Many have been awed by the Notre-Dame de Paris (pictured above in a 1912 painting by American artist Florence Vincent Robinson). Who wouldn’t be? This most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages wears the badge of antiquity (almost 200 years in the making, it was completed in 1345); has an imposing structure; and is breathtakingly beautiful.
Far fewer people, I suspect, would feel the same way when they look at seashells. Yet, despite their vastly smaller size, seashells can be as marvellous as any cathedral. As the following photographs and artworks show, they have a unique beauty that evokes a sense of wonder and even reverence.
The Notre-Dame has many interesting architectural details. Indeed, it is a masterpiece of technical design and engineering. However, what man can outdo Nature when it comes to artistic complexity and precision?
Left: Notre-Dame (façade),1860s. Photo by Édouard Baldus (French, 1813–1889) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Right: Shells, circa 1841. Illustration from Conchologia systematica, or Complete system of conchology: in which the Lepades and conchiferous Mollusca are described and classified according to their natural organization and habits by Lovell Reeve and G.B. Sowerby
Some 12 to 14 million people visit the Notre-Dame every year, making it Europe’s most visited historic monument. The cathedral’s sculptured façade alone is enough to pull in the crowds. It is exquisite, an architectural wonder. Even so, seashells with their infinite variety of shapes, textures and colours can give the French cultural icon a run for its money.
The Shell, 1650
Etching by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) / Art Institute of Chicago
Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter and printmaker, was fascinated with seashells. In fact, he had a large collection of them. In this etching, the mysterious beauty of a conus marmoreus (commonly known as “marbled cone”) shines through the wonderful interplay of light and shadow. Suddenly, we are confronted, not just with an artefact of nature, but with something akin to a sacred object inside a dimly lit cathedral.
Seashells are actually living animals, part of the great animated world of the ocean. The empty shells people find on the beach were once part of a marine mollusc which had perished. Some of these shells date may back to centuries before the Notre-Dame cathedral was built. Life fades, beauty stays.
Shells and Marine Plants, 1809
Oil painting by Henricus Franciscus Wiertz (Dutch, 1784–1858) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
An assemblage of seashells can be as majestic as a cathedral. Alas, tourists would rather flock to a historic religious monument.
Neapolitan Fisherboy (Pêcheur napolitain à la coquille), 1857–after 1861
Sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875) / National Gallery of Art
“When you listen to a shell,” wrote Natalie Wolchover in the Live Science website, “you’re not really hearing the sound of the ocean. The shape of seashells just happens to make them great amplifiers of ambient noise.” True, but why let science restrain the imagination? Holding a seashell close to your ear will not only strike the musical chords of the ocean. If you’re in the mood, you might even hear some Baroque church music by Johann Sebastian Bach.
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