While researching the symbolism of the shell for our (ongoing!) book project, we stumbled on an intriguing visual juxtaposition we thought we would share.
The goddess of love emerges from a seashell in The Birth of Venus by French painter Odilon Redon, c. 1912. Originating in the ocean, the shell shares water’s associations with creation and procreation, genetrix and matrix. Combined with physical characteristics which can suggest female genitalia, the shell is an emblem of fecundity and life and, by extension, felicity and prosperity.
Redon’s rendering of the shell’s elliptical silhouette and luminous interior creates a nimbus-like effect similar to the mandorla found in religious icons of the Virgin Mary or the Christ. (The lunate rim of the shell also echoes the crescent moon on which the Virgin often sits or stands.) The detail on the left is from a 13th century Byzantine manuscript in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Like the early Christian almond-shaped aureole, Redon’s seashell is maternal womb, life, light, and utterly sacred. [MF]