Revista „Cercetări istorice” – XLII – 2023

The agarwood comb of the Moldavian Metropolitan Sofronie Miclescu (1790-1861)


In the collections of Moldavia’s History Museum there is an agarwood comb (Inventory No. 5033), with an undeniable liturgical usage. The item comes with an etui and a wooden support. The comb dates from the modern era, and, as mentioned on the old label, it is made of agarwood.

This dark-hued, resin-saturated wood – its name in the Romanian written sources comes from Turkish (ödağaci) – is an aromatic essence produced primarily by the trees within the botanical genera Aquilaria and Gyrinops. The emergence of the resin (i.e., aloe or agar) is a response to the tree’s contamination with a type of fungus called Phialophora parasitica. Due to its aromatic qualities, the oud (lignum aloes) wood is, to this day, among the most precious exotic resins (a kilogram of first-quality agarwood can go up to 100,000 dollars). Used for incensing and as an ingredient for fragrances, this wood also served as a raw material for small sculptures (i.e., small icons, small containers, or beads for rosaries).

The piece belonged to Metropolitan Sofronie Miclecu, born on 18 December 1790 into a family of old Moldavian boyars. He was tonsured a monk in the Secu Monastery (1818), from where he moved to the Neamț Monastery, where he ultimately became a hieromonk. On 26 May 1826, he was elected as the Bishop of Huși, and in 1851, he obtained the highest position, i.e., the Moldavian Metropolitan. Though he hesitated to preside over the elective assembly of 5 January 1859, he was eventually elected president of the ad-hoc Moldavian Divan [Council]. Following this crucial event in our national history, a conflict broke out between him and Alexandru Ioan Cuza due to the issues concerning the administration of properties owned by domestic monasteries. On 18 January 1861, from his exile in the Slatina Monastery, the high prelate sent his retreat document from the Moldavian Metropolitan See to the ruler. He died on 18 May 1861 and was buried in the church porch of the Neamț Monastery.

Used to style the hair and beard, the comb must have been an Oriental present gifted by some great hierarch from the southern parts of Christendom. Well-groomed hair and beard symbolised an ordered mind by chasing away worldly thoughts and useless preoccupations before the Mass.