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Salt-cellar

© 2000 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Decorative Arts
Middle Ages

Author(s):
Barbier Muriel

This small saltcellar entered the collections of Louis XIV, a great lover of precious and semiprecious stoneware, between 1681 and 1684. It is one of the rare 15th-century works in the collections of Louis XIV that has retained its original mount. The mount is highly refined and decorated in a supremely Gothic style.

The role of the saltcellar in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, saltcellars were the first items placed on the table. They had a special and complex role related to the religious symbolism of salt. Salt represented God's alliance with His people, and the saltcellar symbolized the divine presence at the table. Saltcellars were often made in the shape of pyxes, and their quality had to match the importance of their contents. Saltcellars were therefore lavishly decorated, as can be seen in this one kept in the Louvre. The most precious of them belonged to persons in high places, and saltcellars came to mark the places of honor at the table.

A medieval mount

The small agate bowl is set in an entirely medieval mount. The bowl is securely attached on the inside by a small, perforated gold disk, which would have been enameled, at the bottom of the bowl, and by three molded circles on the outside. The edge of the bowl, in festooned gold, features eight gargoyles, four of which remain. The bowl is supported by a central pillar topped by three gargoyles and six turrets forming niches housing flesh-colored enameled gold figures of children in the round. The polyhedral base is filigreed and carries the monogram SE repeated three times in brown and black enamel and six times in gold alternating with pearls. This base features six turrets and six gargoyles. This type of architectural ornamentation is characteristic of Gothic goldwork.

Related works

Along with the serpentine ewer in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the saltcellar is the only work in the collection of Louis XIV that has retained its medieval mount. Many similarly shaped small agate and jasper saltcellars with lids and faceted feet are known to us. Indeed the Louvre saltcellar originally had a gold lid, now lost. A pair of saltcellars also exists in the Museo Estense in Modena. Louis XIV owned two other small saltcellars of this type but made of crystal. All these saltcellars belong to the same group, attesting to the popularity of these objects at the time. We know the date of Louis XIV's acquisition of this saltcellar (between 1681 and 1684), but unfortunately we do not know the identity of the person designated by the initials SE.

Bibliography

Alcouffe Daniel, Les Gemmes de la Couronne, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2001, p. 179-180.

Technical description

  • France (15th century)

    Salt-cellar

  • Agate, gold, opaque enamels on gold ronde-bosse, pearls

    H 0.10 m

  • Former Crown collection

    MR 119

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Anne de Bretagne
    Room 6

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Additional information about the work

Monogram repeated six times in gold and three times in enameled gold: SE; number engraved on the underside of the base: 420 (1791 inventory number)