Bernard Palissy was a French scientist, writer, garden designer, glassblower, painter, and ceramist. A devout and outspoken Huguenot, he was imprisoned for his religious beliefs and for his role in the Protestant riots of the first of the Wars of Religion. Catherine de'Medici, the French queen, who acted as his protector, commissioned Palissy to build a private grotto for her at the garden of the Tuileries palace. This pilgrim flask belongs to the small group of ceramics, the so-called rustic ceramics, attributed with certainty to Bernard Palissy and his workshop. The pilgrim flask is decorated with the characteristic shells and snakes associated with Palissy’s rustic vessels. Clay or plaster molds were taken of snakes and shells, and then a positive clay model was made from the molds. The pilgrim flask is an unusual form for Palissy, better known for his basins, pitchers, and dishes. Like Palissy’s other rustic works, the pilgrim flask had no utilitarian function.
This pilgrim flask belongs to the limited corpus of sixteenth-century ceramics attributed with certainty to Bernard Palissy and his workshop.(1) It not only shares stylistic, technical, and compositional similarities with Palissy’s innovative potteries — the so-called rustic ceramics — but also with fragments from the potter’s workshop excavated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries under the Tuileries in Paris.(2) The pilgrim flask is decorated with the characteristic shells and snakes associated with Palissy’s rustic vessels. More revealing, however, is its striking visual parity with ceramic fragments of grottoes found in Palissy’s Parisian workshop, notably an unglazed plaque with shells and a moss-covered rock now in Écouen,(3) and a small lead-glazed ceramic capital from a pilaster covered with shells, and a glazed coiled brown viper, both in Sevres.(4) In addition, the decoration of the pilgrim flask was cast from life, a technique used by Palissy for his rustic ceramics.(5) Clay or plaster molds were taken of snakes and shells, and then a positive clay model was made from the molds. The various life casts and possibly real shells were attached to a flask shape, the surface of which had been carved to imitate seaweeds and water in its previous wet clay stage. The method allowed each side of the pilgrim flask to be unique. A two-part mold was created from the finished model, and then a positive was taken by pressing white clay into each section of the mold. A translucent colorless glaze and glazes colored with metallic oxides, with the possible addition of slips, were applied to the fired ceramic.(6) The white color of the shells comes mostly from the colorless glazed clay. The bottom of the pilgrim flask has a distinctive ocher brown glaze with black dots characteristic of Palissy.(7) The shells are species commonly found on the Atlantic coast including several bivalve shells (cockles, scallops, and ark, and Venus clams) and sea snails (whelks, moon snails, and oyster drills).(8) The reptiles portrayed are freshwater grass snakes (Natrix natrix), commonly found in France. Only one known vessel is similarly covered with shells: a pitcher attributed to Palissy with a frog spout and crayfish handle now in the Louvre, Paris.(9) Technical analyses of the clay indicate that the pilgrim flask is made of white clay with very high aluminum oxide content.(10) Its composition is comparable with grotto fragments excavated in Palissy’s workshop at the Tuileries.(11) Such “extra-white” clay might be the “clay from the Poitou” to which Palissy alludes in his Discours Admirables of 1580.(12) It is highly possible that Palissy made the pilgrim flask while working at Saintes, about twenty-four miles south of Poitou. Therefore the flask can be dated to between 1556, when Palissy made his first rustic ceramics, and 1567 when he left Saintes to establish a workshop at the Tuileries in Paris. Although it is possible that Palissy continued to use the highly prized white clay from Poitou while working in Paris, the pilgrim flask’s restrained palette of colors suggests an earlier date, similar to that of an oval basin with three knotted snakes, now in Lyon, dated about 1556.(13) The pilgrim flask is an unusual form for Palissy, better known for his basins, pitchers, and dishes; the form, however, was known in the sixteenth century by French ceramists.(14) Like Palissy’s other rustic works, the pilgrim flask had no utilitarian function.
Catalogue entry from: Charlotte Vignon. The Robert Lehman Collection. Decorative Arts, Vol. XV. Wolfram Koeppe, et al. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 172-74.
1. Amico, Leonard N. “Les ceramiques rustiques authentiques de Bernard Palissy.” Revue de l’art, 1987, no. 78, pp. 61 – 69; Amico. Bernard Palissy: In Search of Earthly Paradise, Paris, 1996. Amico attributed ten pieces with certainty to Bernard Palissy after an in-depth study of sixty pieces traditionally assigned to the sixteenth-century potter. His research included comparison with fragments found in Palissy’s Tuileries workshop, as well as technical analyses.
2. On Palissy’s workshop at the Tuileries in Paris, see Munier, Pierre. “Contribution a l’etude des ceramiques de B. Palissy.” Bulletin de la Société Française de Céramique 3, 1949, pp. 26 – 46; Dufay, Bruno, Yves de Kisch, Dominique Poulain, Yves Roumegoux, and Pierre-Jean Trombetta. “L’atelier parisien de Bernard Palissy.” Revue de l’art, 1987, no. 78, pp. 33 – 57; Amico 1996. Many fragments are reproduced in color in Amico 1996.
