Reflections Inspired by “The Sense of Smell” by Brueghel and Rubens

The Prado Museum in Madrid bore witness to a unique experience during the months of April to September 2022, with the exhibition “The Essence of a Painting: An Olfactory Exhibition.” In this exhibition, the masterpiece “The Sense of Smell” by Jan Brueghel and Rubens took center stage, with the temporary installation of aroma diffusers allowing visitors to appreciate the scents of the elements represented in the painting.

This exceptional opportunity also included a series of masterful lectures delivered by experts in the field. These lectures not only provided us with a deeper insight into the phenomenology of the senses in Rubens’ era but also invited us to reflect on the importance of the senses in our cultural and anthropological experience.


the sense of smell has been underrated, relegated to the background compared to other senses. However, as the speakers pointed out, smell plays a crucial role in our emotional life and in the formation of memories.

When we perceive fragrances through our sense of smell, they emotionally transport us, evoking memories and past experiences. This phenomenon underscores the close relationship between smell and memory, as well as its power to influence our emotions and moods.


the process of olfactory perception is fascinating. The sensory receptors in our nose capture chemical molecules present in the air, which then transmit this information to the brain through the olfactory epithelium. Unlike other senses, such as sight or hearing, smell is processed directly in the cerebral cortex, without passing through the thalamus. This means that olfactory stimuli have a direct impact on our emotions, instincts, and behaviors, without prior filters.

In summary,

“The Sense of Smell” by Brueghel and Rubens and the associated sensory experience invite us to reflect on the importance of the sense of smell in our daily lives and in our appreciation of art. They remind us that smell is not only a physical sense but also a gateway to the world of emotions and memories.

Elena Sanz.