Q: Mary and the scallop shell? 

[Mary and the shell]

Madonna and Child
Fra' Filippo Lippi

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 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 (Pμdagogus II, 63, 5), Origin, Ephrem the Syrian and Isidor of Sevilla (Etymologiμ 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, Tavernelle, Pieso della Francesca, Buttinone. 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. 


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