do we see?
The All Souls Salt depicts a tall striding figure carefully balancing
an elaborate rock crystal and silver gilt cup and cover on his
head. Around his feet, and whilst a bagpiper plays a tune, a hunt
is in progress with hounds and huntsmen chasing boar, deer, and
hare in a landscape surrounded by miniature battlements and towers
reminiscent of a Medieval city wall. Curiously, the figure seems
completely unaware of this pastoral drama taking place around
his ankles and keeps his eyes firmly on the horizon.
Why it is so special?
This salt is a rare example of a type known only from contemporary
manuscripts. It is made even more unusual by the fact that its
elaborate modelling and engraved decoration is not only gilded
but also painted and it is this which makes it unique in this
to the Salt’s ambiguious identity
The Salt was made in the 15th century, probably in Germany, Burgundy,
or possibly by a continental silversmith working in England. It
is known by a variety of names: ‘The Founder’s Salt’
because it was probably owned by Archbishop Chichele who founded
All Souls College, ‘The Huntsman’ because of the hunting
scene, and also ‘The Giant’ because of his size relative
to the other figures.
As if this were not confusing enough, he has also long been assumed
to be a ‘barbarian’ because of his dark painted features,
forked beard, and the particular type of sword which he is carrying.
These are all established conventions in the Medieval period used
to identify non–Christians in illustrations and sculpture.
The present colour of his skin may, however, only serve to further
confuse because it is possible that the darkness is the result
of a change in the colour of the pigments used in the original
paint caused by prolonged exposure to light and pollution.
Another curious feature is the fact that the piper, huntsman,
and animals are all painted, but over a gilded surface and this
implies that the Salt has been altered at some time in its history.
This is obvious upon closer examination – whereas the main
figure, elaborate floral finial, and the base are characteristically
15th century in style, the cup and cover show 16th century detailing
in the feather pattern borders and construction techniques whilst
the tiny figures are dressed in very late 16th century costume.
It is therefore probable that the Salt was modified at least twice
before 1600 but visual inspection alone cannot tell us when it
was painted, or what its original colours were – that can
only be done by analysis of the pigments.