Bruegel in Black and White (2019).





How to Cite

Wauters, W. (2021). Smelling Disease and Death in the Antwerp Church of Our Lady, c. 1450-1559. Early Modern Low Countries, 5(1), 17–39.