Virginia Barton

Of shells and a winning Junta of Jesuits


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Catholic Herald, 8 September 1989


Naked you came and naked you shall leave. This sobering thought regularly prods me into sorting out wardrobes, cupboards and drawers. There’s a lot to be said for being a Carmelite and for having no possessions whatsoever. Think of the freedom!

But we can’t all be Carmelites and ever since caveman presented that first bunch of flowers to cavewoman, and she cast around for something to put them in, we have surrounded ourselves with objects.

This clutter will probably include a certain amount of religious bric à brac. What to do with: several broken rosaries, a handful of Palm Sunday crosses, dog-eared holy pictures, at least a dozen medals, and four obsolete Missals? Since these things have all been blessed at some time, the dustbin is hardly the proper place for them. Then there is the bric à brac one inherits from other people, even more difficult to dispose of because loyalty and sentiment are involved.

However, some objects are easier to deal with than others. I inherited a crucifix that concealed in the vertical beam a slim but lethal dagger! Possibly it was Spanish, probably it was a valuable antique,  and certainly it was blessed. Nonetheless, I chucked it into the nearest lake, like some sinister version of Excalibur.




Shell show

At the same time I received a shell, about five inches across, of a pearly texture, with the death of Christ pictured on the convex side. Though neither as old nor as fine as the shell in the photograph above, it is obviously of the same genre.

More than thirty such decorated shells, the Pearl Oyster (above), are on show at a small exhibition called “Shrines and ‘Pilgrimage” at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until the end of September.

My own humble example is quite outclassed by these aristocratic cousins, which are quite beautifully crafted, some in low-relief, and some even coloured. They are the work of unknown artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and they were produced in the Holy Land as souvenirs for pilgrims. The lives of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints are depicted on the shells in great detail.

On one, probably copied from a seventeenth century embroidery pattern, Our Lady is shown prettily attired as a shepherdess, complete with crook and wide-brimmed hat. Round about her are several sheep, one is obviously the devil for it has horns and breathes fire.

Another shell has a picture of the thirteenth century St Margaret of Cortona with the dog that is said to have been instrumental in her conversion. How, I wonder; no mention of a dog in Attwater’s Dictionary of Saints.

The Assistant Keeper of Antiquities at the museum, Michael Vickers, told me that little is known of the background of these shells; perhaps a reader can provide further information? Mr Vickers would be grateful I know.

Also on exhibition are a large number of silver ex-botos from various sources in South America, waxen arm, leg and torso ex-botos from Portugal, and a bowl full of dust collected from the Holy House in Loreto. The religious bric à brac of Catholics is sometimes a little odd.


Cook’s tale

Shortly after I saw those shells at the Ashmolean I decided to cook Coquilles Saint Jacques à la bordelaise (scallops in white sauce with a spot of white wine, but it sounds more tempting in French).

Madame Prunier’s Fish Cook Book, 1938 edition, prefaces the recipes for scallops with the following legend. A bridegroom on horseback was larking about on the beach on his wedding day when he suddenly disappeared into the sea. A little later the bridegroom was spotted on board a ship that had neither sails nor oars. He was deep in conversation with some men.

Later still, bridegroom and horse were seen to plunge back into the sea from whence they emerged covered in scallop shells. The bridegroom had been converted to Christianity on the mysterious vessel by the disciples of St James the Apostle, whose body was on board. To this day (I am assured) pilgrims to Compostella wear the scallop shell.

A more recent tale with a molluscan flavour concerns Ste Thérѐse of Lisieux. She was exasperated by the incessant weeping of a young nun who was much upset by the Saint’s approaching death. The Little Flower instructed the novice to collect her tears in a small shell. The sheer concentration needed for this difficult manoeuvre was guaranteed to stop anyone crying.


Marks please

No tears please if you haven’t won the competition. There is no point in announcing the results in reverse order, as there is only one prize and one winner.

Ingenuity tumbled over erudition in the hunt for the best collective noun, preferably alliterative, for Jesuits. Considering the miserliness of the prize (a £2 ‘phone card), the number of entries was very gratifying and nicely illustrates that “taking part is more important than winning” – an adage I still find unconvincing.

Roll these suggestions off your tongue: a jeremiad, a juxtaposition, a gerund (which governs the object), a junket, a jousting. A good all-purpose collective description is a jet-set – bearing in mind that the Society’s boss is sometimes called the Black Pope, and how mobile they are.

Or what about a net, or a genuflexion? Or a jalousie – a shutter that lets in the air but keeps out the light? Or a jungle, or a jubilate of Jesuits?

Such rich twists of the imagination made choosing a winner really tough, but Mr O’Connell of Portsmouth won by a short head with his Junta of Jesuits. This seemed to suggest the mildly political reputation enjoyed by the J’s.

At the same time the correct meaning of the word according to the OED is a “body of persons acting towards the common good”, and no-one would deny them that.

Well won Mr O’Connell! (But what about jawjaw; jereboam and jamjar?)



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