This little marine bivalve holds a great deal of symbolism inside its elegant shell.
As a symbol, the scallop shell has much in common with other similarly shaped objects. Like the oyster, cowrie shell and coco-de-mer palm nut, the scallop strongly resembles the female genitalia, and thus carries notions of femininity and fertility. The famed Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli used this symbolism to great effect in his famous painting “The Birth of Venus”, where the goddess of love is portrayed emerging from the ocean on top of an enormous scallop shell.
There is also, however, another signature meaning to the scallop shell, and one that some would argue runs in complete contradiction to notions of femininity. In Medieval Europe, there were many shrines dedicated to Christian saints all throughout the continent, and pilgrims visiting these shires usually wore some kind of token or symbol to show that they had made the journey. One of the holiest and most prestigious of these shrines (surpassed only by Rome and Jerusalem) was Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Dedicated to St. James the Greater, the scallop shell was its official emblem and an attribute of the saint himself. There are several varying accounts as to why the scallop shell is particularly associated with St. James and this specific pilgrimage route, but regardless of its provenance, pilgrims who made the arduous trek to Santiago de Compostela received a badge shaped like the scallop shell as proof of their piety and devotion.
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