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5. Art and Architecture:

     Man has long been inspired by the graceful symmetry and beauty of shells. Archaeological diggings at many ancient sites have produced shells and artifacts in the design of shells. Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans used the shell's shape as part of their building design and decor. Shells and shell motifs have often been incorporated into man's homes and public buildings. Architecture has been profoundly influenced by the symmetry of molluscs. Many great artists were so inspired by the beauty, diversity and design of the shell, that they incorporated them into their masterpieces.

Here are a few examples of shell artistry, famous artists and architectures:


  • Botticelli's Birth of Venus has Venus rising from the foam in a scallop shell. In the ancient world of the Mediterranean, this theme of Aphrodite's (Venus's) arising birth from the shell repeats itself in figurines and wall paintings.



  • Pierodella Francesca incorporated the scallop shell Pecten jacobaeus L. into his art.






Montefeltro Altarpiece

  • Benvenuto Cellini's "The Jewel Chalice" . This precious work of art is a golden shell, exquisitely chased and adorned with jewels. Other artists who included shells in their work are: Ensor, Rodin, and Brusselmans.

    Benvenuto Cellini
    Italian Mannerist Sculptor and Goldsmith, (1500-1571)
Searching for a photo
  • Other artists who also included shells in their work are: Ensor, Rodin, and Brusselmans.
Bernini made the famous Triton (designed after the Charonia or trumpet shell) fountain in Rome.


Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
( -1598-1680)

An excellent Biography

Fountain of Triton
Piazza Barberini, Rome



Michelangelo, and many other sculptors and artists,  (famous or not!) used shell images and forms in their works - why? Because shells are beautiful!!

Michelangelo Di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
(b. March 6, 1475, Caprese, Republic of Florence [Italy]--d. Feb. 18, 1564, Rome),



Visit the Web Gallery of Art to see his most famous work


St Paul


  • Leonardo da Vinci drafted the first spiral staircase plans (which are still used by architects today!) from studying the simple snail shell with its interior whorls.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Italian painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, scientist and all-around genius.



Example of a Spiral Staircase
The spiral tops of Grecian Columns were designed after a nautilus shell cut in half.




Example of spiral-topped Grecian columns
  • During the Renaissance, architects copied shell shapes for design in niches, facades, tombs and pedestals.


  • Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum around the Japanese Miracle Shell (Thatcheria mirabilis (Angass).
  • The Sydney Opera House was designed to look like a giant Cock's Comb Oyster (Lopha cristagalli (Linne)).  Go to the JØRN UTZON for 2 great pictures of this building (the second one is best!).
  • The Mayans of Mexico carved bivalves and conch shells into the walls of their public buildings and temples.

See: Man and Mollusc Article: Spondylus, Strombus, and Conus:
Offerings to the Andean Gods




Today, man's love affair with the shell is still seen in many of his crafts such as:

  • Shell cameos: Especially popular in Victorian England.  A few Italian artisans still make beautiful cameos out of the Red Helmet shell (Cassis rufa L.)



A Piece from Cameo Jewelry.com
  • Sailor's valentines: On long voyages, sailors had plenty of time on their hands, so many of them made gifts to give to their girlfriends.   These included the famous Scrimshaw, usually done on Walrus tusks or Whalebone, and lovingly carved shells - the "Sailors' Valentines"!



Sailor's Valentine from Questor Gallery
  • Carved decorative shells: A specialty of India and the Philippines.  While many are little more than trinkets, the best are truly beautiful little works of art.


Here is a Cypraecassis rufa carved with a cameo on it.


  • Shell floral arrangements: These are usually of excellent quality, when you can find them - but you could make your own!  Most craft shops have lots of decorative shells, and it is a fun craft to get involved with!



My own Floral creation
(Avril Bourquin)
  • Shell decoupage: This is essentially making pictures by gluing shells or pieces of shell inlay onto a background.  It can be used to produce bric-a-brac, or Exquisite works of art - depending on time, skill, and what you want from it!
  • Sea shell figurines and toys: Made in Taiwan, the Philippines, India and other places with inexpensive labor and plenty of shells.  Many of them are extremely imaginative!

    Lots of us crafters make them at home as well, as you can see.


  • Jewelry:  Shells have been used to make Jewelry for thousands of years - especially valued for this is the exquisitely iridescent (i.e., containing all colors of the rainbow!) interior of Abalone (Haliotis spp) shells, and the shiny "mother of pearl" interior of oysters and several other bivalves.

(Can someone find examples of some of these on the web?)

  • Today, many artisans are elctroplating real shells with gold and silver. They're also making many fabulous and very realistic glass and crystal shell figurines.

(Can you find examples of some of these on the web?)

Shell Crafts remain a distinct form of decoration. Many of the art forms of today started in the early eighteenth century.  The chief credit for making shell work so popular and fashionable a pastime goes to England and specifically to Mrs. Delany and the Duchess of Portland (1714-1785).  Untold millions of shells are displayed in homes and are cherished as curios and in treasured private collections worldwide.


  • Man has been using shells to decorate his dwellings and public meeting places since before the dawn of history.  (Note: Take a look around your own house - bet you find a shell or two somewhere!!)

  • Ancient Greeks collected shells to decorate their gardens and fishponds.

  • At the height of the Rococo era, real shells for decoration became vogue. Shells were especially used to make little houses and grottoes in the gardens and parks of great chateaux and houses in France and England.

  • Many Coats of Arms (symbols of a socially prominent family) bear shell images.

A Parting Note and a shared memory from some good E-mail friends:

"In Nagoya, we went to a place called Gamagory (town name) Fantasy.
It was like a shellers' Disneyland, a place covered wall to wall, floor to ceilng in shell displays. I'm sure that it would be an ecologist's nightmare...Dan "