Clams may not be the most glamorous of bivalves and lack the aphrodisiac connotations of oysters, yet a giant-clam shell is a very striking and recognizable object. In Greek mythology, it was one of the items associated with the goddess Aphrodite, since she was safely carried to shore in clam shell after being generated from Uranus’s castrated member coming into contact with the sea. I remember, many years ago, smelling the sea breeze at Paphos, before the cliff below which she traditionally landed ashore on the beautiful island of Cyprus. This iconic scene is most familiar to us from Botticelli’s painting of her birth and I regret that it wasn’t part of the spectacular exhibition of his work that I saw in Paris at the Luxembourg in 2003, though the equally impressive Primavera was a fine consolation.
The clam also features in a Polynesian creation myth involving the world being formed from the separation of the two halves. There is a quirky use of giant-clam shells in early modern architecture in that there was a vogue for using them as holy-water stoups at church entrances. The most striking example of their use, in my opinion, is to be found in the Parisian church of Saint-Sulpice (which also boasts the best Crib in all of Paris at Christmastide; it’s quite a tradition for mothers, even the most non-religious ones, to take their children on a church crawl to see some of the impressive and massive nativity scenes). These are real giant clam shells that were presented to King Francis I of France by the Republic of Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century, at a time when the creature was unknown in Europe. King Louis XV, perhaps having no use for them, donated them to the church in 1745 which commissioned Jean-Baptiste Pigalle to design their charming pillars (below). This sculptor gave his name to the decidedly less spiritually salubrious Place Pigalle in the same city.
Clam shells became so synonymous with church fonts that a current term in French for giant clam is actually the same word for holy-water stoup: bénitier. This has also given rise to an expression where, once again, French has English beat. Where we might use the decidedly prosaic term Bible-basher, the French equivalent of an overly pious, holy-than-thou type is grenouille de bénitier, literally a holy-stoup frog. A person that spends so much time in church that they live in the stoup. Delicious.
Ritually washing yourself to symbolize purification is common to many religions and it is a metaphor that is direct and easy to grasp. Before a sung or High Mass on Sundays, the priest passes through the congregation and sprinkles holy water over them, and it is a pious tradition to cross oneself with holy water from the stoup – whether a clam or not – on entering a church, though it should never be done on leaving as this would shake off the penitential symbolism. Clams also feature in many fountain designs, particularly in southern Europe, though we often lose sight of the mollusk itself and focus on its shell.
The clam might seem an unlikely piece of ecclesiastical furniture, but I think it’s a particularly apt one. They are tenacious organisms that can be very beautiful and can also grow to up to 4 feet, in addition to possessing impressive longevity. They are reckoned to stand for secrecy or something that is being sublimated in dream interpretation, linked to the common English expression to clam up. Sylvia Plath has a haunting poem based on a dream entitled Dream with Clam-Diggers that picks up on its negative connotations. It’s not all bad press, however, as we also say happy as a clam though rarely add the second part, in high tide (since they would be hidden), which has been corrupted to happy as a lamb which in is turn has resulted in happy as Larry.
Today’s cufflinks have an unusual shape that suggests, to my mind at least, a giant-clam shell. In fact, I will post two pictures of them to show this form off best. It pleases me to see a positive use of the inimitable shell.
They were made by the long-established German jewellers Henkel & Grosse out of sterling silver and the pair has developed some really catching patina. They bear their distinct maker’s mark of G surmounted by a crown and, unusually for a non-Finnish company, this firm always dated its pieces, with this one being crafted in 1971. True clam glamour, one might say.