The Fragrant Sachets in Which Queen Isabel Packed Her Dresses


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
Gum Benzoin
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


The Golden Bough

Medieval Pilgrim's Path, Kaiserslautern, Germany, 2011.

Inspired by the labyrinth walk to reach the gold at the center, and the medieval pilgrim’s sojourn, this floral and sweet botanical perfume was made to assist one in going ever higher and ever farther.

The Golden Bough botanical perfume. Photograph by Louie Martinesse.

The Golden Bough is the fourth perfume in the Arabesque Aromas emotional well-being collection.

“The deeper significance of the pilgrimage through a labyrinth – which is equally true for any pilgrimage – is that it symbolizes the inner pilgrimage we make to the center of our Being.”

~ Jean Hani, “The Enigma of the Labyrinth,” from A Chartres Cathedral Publication.

A sample of The Golden Bough can be ordered here.

Walking a replica of the 12th century labyrinth in Chartres cathedral,
Forest Lawn, Glendale, California. 2012.


Musings On Myth, Symbolism and the Creative Life

The pilgrim’s plaque in this photograph marks the medieval Way of Saint James as it meanders through a magical, historical forest in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

I have long been inspired by the quest, the sojourn, of the medieval pilgrim; striving to access the higher and more sacred places within themselves, ultimately transformed by their journeys…

Symbols of pilgrimage are also meaningful to me.

found outside of a 15th century castle, Germany

The scallop shell is the pilgrim’s symbol for a number of reasons, some of them practical (it served as a badge of protection while traversing the path. If needed, it could also function as a vessel for eating and drinking) others more spiritual and metaphorical.

The labyrinth is another ancient pilgrim’s symbol, of sorts, pre-dating Christianity but like many pagan concepts, later absorbed by Christianity. During medieval times, walking a labyrinth was thought to be a worthy substitute for those who were unable to afford, or physically withstand, the long, uncertain and often perilous journey.

The twelfth century labyrinth at Notre-Dame de Chartres, France, is the last surviving authentic medieval labyrinth. I was lucky enough to visit Chartres in 2006, but unlucky enough to do so on a Friday, when the labyrinth was covered with chairs and therefore not accessible to geeky, enthusiastic pilgrims from Los Angeles, California.

There is an exact replica of the Chartres labyrinth in Los Angeles, though, at the Forest Lawn Cemetery, that I have traversed several times. And I don’t think I’ve ever emerged from the labyrinth without at least a small morsel of new insight. As Jean Hani writes in Notre Dame de Chartres: Enigma of the Labyrinth, “The deeper significance of the pilgrimage through a labyrinth, which is equally true for any pilgrimage, is that it symbolises the inner pilgrimage we make to the centre of our Being.”

Kaiserslautern, Germany

I associate the labyrinth AND the spiral (another ancient, timeless pre-Christian symbol) with the rather beautiful Irish Ogham meaning attributed to the plant Ivy; a hearty, winding, evergreen plant that, to the pre-Christian Irish, represented fundamentally, the Spiral to the Self.

Holy wells, another common site of medieval pilgrimage, are a particular passion of mine. In one of my favorite books on pilgrimage and holy places, The Spiritual Traveler: The Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes in Britain, authors Nigel and Martin Palmer write “Water is one of the oldest symbols for the Other, for that which is opposed to order, and must therefore be propitiated or, at the very least, treated with respect.”

I use a few drops of holy well water in my aromatic creations, drawn myself from the pre-Christian well of the Goddess Brigid, later named a Saint, in Kildare, Ireland, where I made my own pilgrimage with my friend Sarah, in a rental car, in 2006.

Yes, we were pixie-led for two extra hours (the street signs were all switched around!) and I had a fever that day but — alas — it was all simply part of that particular and rather wonderful journey. I was also fortunate to visit the Roman waters at Bath, and draw some water from the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, England, in 2008.

An Arabesque Aromas natural perfume oil photo by Louie Martinesse

So I work in my aromatics home-studio with this symbolism constantly present in my mind, my heart, and in my toil, whether I am creating a new perfume or practicing cartomancy for clients or friends.

But rather than write all about me, I thought it would be far more interesting to interview other artists on this blog. I’ve come across many fascinating and talented artists this past year. And I’d like to know what symbols, stories, and ideals inspire their creative endeavors… what is their personal myth.

I will write a bit more about mine in the coming weeks, and this summer, I look forward to featuring guest writers and/or artist-interviews to further discuss the topic of myth, symbolism and the creative life.