Sweet Lady Violet

Imagine sitting in the grass on a warm springtime evening. As the sun slowly sinks deeper, humid air rises from the ground. A breath of wind, and suddenly the air seems nearly tangible, buttery soft. The gentle breeze carries an intense fragrance, that seems to come from nowhere and yet its strength is almost physical: violets marry hyacinths. A hint of spicy, slightly bitter freshness of carnations is peppered with hoary stock perfume. There is vanilla in the air, there is so much fruity sweetness, with wafting memories of sweet alyssum and childhood in old cottage gardens.


Hesperis matronalis - Dame's Rocket or Dame's Violet or Mother-of-the-Evening


When I smelled Mother-of-the-Evening for the first time in the spring of 2020, it came like a shock and a revelation all at once. These old-fashioned plants in my garden, growing rather accidentally from an seed mixture for butterflies, were quite as high as me, but I nearly hadn't noticed them between the English Roses. However, I loved that pale violet of their abundant flower umbels so much that I decided to craft some of them with inked paper. And so they smelled for me before that day: like paper, like nothing. I hesitated, pondered. Something was wrong, very wrong.

Normally you can ask me about the smell of paper and I can tell you whole stories about the differences that a richly illustrated quality art book makes to a cheap pocket book, or my favourite writing paper to craft paper - only by their manifold scents. Being synesthete I often can see or even feel perfumes. The situation was completely weird and I took again a deep breath on a flower to make sure that I was not mistaken. The soft, cool-smooth shapes I felt, the shimmering of colourful glass that synesthesia gave me, made it clear to me: I hadn't smelled anything the day before. I had even lost my synesthesia before.

Why had I not been aware of it? Why did I only now notice this bitter absence before? Just in a moment, when I was confronted Dame Rocket's abundance of scents and my own fragrance drunkenness. Why did I feel this shock nearly existentially?

Many things seem strange to me about the memory of the first lockdown due to the pandemic. I was sure I had photographed these flowers umpteen times, but I hardly found any photos. This one I had to copy from my own Instagram account. It was photographed in mid May 2020.


Sitting in the sweet evening scent of the flowers I remembered a description of Romanesque Black Madonnas from my own book, a chapter about the pilgrimage to the crypt, the descent into medieval fear. I described the darkness, the pilgrims had to confront on their way to the underland, where Notre Dame de la Nuit lived: the Virgin of the Night.

Black Madonna of the Romanesque type of a queen (painting: Petra van Cronenburg)


Imagine you leave the sunlight and natural landscapes diving into a man-made blackness. Confronting your fears, you notice that your eyes slowly adapt to this otherworld: Darkness is never really black.

In the passage in front of the crypt, the candles from inside provide twilight, only the grey veil of a world-in-between hangs between you and your destination. One breath, one ritual threshold on the ground, the blink of an eye, and you suddenly stand in close proximity to the Black Madonna seating on her throne as a queen. For a moment you are completely blinded. The gloomy earth belly turns into an Ali Baba cave, for medieval churches were full of colours and a dance of lights on precious metals.

Around you there is the glittering and glimmering of reliquars in form of small houses, incrusted with precious stones. Vessels on the altar are made of gold, in which the light of the candles is blinking. Rubies and emeralds, gold and silver sparkle with light.

Like a child discovers a treasure, your amazement grows, you are blinded by the light, standing in front of the dark lady. Here eyes in the blackened wood are luminiscent coloured spheres of glass. They attract your gaze, almost devour it, throw it back. You take a step back from the abundance of light, remember the darkness before, feel alienated. Otherworld, world-in-between, enlivened world intertwine like the lianas and plants coming from the mouth of the Green Man on the pillar, branching out around you ... The scent of incense grounds you: You are real and you can smell the reality.

It took me months and many scientific articles to understand what had happened. What I did not know at that moment was that the complete loss of the sense of smell and taste was one of the atypical symptoms of COVID19. I may have fallen ill myself at the end of March. I remember that my illness was hard and very strange, but could have been influenza as well. The precautions in France were lousy, for a long time there were no masks, no disinfectants, nearly no tests - and Alsace was one oft the worst hotspots of Europe.

It was exactly the time of great horror, when heavy military helicopters and planes rushed over the house day and night to take the most serious cases abroad. End of march 2020 our hospitals were in a state of war, country doctors no longer answered the telephone, there were no more beds available, no ventilators. Only the sickest were tested. Those who showed symptoms at that time had only one thought: I don't want to be taken away! Don't let it be so bad that they will take me away! Reality became dystopia. Isolation and panic.

Sweet Lady Violet gave me the most beautiful fragrance in the world, the feeling of aliveness. Even if I could not classify the events of this spring for a long time and many memories are still blurred as if in a haze - I will never forget this perfume of violets and hyacinths. I was alive!

I began to sit with Mother-of-the-Evening every day, breathing deep and learning with her beauty to live in a very different world. She has so many wonderful names, fitting to her personality. Hesperis matronalis in Germany is also called Matronenblume (matron flower), Mondviole (moon violet) oder Frauenhilfe (women's help). In France we call her julienne or giroflée des dames (women's julienne or stock), violier girarde (violet of jay), aragone (hommage to the kingdom of Aragon) or very tasty cassolette beurrée (it means at the same time a buttered concoction of savory ingredients and censer for perfumes).

In France these flowers were traditionally planted in apothecary and cottage gardens, often combined with roses for their glowing violet. They never became invasive like in the USA. In Europe, they are host to the caterpillars of several butterfly species, including the orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines), large white (Pieris brassicae), small white (Pieris rapae), and moths, such as Plutella porrectella.

Next year they will sprout from new leaf rosettes and I can't wait to bathe again in their fragrance on balmy evenings and in the sound of the birds accompanying their blooms: the fascinationg nightingales.


Popular Posts