Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Lidded Saltcellar

15th–16th century
Sierra Leone
H. 11 3/4 x Diam. 4 1/4 in. (29.8 x 10.8 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Paul and Ruth W. Tishman, 1991
Accession Number:
1991.435a, b
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 352
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 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 and African aesthetics and forms. During this period, salt and pepper were costly commodities and elaborate receptacles were appropriate for their storage in princely homes.

This work contains imagery relating to indigenous Sapi belief systems. The four snakes, associated with mystical wealth, appear to confront 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 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.
#1555. Lidded Saltcellar
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For Audio Guide tours and information, visit
Jay C. Leff, Uniontown, PA, by 1959–ca. 1970; Paul and Ruth W. Tishman, New York, ca. 1970–1991

Robbins, Warren M. African Art in American Collections= L'art africain dans les collections americaines . New York: F.A. Praeger, 1966, cat. no. 58.

Bassani, Ezio, and William B. Fagg. Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory. New York: Center for African Art, 1988, no. 21.

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Saltcellar Base

Date: 15th–16th century Medium: Ivory Accession: 1991.17.144 On view in:Not on view

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Date: ca. 1525–1600 Medium: Ivory Accession: 1972.63a, b On view in:Gallery 352


Date: 16th century Medium: Ivory Accession: 1979.206.116 On view in:Not on view

Figure: Head

Date: 16th century Medium: Steatite Accession: 1978.412.375 On view in:Gallery 352

Figure: Seated Male

Date: 16th–20th century Medium: Stone Accession: 1979.206.270 On view in:Gallery 352