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 characters.


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 earthly rule.


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.





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 sea.


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.