As a recovering Catholic, much of my early life was defined by the smell of churches. Musty, cool and strangely comforting, churches tend to be old buildings with unique olfactive properties depending on the time of their construction. In Italy, churches are often fitted with cool marble and oak, emitting a mild vanilla scent in the warmer months, but growing up in West London, my late Georgian local church had a more appropriate whiff of mildew.

But it’s not just the brickwork that emits that evocative scent. Catholic mass is a bonanza of unique smells: thick plumes of incense wafting from the priest’s thurible (a type of ceremonial burner), hot wax dripping onto crimson carpets, chestnut church pews glossy with varnish. Not all church smells were so welcome: I can still remember the watery orange squash served up in polystyrene cups during post-mass tea and biscuits and am transported to the unbearable boredom I felt on those endless Sunday mornings.

Perfume is integral to Catholic history. Baby Jesus was famously bestowed frankincense and myrrh by the Wise Men, both of which see continued use in contemporary perfumery. The Holy Sacrament of Baptism involves anointment of the forehead with oil of chrism, which is scented with the tang of balsam, said to resemble the scent of Christ. Proverbs 27:9 insists “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart.” And Christianity is by no means unique in its frolics with fragrance: almost all major religions incorporate the ceremonial use of incense, from Islam to Buddhism.

Yet, in line with other popular trends that use the aesthetic of Christianity – so-called ‘Southern Gothic’ and the like – church-like smells are infiltrating the beauty vertical. Given that the best fragrances take the wearer to a specific place or moment in time, the unique scent of churches are well-suited to this treatment.

Like the weight of Catholic guilt, fragrances with a church-like profile tend to be heavy and have impressive longevity. I have a t-shirt that, in spite of several washes still has the zing of Amber Kiso on it. Regardless of my lapsed faith, perfumes with church notes still remain my favourite. I find the ritual of applying them to my pulse points mirrors the sign of the cross I used to have to do before and after every lesson at school. After all, in the immortal words of Joan Didion “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be”, and in these church perfumes, a little bit of that former ritual stays with me. Here are some of my favourites:

DS & Durga Amber Kiso

One of my favourite perfumes of all time, this scent is a tranquil dalliance of amber, cedar and pine.

Nasomatto Black Afgano

A dark, dense oud with occasional hits of cannabis, Black Afgano boasts brilliant projection and frankly unbelievable 24h+ longevity. It’s strong and potentially polarising, but perfect for a dingy club in the cold winter nights.

Le Labo Vetiver 46

The merest hint of incense rounds off this wonderfully aromatic woody fragrance from Le Labo, interacting with sweet vanilla and perky pepper for a sophisticated evening wear.

Lalique Encre Noire

Midnight Mass was always a personal highlight of the Catholic calendar, and no cologne evokes the candlelit darkness of that December night. Inky black and musky, Encre Noire is a perfect lifeline for a dark night of the soul.

Comme des Garcons Series 3 Incense: Avignon

Formulated according to the smell of a Catholic church in particular, Avignon is as good as it gets for this scent profile, a resinous and deeply layered perfume that evokes tranquility and a certain sacred allure.

By Matteo Pini