Lidded Saltcellar, 15th–16th century
Sierra Leone; Sapi–Portuguese
Ivory; H. 11 3/4 in. (29.8 cm)
Gift of Paul and Ruth W. Tishman, 1991 (1991.435a,b)
This saltcellar is both an extraordinary example of skilled workmanship and an artifact that epitomizes a singularly important convergence of cultures. In the second half of the fifteenth century, Portuguese explorers and traders were impressed by the considerable talent of ivory carvers they encountered along the coast of West Africa. As a result, they were inspired to commission works of this kind for their patrons, which ingeniously combine both European aesthetics and forms with those of Africa. During this period, salt and pepper were costly commodities and elaborate receptacles were appropriate for their storage in princely homes.
The top half of the piece includes four delicate rosettes and is crowned by what appears to be a distinctly European-looking rose. The spiraling interlocking forms may relate to a similarly entwined beaded style called gadrooning in early sixteenth-century Portuguese decorative arts.
The lower half includes imagery relating to indigenous African belief systems. The snakes may refer to spirits who are believed to bring immense riches to those who control them. It is possible that this is a reference to wealth gained through trade with the Portuguese. The four snakes appear to approach and almost touch noses with four growling dogs. According to regional traditions, dogs are considered spiritually astute animals able to see spirits and ghosts that are invisible to humans. This depiction of the dogs, with teeth bared, hair bristling, and ears laid back, may relate to that supernatural ability. However, the level of animation in this scene could also derive from chivalric hunting scenes in European woodcuts, which were furnished to local African artists by their European patrons.
The delicate gap between the descending snakes and the snarling dogs creates a dynamic of dramatic tension that dominates the work. The four African figures along the base appear to be a series of attendants, individuals of no particular rank. The women rest their hands on their genitalia, emphasizing their fertility, while the men hold swords and shields.