A salt cellar

Maker's mark a squirrel, Northern Netherlands or Frankentahl, 1580-1600

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A salt cellar

Of octagonal section, the stepped reeded and partly smooth base divided by a protruding broad rim chased with meandering ovals alternated by small balls, the upright body with eight panels, four sides engraved with scenes from the story of Lot (Genesis 19:1-38), set in roundels and surrounded by scrolling foliage; the following scenes are represented:

Lot meets two angels at the city gate and invites them to his home; Lot is in his house with his wife and daughters, the men of the city, young and old, are gathered around Lot’s house demanding that he bring out his two guests; Lot is forced by the angels to take his family out of the burning city, telling them to flee for the hills and not to look back. Lots wife did not obey this order and was changed into a salt pillar; In a cave near Zoar, Lot is being misled by his daughters who plied him too much wine, until he was too drunk to know what he was doing. Consequently, both daughters would have sex with their father, without him knowing.

The biblical scenes are alternated by engraved gods from Antiquity: Zeus, Athena, Apollo and Diana, all withing scroll work decoration, Zeus and Apollo underneath a canopy, and all surrounded by animals, birds, and scrolling foliage. All of these are after prints by Etienne Delaune. Above the engraved panels a second protruding border with meandering ovals and balls, surmounted by a shelter type roof moulding, engraved with stylised leafage, below an upright upper border, the smooth inside hollow to contain the salt.

Salt cellars and salt

Salt was already won an odd 5000 years ago as raw material to be used as a preservative to keep various foods fresh. Because of this it had an important role in the economy in those days. During the  Roman era salt was used as a way of payment to soldiers. The Latin word salaris is derived from this. During the Middel Ages a salt tax was collected, because during those days it was very expensive. Because of its high value salt was sometimes served in salt cellars specially intended for this purpose. Kings owned salt ships, the so-called nefs, silver ships that could be moved over the table, holding a small cellar, mounted on the rear end.

One of the first salts ever mentioned in historical archives is mentioned in 1297 in the list of property made up after the decease of count Floris V. Next to other silver tableware, a silver salt’, ein sulveren soutvat is explicitly mentioned. Not only this is one of the eldest descriptions of a salt in the Low Countries, but the fact that it was made of silver and received a separate notice is even more remarkable.

Obviously a silver salt was only reserved for those people who could afford to buy and use salt. In daily use one saw mostly pewter or ceramic vessels. The shape was mostly circular. A six-fold or eight-fold cellar will have been commonly used as well, but only a few have survived. In 16th-century Limoges, France, such hexagonal or octagonal salts were manufactured in enamel and we can find those in several prints dating to circa 1580 to 1630.

The engravings

The vessel is decorated in the humanistic tradition of biblical scenes alternated by mythological figures. Depictions from the biblical story of Lot are represented, alternated by Greek gods such as Zeus, Athena, Diana and Apollo. The combination of images from classical antiquity and the Bible is typical for the period in which the interest of antiquity was rediscovered but at the same time religious themes are still dominant. Classical stories about moral and virtue were depicted next to biblical stories. The gods represented on the vessel are copies after prints by the French goldsmith Etienne Delaune (1518-1583).

The biblical representations are related to Old Testament story of Lot. The engraver used different prints by various 16th century masters and copies them with some liberties.

The story of Lot is very applicable because his wife changed into a salt pillar and as such is depicted twice in the representations.  The story is about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. Lot travelled with Abraham to the country of Canaan. Upon the instance that Abraham and Lot start quarrelling because there is too little farm land available for all their cattle, they ultimately split up. Lot and his family ended up at Sodom.

Shortly afterwards Lot is imprisoned by king Chedolaomer and three of his allies. As soon as Abraham hears about this, he frees his cousin together with over 300 armed men. Upon Lots return to Sodom, God threatens to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorra, because of the bad behaviour of their inhabitants. In order to find out if there are maybe a few good inhabitants in Sodom, two angels go to the city. They are invited by Lot in his home and to enjoy his hospitality there. This is the first scene engraved on the vessel.

The cities’ inhabitants want Lot to expell the Angels, in order to be able to rape them. Lot turns this offer down, pointing out to his hospitality. Instead he offers the inhabitants his virgin daughters. However, Sodom’s men do not accept Lots offer, and the angels struck the mob with blindness. This blind making of Sodom’s men is beautifully engraved on the vessel. The detail of the man on the ladder is undoubtedly taken from a print by Frans Menton.

Anonymous, after Frans Menton, The men of Sodom slain with blindness, engraving, circa 1550-1570, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Print Room, inv. n° RP-P-1878-A-1283.jpg

Thereafter the angels expelled Lot and his family; consecutively the city was destructed. As soon as Lot’s wife turned her head to look backwards, she changed into a salt pillar. This element is beautifully represented on the salt vessel. Lot and his daughters fled from the city, accompanied by two angels. In the background one recognises Lot’s wife, the woman changing in a salt pillar, in front of the burning city of Sodom.

Lot and his daughters

After his escape from Sodom, Lot and his two daughters are living in a cave. Because both of them cannot find a husband there, they decide to get their father drunk, in order to be able to sleep with him. From these nights two sons are born: Moab and Ben-Ammi; they became the founding fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites (Genesis 19:30-38))

This representation was very popular during the 16th and 17th centuries and this episode was depicted in many paintings as well. The representations of Menton and Galle are mirrored in comparison to the salt cellar, but with respect to the composition are very close. Even the woman that altered in a salt pillar is represented.

The large quantity of print material in the 16th century Netherlands demonstrates that certain imagery traditions were known to the artists that used them. Many representations resemble one and other strongly and are repeated by many artists.


Sotheby’s, London, 11 February 1970;
With A.C. Beeling, Leeuwarden, 1990;
Private collection, The Netherlands

Tanja G. Kootte, De Bijbel in huis, Bijbelse verhalen op huisraad in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw, Waanders Uitgevers, Zwolle, Museum Het Catharijneconvent, 1991, cat. n° 29, afb. 50

Utrecht, Museum het Catharijneconvent 1991, De Bijbel in huis, 14/12/1991- 08/03/1992, n° 29;
Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Biblical Paintings in Rembrandt’s Holland, 07/05/1993-28/08/1993

Maker's mark a squirrel, Northern Netherlands or Frankentahl, 1580-1600

height, 10 cm, diam. 11 cm.

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