This fine set of pilgrimage mother-of-pearl shells is in excellent condition. It is rare to come across such a collection in such condition. Typically one or two appear on the market at a time and often they are broken.
Shells such as these were sold to Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where they were carved in relief and pierced by hand by local Palestinian craftsmen. In this way, the shells found their way to Europe and elsewhere during the nineteenth century. Orthodox pilgrims from Russia also carried significant numbers back to Russia and so today the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has an important collection of such shells and other items manufactured in Palestine from the shells. Many of these were transferred from the Winter Palace and the domestic chapels of other Imperials palaces – they seem to have been presented to the royal family by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land. The Vatican Museum also holds related mother-of-pearl Christian items from the same source.
The shells themselves were sourced mostly from the Red Sea.
The six larger shells tell the story of Jesus
Shell 1 shows the Holy Family with the infant in the manger and in the presence of the Archangel Gabriel.
Shell 2 shows Mary holding the infant and receiving the three Magi or ‘wise men’.
Shell 3 shows the child Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist.
Shell 4 shows the Last Supper, with all the Apostles seated on one side of the table and facing the view, a convention adopted for example by Leonardo da Vinci in his Last Supper fresco in Milan’s church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Shell 5 shows the dead Jesus being taken down from the Cross.
Shell 6 shows the Ascension of Jesus.
The two smaller shells show respectively, the Hold Family with a swaddled infant and the Last Supper with the words ‘Gena Domina’ and ‘La Nativita’; and the presentation of the infant Jesus to the three Magi.
One of the smaller shells is decoration in relief only, but each of the others is decorated with relief and pierced scrollwork including pierced vines with grapes.
A carved shell similar to the six larger examples here and attributed to 1830s-1840s is in the Hermitage Collection and illustrated in Pitrovsky (2005, p. 70).
Each shell here is in perfect condition other than one which has an old but stable hairline fissure from the edge to part-way into the shell.
Piotrovsky, M, et al, Pilgrim Treasures from the Hermitage: Byzantium – Jerusalem, Lund Humphries, 2005.