Goddess Nike Carved Shell
  • Material: Sardonyx Shell.
  • Date and Origin: Ca 1870, Italy.
  • Size: 10” by 7 3/8”, depth 6 2/8" .
  • Conditions: An almost invisible chip on the edge of shell, running the finger on it I can feel that it is very smooth and this means that it could be contemporary with the age of shell itself. Otherwise mint. 
More than Museum Quality and very huge carved shell depicting Nike, the Goddess of Victory. I have never seen a shell carved where there is no actual shell remaining on the top as every available space is carved. I find more things the more I look.  Not a piece missing or a crack almost too beautiful to believe. I have only found shells with a single cameo carved into the shell with matrix around it but nothing like this.  The central figure cameo is 5 inches in height and on the left side of the shell there is a boy fishing by a stream, amazing because  it does not go with the other style.
The shell depicts Nike, the winged Victory in Greek mythology. The rest of the carving reflect also symbols of Greek mythology but the unusual scene of the boy fishing is completely out from the mythology but it reflects a classic Victorian scene typically carved on cameos from that era. The shell was surely carved in Italy, you know that the most skilled cameos carver were there.
The details of this shell are simply amazing, really no words to describe them. The two leaves branches carved just under the figure are oak and laurel leaves, two plants which are also the symbols of Athena. Laurel is the plant of Victory and its leaves are always used to made crowns for winners. Oak leaves are instead the symbol of wisdom. The two leaves branches are joined together by a decorative bow which seems just real. Under the leaves we can see two garlands of roses and daises wonderfully carved. Then an intricate carving of decorative scrolls. The bottom of the shell is too fully carved with framed decorative scrolls, mythological animals, flowers and a small cameo of Athena. The white round lines at the bottom of the shell are carved as leaves, snakes and ropes.
Nike is superbly carved and all of her symbols and the ones of Athena too, (Athena is often identified with Nike) are clearly shown, the crowned helmet, the shield, the laurel leaves around her spear, the caduceus and the stalk of grain. Everything is more than superbly carved making this shell a real unique work of art.
I find amazing the left side of the shell too, that Victorian scene of the fishing boy is really extraordinary, I think that the carver thought to carve that scene because of the colour of the shell on that point, it is an amazing bluish grey, just the right background for a such scene. That unusual scene carved close to a mythological subject is what makes this shell more than rare. A real more than Museum Quality piece which really would deserve to have its own place in any Museum.
Nike is the goddess of victory, or, as the Romans called her, Victoria, is described as a daughter of Pallas and Styx, and as a sister of Zelus (zeal), Cratos (strength), and Bia (force). At the time when Zeus entered upon the fight against the Titans, and called upon the gods for assistance, Nice and her two sisters were the first that came forward, and Zeus was so pleased with their readiness, that he caused them ever after to live with him in Olympus.  Nike had a celebrated temple on the acropolis of Athens, which is still extant and in excellent preservation.  She is often seen represented in ancient works of art, especially together with other divinities, such as Zeus and Athena, and with conquering heroes whose horses she guides. In her appearance she resembles Athena, but has wings, and carries a palm or a wreath, and is engaged in raising a trophy, or in inscribing the victory of the conqueror on a shield. Nike also occurs as a surname of Athena, under which the goddess had a sanctuary on the acropolis of Megara.  Nike was closely identified with the goddess Athena, sometimes appearing merely as an attribute of the goddess. Sometimes the goddess was pluralised into Nikai.
To talk about the meaning of the snake, carved at the bottom of the shell, we can say that serpents and snakes play a role in many of the world's myths and legends. Sometimes these mythic beasts appear as ordinary snakes. At other times, they take on magical or monstrous forms, as dragons. Serpents and snakes have long been associated with good as well as with evil, representing both life and death, creation and destruction. In religion, mythology, and literature, serpents and snakes often stand for fertility or a creative life force, partly because the creatures can be seen as symbols of the male sex organ. They have also been associated with water and earth because many kinds of snakes live in the water or in holes in the ground. 
As snakes grow, many of them shed their skin at various times, revealing a shiny new skin underneath. For this reason snakes have become symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ancient Greeks considered snakes sacred to Asclepius, the god of medicine. He carried a caduceus, a staff with one or two serpents wrapped around it, which has become the symbol of modern physicians. For both the Greeks and the Egyptians, the snake represented eternity. Ouroboros, the Greek symbol of eternity, consisted of a snake curled into a circle or hoop, biting its own tail. The Ouroboros grew out of the belief that serpents eat themselves and are reborn from themselves in an endless cycle of destruction and creation. Many mythical creatures, such as dragons, combine snakelike qualities with features of humans or animals. In Greek mythology, Echidna was a half-woman, half-serpent monster whose offspring included several dragons. Cecrops had a man's head and chest on a snake's body and was a culture hero to the Athenians.

In myths and legends of the world, dragons are often fire-breathing, reptile-like creatures with wings, huge claws, and a long tail. They are usually portrayed as frightening and destructive monsters. Gods and heroes must slay them in symbolic battles of good over evil. But a few cultures, notably those of China and Japan, view dragons in a positive light and use them as symbols of good fortune. In ancient times, dragons often represented evil, destruction, and death. Dragons appeared in various Greek and Roman myths. For example, Apollo fought the dragon Python, which guarded the oracle at Delphi. In Greece and Rome, dragons were thought to understand the secrets of the earth. They had both protective and fearsome qualities. As a result, the dragon came to be used as a military symbol. Roman soldiers of the first century A . D. inscribed dragons on the standards that they carried into battle. The ancient Celts  also used the dragon symbol on their battle gear, and to this day a red dragon appears on the flag of Wales.Famous snakes are the ones which are wrapped around the caduceus. It is a staff winged on the top and with two snakes intertwined around it, there are many myths which tries to explain its meaning, The Homeric hymn to Hermes relates how Hermes offered his lyre fashioned from a tortoise shell as compensation for the cattle he stole from his half brother Apollo. Apollo in return gave Hermes the caduceus as a gesture of friendship. The association with the snake connects Hermes to Apollo, as later the snake was associated with Asclepius, the "son of Apollo". Another Greek myth of origin of the caduceus is part of the story of Tiresias, who found two snakes copulating and killed the female with his staff. Tiresias was immediately turned into a woman, and so remained until he was able to repeat the act with the male snake seven years later. This staff later came into the possession of the god Hermes, along with its transformative powers. Another myth suggests that Hermes (or Mercury) saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat. Separating them with his wand he brought about peace between them, and as a result the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of peace. The snake carved at the bottom of the shell surely recalls the caduceus snakes. The dragons, in mythology, were often intended even as snakes, in particular the dragon GIGANTIOS was a giant serpent cast at the goddess Athena by one of the giants during the Gigantomachia. She caught up the beast and threw up to the pole of heaven to form the Constellation Draco. So the symbolism in my opinion is clear, Nike is often identified with Athena, there is an Athena cameo carved the bottom and dragons around her, following the myth she fought with a dragon and transformed it in a constellation and, as can be seen, also stars are carved at the bottom.