Symbol of the Month – the Scallop Shell


Carved scallop shell on monument in Brompton Cemetery. Note Celtic cross type support for it.
©Carole TyrrellThis month’s symbol is the scallop shell and is traditionally associated with pilgrims. Since ancient times they have made the not inconsiderable journey to visit St James of Compostella’s shrine in Spain and proudly collected their scallop shell badge as evidence of their trip. But this humble mollusc has several other meanings especially in a funerary context.

However, despite it being a common shell and also an invaluable food source, I have only found it gracing 3 monuments so far.  There are several flat 2D versions on a tomb in Nunhead Cemetery and two examples within Brompton Cemetery; one is a more decorative touch and the other is this lovely 3D beauty.  So well carved and tactile – I just wanted to reach out and touch it.  But I’m keeping a look out for any other shells adorning memorials.

Shells have been with us since time immemorial and who hasn’t picked one up from a beach to take home as a souvenir?

A scallop on sand.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

The scallop is inextricably linked with the Christian religion and its use in funerary rites pre-dates the Egyptians.  In pre Christian times, the Celts in particular, used it as an emblem of the setting sun and note that in the above example it is placed in the centre of the supporting Celtic Cross.  The nimbus of the Cross is considered to be a sun symbol.  In Christianity baptismal fonts were often shell shaped and a shell was used to scoop water up and then pour it over the person being baptised’s head. This emphasises the shell’s association with water as it’s thrown up by the sea onto the shore.  But there is another link in that it’s seen as representing the final journey from the world of the living to that of the dead by the crossing of a body of water such as the River Styx and so is also a motif of rebirth.  This is how the early Christian church used it.

Another funerary use for the shell was being placed, often with stones and coins, on tombstones or at gravesites.  The artofmourning website says:

It has been suggested that this refers to the ancient tradition of burying the dead under a cairn of rocks as protection from scavenging animals or as a reminder of the deceased.’

But there’s also a more meditative side to the scallop as its grooves can also be seen as representing many paths leading to one point such as searching for God or a path in life.  So this ancient motif can be seen as representing a journey through life itself or indeed to St James’ shrine.

It’s also associated with fertility and, in particular, the goddess of love, Venus.  In Botticelli’s celebrated painting, ‘The Birth of Venus’, the goddess is portrayed as standing on a large scallop shell.

Sandro Botticelli The Birth of Venus shared under Wiki Creative Commons

Incidentally, it also features in Palladian architecture which flourished 1715 – 1760 which was built on the heritage from Greece and Rome.  Here the shell was used in a concave form and usually within a niche.  In this example, also from Brompton, the shell is less obvious and more of a decorative feature.

Stylised shell decoration on memorial in Brompton Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

The link with St James is that scallop shells are very common in Galacia where the shrine is located.  But there are also 3 very famous myths and legends that reinforce the link.  According to the hillwalktours website:

St James, together with his brother John, one of Christs’  disciples. After Jesus’s death, James went to Iberia, which is now Galacia in the north of Spain with the intention of converting the pagans there to Christianity.  However, in roughly 44AD, after returning to Jerusalem, James was beheaded by order of King Herod.  This made him the first disciple to be martyred. James’s body was then carried by ship to Galacia where the three myths arose.

In the first, the ship carrying St James’ body was lost and destroyed in a severe storm. After an unspecified length of time, his body washed ashore completely covered in scallop shells.  In the second myth, a knight fell from a clifftop as St James’ ship passed beneath. The saint’s influence was felt as the knight emerged from the sea unharmed and covered in scallop shells.  The third and final one features a wedding in which the horse carrying the bride bolted into the ocean as St James’ ship passes by. But the bride and horse were saved as they emerged from the water covered in scallop shells.  Hence the link between St James and the shell.

Pilgrims were big business in medieval times and the scallop was a badge of honour for pilgrims to display that they had made the journey.  They often had their shells buried with them or carved on their tombs.

And so the humble scallop shell reveals itself as an important symbol with several significant meanings.   A fertility symbol, evidence of a seeker exploring many oaths towards their goal or a passenger on Charon’s boat towards eternity?  Myself, I would incline to the final river journey but I also like the idea of exploring many paths in life.   We will probably never know the actual significance of the shell to the deceased but it was important enough to be placed on their memorial to be enjoyed by any passer-by.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated. ©Carole Tyrrell

References and further reading:…/camino-scallop-shell-symbolism




Symbol of the Month – The Celtic Cross

The Surrey Celtic Cross Brompton Cemetery
©Carole Tyrrell

Stylised animals, sinuous snakes, Celtic knots and traditional strapwork, flowers, angels and even a cat! The decoration on Celtic crosses within cemeteries can be varied and interesting. But it wasn’t until I was exploring Brompton Cemetery with an apps designer that I really began to look at them more closely. He spotted the Viking style animals on Margaret Stevenson’s cross near the Chapel and we were soon seeing spirals and the more emblematic strapwork known as Hiberno-Saxon art or Insular art amongst others.

Celtic Crosses first appeared within cemeteries during the Celtic Revival of the 1850’s and it has since become a worldwide emblem of Irish identity.  The Revival has also been described as the Celtic Twilight and the Cross is seen as its lasting contribution to the western world’s funerary art.  The Celtic Cross has been known in Ireland since the 9th century and in mainland Britain since medieval times.

