The use of signs and symbols, especially in churches, increased significantly during
the Middle Ages. The church buildings themselves were seen as symbols representing
the transition between the physical world and the spiritual. Each church was decorated
in an individual way, conveying a unique set of specific and significant meanings.
Saints and prophets were commonly depicted on the fabric of a church because they
were believed to be intercessors between this world and the next. When saints and
prophets were represented by portraits, they were usually accompanied by an object
which helped to identify them, and such symbols could be recognised elsewhere when
depicted on their own. The majority of people could not read, nor could they speak
the language of the church, which was Latin, so symbols helped them to identify different
Symbols were also used like diagrams to communicate difficult and abstract concepts
such as the triune (three-in-one) concept of the Holy Trinity. In the case of the
most sacred names, such as Jesus, it was considered irreverent to write the name
in full: in the fourteenth century initials and monograms as short forms for names
began to appear on church buildings. There were ecclesiastical symbols, such as
mitres, staffs and rings, which represented the spiritual authority of the church,
and there were secular symbols, such as crowns, sceptres and orbs, which represented
AN INTRODUCTION TO SYMBOLS
Right: Coddenham font with a carving of the triune - a symbol for the Holy Trinity:
God the father, God the son and God the holy ghost
Because the majority of people couldn’t read until education became available to
all in the twentieth century, before then symbols were used in places other than
churches, for example on trade signs.
TO INTRODUCTION TO TRANSPORT
TO INTRODUCTION TO SHAPES
THE SCALLOP SHELL
One symbol that was commonly used in art for centuries until the Victorian era is
the scallop shell. It is not often used today, but there is an example at St. James
South Elmham in Suffolk on a village sign, one of two in the village. Having two
signs is unusual, the result of diplomacy. When residents opted to erect a sign
to celebrate the Millenium, a group of villagers met to discuss designs. When it
became hard to choose between two ideas, it was decided to use both. The one with
the shell is placed at the east end of the village, and the other at the west end.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the shell became the badge of pilgrims
who travelled to Santiago in Spain, to the shrine of Compostela. This was, and still
is, the shrine to St. James, a fisherman and one of the twelve Apostles. The pilgrims
wore the badge as a mark of devotion.
The scallop shell is easy to wear because it can be hooked over a belt. As it was
often seen with its ‘hinge’ or ‘beak’ at the top, it was nearly always depicted in
art that way up, as is the case in heraldry. It has been used as a motif on shields
for over eight hundred years. The shell on the village sign at South Elmham is different
to most examples in that the ‘hinge’ is at the bottom.
As usual when it is shown in art, this shell at South Elmham represents the great
scallop ‘pecten maximus’. The earliest examples date from about 400 BC and show
the Roman goddess Venus who, according to myth, was born in the sea. She became
patroness of seafaring and was usually depicted standing in a scallop shell as if
emerging from it. Originally, then, it seems that the shell was a symbol for the
The Romans used the scallop a great deal in art. There are examples at Pompeii and
Herculaneum. It appears in wallpaintings, on domestic objects such as earthenware
pots, and on funerary monuments. In modern times, it has been used as a feature
on fountains, in ceiling half-domes of porches, as decoration on Chippendale chairs,
in plasterwork and as shell-shaped snuff boxes, to mention just a few examples.
The photo on the left shows the sign at the west end. Silver wrought iron symbols
set against a black wrought iron frame represent various aspects of village life.
The farm animals, the tractor and the tools represent agricultural activities, and
the badminton racket and mask symbolise sport and drama which represent leisure pursuits.
The shell symbol is used on the other sign because the parish church is dedicated
to St. James.