Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lessons in Iconography: The Scallop Shell

On January 10th, the Church will celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Christ. The Sacrament of Baptism instituted through Christ's own baptism has long been symbolized by the scallop shell. Often, a shell is used to pour water over the head in baptism, as we see in the painting above of The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci.

Additionally, the shell symbolizes pilgrimage. In Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus, also above, the figure at right wears a scallop shell pinned to his vest, identifying him with all pilgrims who seek and encounter Christ at the end of their own "road to Emmaus". This symbol and practice are closely tied to the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela, one of the most prominent sites of Christian pilgrimage since the Middle Ages.

These two meanings are linked. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we are born to new life in Christ and cleansed of original sin. The gates of heaven which were closed after the Fall are reopened to us through our reception of the Sacrament. Our life, therefore, is a pilgrimage through this world, and union with God in heaven is the goal of our journey.

Rachel Ross
Curator of Art