It’s a form of the traditional cross but with the addition of a nimbus or ring.  The latter is seen as a symbol of eternity as it has no beginning or end. The addition of the nimbus has been attributed to St Patrick who is reputed to have added it to a Christian cross, extended one of the of the lengths to form the stem and then placed it on top of a stepped base. It was this combination of a pagan symbol and a Christian one that became the Celtic Cross. It has also been described as the ‘sun cross’ by those who interpret the nimbus ring as a representation of the sun. The four arms have also been interpreted as representations of the four elements; air, earth, fire and water as well as the stages of the day or the four fixed compass directions.

The more traditional, intricately patterned bands known as strapwork are known for the unbroken lines that make up any piece.  There have been 8 basic designs that have been identified and claimed to be the basis of nearly all of the interlaced patterns in Celtic decorative art. Hiberno-Saxon art is also known as Insular art and examples appear in the Books of Kells. Here are four examples from West Norwood Cemetery.

It was in Brompton that I noticed two examples with single spirals on them. A spiral on a Celtic cross is generally drawn clockwise to represent either the sun or the direction of running water.

Detail of spiral on Celtic cross in Brompton Cemetery, Sadly the epitaph is now illegible.
©Carole Tyrrell

It is one of the most ancient symbols known to mankind.   A double spiral is more difficult to create and has been seen as a depiction of universal balance such as yin and yang or night and day.  The triple spiral or triskele is the most difficult for obvious reasons and has several meanings attributed to it. But the one that I thought was the most appropriate in a funerary context was the triskele being seen as a representation of three worlds: the spiritual, the earthly and the celestial.  The word Triskele is reputed to have come from the Greeks and it’s one of the most complex Celtic symbols.


Also in Brompton, I discovered a Celtic cross with decoration that ended in snakes heads which is interesting as snakes which were revered by the Celts. They saw them as a representation of rebirth as they shed their skins and then live again.  Notice also the Celtic knot in the centre of them.  These have been found in Scandinavia and Western Europe as well as appearing within Celtic insular art. They are supposed to represent eternity or the never ending cycle of life with the closed ends signifying unity.

A Celtic knot with snakes entwined around it from Brompton Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell


Stylised Viking inspired animals and a Celtic knot on a Celtic Cross.
©Carole Tyrrell

So the next time you visit a cemetery or churchyard look out for the Celtic Cross and see what you find. It’s not only Celtic inspired decoration that appears on them. These two examples are from my local churchyard – one features traditional strapwork and the other has a lovely and unusual angel with beautifully carved feathery wings and the nimbus is almost like a halo.


This is the Mills memorial from Nunhead Cemetery and features beautifully carved passionflowers, a deeply significant symbol in the language of flowers, and also the IHS in the centre of the cross.

This lovely example is the Mills memorial from Nunhead Cemetery. It features beeautifully carved passionflowers and IHS at the centre of thet nimbus.
©Carole Tyrrell


And finally, again from Brompton, one with a cat in its centre which is possibly a pun on the name of the family commemorated – Cattenach.

The Cattanach Celtic Cross from Brompton Cemetery. A probably pun on the surname with the cat at the centre of the nimbus.
©Carole Tyrrell

©text and photos Carole Tyrrell


Further reading and references


Downturned torches, a garland of roses and a pair of Aladdin lamps – creating a Symbols app in Brompton Cemetery

Closer view of the small boat on the Mccaig monument.
©Carole Tyrrell

It was a, shall we say, bracing February day in Brompton Cemetery.  The snowdrops were clinging together for warmth along the main avenue and a drift of daffodils near the soon to be completed café thought better of coming out in bloom. But I, and the apps designer, local GP Simon Edwards, didn’t let this spoil our fun.  We had previously worked with together on the Brompton animals app and it was good to have another pair of eyes with me.

Our aim was to devise an app that gave a good selection of symbols within the cemetery, both common ones that can also be found in other cemeteries and others that were perhaps unique to Brompton. There would be a brief comment on each one by yours truly and there was also the opportunity to see me in person. You’ll have to make up your own mind about whether I’m attempting fruitlessly to hide behind a Celtic Cross or draping myself elegantly around it.

Brompton opened in 1840 and, due to the 19th century anti-Papist movement. crosses, Christ statues or angels were not popular. Instead other cultures and civilisations and other older cultures and influences were used as inspiration.  These included Classicism from ancient Greece and Rome, the Celtic and Egyptian Revivals, Biblical quotations and references, the language of flowers as well as animals and insects.

Stylised Viking inspired animals and a Celtic knot on a Celtic Cross.
©Carole Tyrrell

Simon was also looking for additional images for the Brompton animals app and soon found a group at the top of the Stevenson Celtic cross. These are supposedly based on Viking animal images but although, when we looked more closely, it was difficult to make out exactly what kind of animals they were.  Brompton’s Celtic crosses are very interesting due to the variety of decoration on them from spirals, traditional Celtic strapwork, flowers and even a cat.  I will be writing about them in next month’s Symbol of the Month.

But soon we were exploring the alpha and omega, the Chi Rho, shaking hands, downturned torches, and flowers amongst others.

Among Brompton’s more unusual symbols are the two Aladdin style lamps on the Cornwell headstone, the polar and cub on the Hills one in the modern burials section and the small stone boat tied up at the base of the cross on the McCaig monument.

So if you feel like taking a self guided Symbols tour around Brompton Cemetery then please click on this link:

Have fun and let us know what you think of it!

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated