Bernard Palissy (French, 1510–1590) and workshop
Earthenware with colorless and transparent or opaque pigmented green, purple, blue, yellow, red-brown, and black lead glazes
H. 12 1/4 in. (31 cm), W. 7 1/2 in. (19 cm)
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.1620)
This pilgrim flask belongs to the limited corpus of sixteenth-century ceramics attributed with certainty to Bernard Palissy and his workshop. 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. 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, and a small lead-glazed ceramic capital from a pilaster covered with shells, and a glazed coiled brown viper, both in Sevres. In addition, the decoration of the pilgrim flask was cast from life, a technique used by Palissy for his rustic ceramics. Clay or plaster molds were taken of snakes and shells, and then a positive clay model was made from 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. 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. 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). 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. Technical analyses of the clay indicate that the pilgrim flask is made of white clay with very high aluminum oxide content. Its composition is comparable with grotto fragments excavated in Palissy's workshop at the Tuileries. Such "extra-white" clay might be the "clay from the Poitou" to which Palissy alludes in his Discours Admirables of 1580. 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. 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. Like Palissy's other rustic works, the pilgrim flask had no utilitarian function.