Compostelan Cross

A Compostelan Cross is also referred to as a Scallop Shell Cross.

What's a 'Compostelan'?

Compostelan Cross or Scallop Shell Cross

Compostelan Cross

"pecten", incidentally, is Latin for "comb", and used to describe several comb-like structures in biology. It differs from "pectin", which is a chemical used as a gelling agent in food products.

use pectin for gelling your jam, &
use pecten for gelling your hair!

This cross is formed by several ... yes, you've guessed ... shells.

Pecten shells are such useful items. They start life as homes to sea molluscs, and when their host dies, they lie provocatively on the sand waiting for some beach-comber to come along and say "Wow!" Then they are taken home to be used as ashtrays or soap dishes for a couple of years before they are thrown out with the household rubbish. Some fare better and become picture frames, lamps, jewellery, or musical instruments. And some are used to make a cross.

We shouldn't write-off such handicrafts as tacky ornaments - over 100 years ago, boxes covered in oriental shells were a popular import item for a Victorian shipping company; so popular in fact, that they named their company "Shell". Since then, the company has grown to be one of the most successful energy and petrochemical companies in the world.

Shell logo
Shell Group logo

Another reason the company decided on the pecten shell for its logo was because the family of an early financier, Mr Graham, had a coat of arms that included such an emblem. Mr Graham's ancestors had pilgrimaged to Santiago de Compostela, the tomb of St. James, and since the Middle Ages countless European pilgrims have visited this tomb. (See also St. James's Cross)

Pilgrims would pick up a scallop shell from Galicia as a souvenir of their journey and evidence that they had visited the shrine of St. James.

Pilgrimages to other sites had similar customs of bringing back souvenirs which were more than just mementos; they would wear them as a cap badge, which served as a 'passport' to show bandits and local authorities they were passing in peace and meant no harm.

The shell could also be used as a scoop or spoon for the pilgrim to feed himself modestly at an abbey where he might stop for sustenance. The shell would be a sign to potential hosts that the pilgrim did not expect much food.

"A bolle and a bagge
He bar by his syde
And hundred ampulles
On his hat seten
Signes of Synay,
And Shelles of Galice,
And many a conche
On his cloke,
And keys of Rome,
And the Vernycle before
For men sholde knowe
And se bi hise signes
Whom he sought hadde"

Piers Plowman by William Langland (c.1332 – c.1386)

John baptizes Jesus, using a scallop shell

The shell also became a baptism symbol. It has been found in artwork discovered in ancient Christian catacombs and also in Renaissance art. Often John is depicted baptising Jesus by pouring water from a scallop shell. 

Methodist Church in Kenya

Methodist Church Nigeria

Methodist Church of Southern Africa

A shell symbol features in many family crests (for example, that of the late princess Diana), and prominently in the logo of the Methodist Church in Kenya (MCK) and the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA).

The Methodist Church Nigeria (MCN) logo shows a small shell beneath the Agnus Dei over an outline map of the country.

In addition to being a symbol for baptism, another reason for the scallop shell motif on Methodist logos may be from its appearance beneath a 1778 engraving of John Wesley, thus becoming a de facto family coat of arms.

Papal arms

A gold shell symbol was incorporated into the papal coat of arms of Benedict XVI. There are three reasons for this:

  1. A pilgrim's badge. Benedict wished to follow the path trod by his predecessor, John Paul II, in spreading the Gospel around the world. Also, Benedict is connected with the Monastery of Schotten, Bavaria, which has pilgrim's shell within its coat of arms.
  2. A baptism implement. Benedict is a strong believer in the importance of baptism.
  3. A legend. Benedict wrote his doctoral thesis on a legend attributed to St. Augustine. The story goes that Augustine, walking along the beach, met a child who was using a scallop shell to scoop up the sea into a hole in the sand. This revealed to Augustine the futility of trying to encompass the infinite and eternal nature of God within the confines of the limited human mind.

Many continue to tread the path and discover new things about themselves. As Piers Nicholson says on his website "You learn more about your feet than you would ever have thought possible!" and he adds more importantly: "And you also learn a lot about life."

Here is a poem he wrote on the journey in 2003.

The Camino
or A pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain

When we started, we did not know – exactly – why we were doing it
We had lives which were – more or less – satisfactory
We had friends known much of our lives
We had children – changed from chrysalis to butterflies
We had things:
things like machines
things like music
things like pictures
things like shelves full of books
things like money and pensions and security
We did not have one thing – and maybe that was why we started

When we started, we put one foot in front of the other
We still did not know – precisely – why we were doing it
The miles passed – many of them pleasantly
Our feet blistered and were slow to heal
Our ankles turned on loose stones
The rain beat its way through our clothes
The cold chilled the marrow of our bones
Some nights, refuge was hard to find
Some days, miles of hot dust had no fountains

When the first few of many long days had passed
We found – without words – that we no longer walked together
That together we spoke in our own tongues –
and often of things we had left behind where we began
That together we shut out new experience with the wall of our togetherness
That alone we spoke in other tongues and of our common experience
That alone we were open – open with interest and curiosity.
Often we met – with gladness – at the end of the day
To know our paths went on together was enough

When we got to the cathedral we sat down
We saw – through the eyes of those long before us
The blinding faith, the crucial thirst for salvation
The tower slowly closing off the sky
And we counted our blessings – several hundred of them
Starting with the kindness of ordinary people on the way
And with the warmth of other travellers on the road
Travellers not at all like us – not in age, not in origin, not in interests
But warm across all these distancings
And ending with the friendship and love
We had left behind where we began.

When we got to the sea at the end of the world
We sat down on the beach at sunset
We knew why we had done it
To know our lives less important than just one grain of sand
To know that we did not need the things we had left behind us
To know the we would nevertheless return to them
To know that we needed to be where we belonged
To know that kindness and friendship and love is all one needs
To know that we did not – after all – have to make this long journey to find this out
To know that – for us – it certainly helped.

(written near Sanguesa, Navarra, September 2003)
Copyright © Piers Nicholson 2003 on

And finally, refering back to Augustine walking along the beach, here's a little humorous story of another guy walking on the beach, picking up sea shells.

Matt. 3:13-17, Mark 1:4-11, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, John 1:29-34


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