Shells and Mary

– Answered by Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Q: Mary and the scallop shell?

A: The shell or clam shell has symbolic value in many cultures, from India (Vishnu carries a shell) to the moon god in Aztec culture. Its main reference is to vulva and matrix as life receiving and giving organs. It is in this context that the clam shell is symbolically referred to Mary, and means the divine conception of Jesus Christ in her body.

The origin of this symbol is to be found probably in Judges 6,36f. (concham rore implevit) and becomes a Marian symbolism thanks to the famous Physiologus (probably end of 2nd century) but without going so far as to making direct reference to Mary's conception. Here -- in the Physiologus -- the two shells refer to the two testaments. With Clemens of Alexandria (Paidagogus II, 63, 5), Origin, Ephrem the Syrian and Isidor of Sevilla (Etymologiae lib. xx/12 cap 6) the shell symbol is commonly applied to the incarnation of the divine logos.

The shell as symbol of divine conception (virginal conception) is prominent in Italian Renaissance, especially in representations of Mary and child standing below the symbol of the clam shell. So in paintings by Neri di Bicci, Piero della Francesca, and Bernardino Butinone. A particularly telling example can be found on the west portal of the Pisa dome where the Annunciation is accompanied with the symbol of shell and pearl, titled Rore coelesti foecundor (heavenly dew will make me fruitful). The symbol is widely used in baroque emblems regarding Mary's virginal conception.

Image shown:
Piero della Francesca
Brera Madonna
Madonna and Child with Saints
1472-1474

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