3. Musée National de la Renaissance, Château d’Écouen (ep 1291; Amico 1996, color ill., p. 18, fig. 4).
4. The small capital is in the Musée National de la Céramique, Sevres, (mnc 8326.3; Amico 1996, color ill., p. 93, fig. 80), as is the coiled viper (mnc 8326.2; Amico 1996, color ill., p. 67, fig. 53). Several pieces attributed to Bernard Palissy and workshop by Leonard Amico feature coiled snakes: a basin in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (88.de.63); a basin in the Musée National de la Céramique, Sevres (mnc 3145); and a dish in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (c. 2313-1910). More complex knotted snakes appear on a basin in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (M R 2295), and on a mold for a rustic basin in the Musée National de la Renaissance, Château d’Écouen (on deposit). None of these coiled snakes are identical to the ones on the Lehman pilgrim flask. However, other molds and unglazed casts of coiled snakes from Palissy’s Parisian workshop have survived but have not been examined by the author.
5. For a discussion of Palissy’s life-cast technique, see Dufay et al. 1987, p. 45; Amico 1996, pp. 86 – 96.
6. Elemental analysis was performed in January 2012 by Mark T. Wypyski, research scientist, Department of Scientific Research, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, using energy and wavelength dispersive X-ray spectroscopy in the scanning electron microscope. The following table presents the results of the oxide concentrations as weight percent for a sample of the colorless glaze taken from the foot.
Na2O MgO Al2O3 SiO2 P2O5 SO3 Cl K2O
1.6 0.60 4.7 39.3 0.23 0.18 0.16 1.7
CaO TiO2 MnO Fe2O2 CuO SrO SnO2 PbO
2.5 0.20 0.17 0.38 0.02 0.03 0.03 48.3
7. For a discussion of Palissy glazes, see Perrin, Isabelle, Bruce Velde, and Duncan Mac Arthur. “Les glacures de Bernard Palissy: Une technique originale d’opacification.” Technè, 1997, no. 6, pp. 58 – 64.
8. I thank Neil H. Landman, curator, Division of Paleontology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, for his help identifying the various species of shells.
9. Louvre, mr 2337. Amico demonstrates that the Louvre pitcher is particularly similar to grotto fragments found in Palissy’s workshop at the Tuileries. Most notably the species of shell on the Louvre pitcher are the same as those on a mold marked “vazes bons” (Amico 1996, p. 107). Therefore the Lehman pilgrim flask might well possess the same shell species as that of the excavated mold (not examined by the author).
10. Elemental analysis was performed in January 2012 by Mark T. Wypyski, research scientist, Department of Scientific Research, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, using energy and wavelength dispersive X-ray spectroscopy in the scanning electron microscope. The following table presents the results of the oxide concentrations as weight percent for a sample of the white clay taken from the foot.
Na2O MgO Al2O3 SiO2 SO3 K2O CaO TiO2 MnO Fe2O2
0.2 0.2 37.8 56.4 0.6 1.5 1.4 0.7 nd 1.1
11. See Munier 1949, pp. 33, 37 – 38; Amico 1996, p. 243, table ii; Bouquillon, Anne, and Odile Leconte. “Relire Palissy a la lumiere des analyses.” Technè, 2004, no. 20, p. 73. This extrawhite clay is found on a minority of fragments from Palissy’s workshop at the Tuileries. Bouquillon and Leconte note that this extra-white clay was used by Palissy for molded casts of medals, on Saint-Porchaire – type impressions, on saltcellars as well as on bricks.
12. Palissy states in Discours Admirables, “I once found some clay from the Poitou, and I worked with this for a full six months before I completed a kiln-full, for these vessels that I made were highly worked and sold for quite a high price. Now, while making some of these vessels of clay from the Poitou, I made others of clay from the Saintonge, with which I had worked previously for many years and with which I was quite experienced with respect to the appropriate firing temperature; and thinking that all clays could be fired at the same temperature, I fired my works made of clay from the Poitou along with those made of clay from the Saintonge, which caused me a great loss . . .” (Palissy 1580, p. 370; translated in Amico 1996, p. 131). On the extrawhite clay used by Palissy, see Amico 1996, p. 133; Bouquillon and Leconte 2004, p. 73. This clay is usually associated with Saint-Porchaire objects; see Amico 1996, p. 133; Tite, Michael S. “Comparative Study of the Production Technology for ‘Saint-Porchaire’ and Related European Ceramics.” In Saint-Porchaire Ceramics, edited by Daphne Barbour and Shelley Sturman, pp. 99 – 105. Studies in the History of Art 52. Monograph Series 2. National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1996; Bouquillon and Leconte 2004, p. 73.
13. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon (h475; Amico 1996, color ill., pp. 98 – 99, fig. 85).
14. This work seems to be the only pilgrim flask attributed to Palissy. For French sixteenth-century pilgrim flasks, see one in terracotta with green enamel with the arms of Montmorency dating after 1551 from Beauvais or Saintonge, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (oa 1409), and a damaged pilgrim flask from Saintonge in the Musée National de la Céramique, Sevres (mnc 7065).
Louis-August-Alfred Beurdeley; [Frédéric Spitzer, Paris]; Spitzer sale, Paris, 17 April – 16 June 1893, lot 632, pl. xviii (apparently unsold); Spitzer Legacies sale, Anderson Galleries, New York, 9-12 January 1929, lot 406, ill. Acquired by Robert Lehman from the Spitzer Legacies sale.