All Souls Salt

15th century, Germany or England

Medieval and Later, Gallery 2


Focus on the Object

What 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 country.

Clues 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.