Gallery Asset

Carved Benin Ivory saltcellar

“The striking resemblance of the Bini-Portuguese ship to the medieval examples, and not to caravels used in the 16th century, suggests that the Bini carver was provided with an archaic rendering, perhaps in the form of a drawing or a woodcut. It is highly improbable that the Bini artist would otherwise have reached precisely the same stylised solution to this representation as had European artists of the 14th century. On the other hand the man in the crow’s nest, rendered in an anecdotal manner – unlike the imposing figures on the lower registers of the saltcellars – might have been a humorous addition by the Bini carver. Perhaps he saw a real vessel topped by a crow’s nest with a man in it, and the sight impressed him to the extent that he emphasised this detail. (The instrument held by the sailor is not a telescope, not yet invented, but probably a hailer). If this speculation has any validity, then the workshop to which the artist belonged must have been in close proximity to one of the harbours where Portuguese ships used to call.”

Three salts [Af1878,1101.48.a-c; Af1879,0701.1 and one in The Metropolitan Museum, New York] in the Bini-Portuguese corpus can be attributed to one artist, and because the lid of the only complete saltcellar of this group depicts a ship…we call the author of this group the “Master of the Heraldic Ship”. In all works by this master the main group of figures, which enclose the two lower registers, consists of four, standing, fully bearded Portuguese in elaborate costumes bearing swords and spears. In an extremely well-balanced composition, the artist alternates fully frontal figures in static poses with active figures in three-quarter view. He has given his more regal figures a contrasting stillness. This skilful juxtaposition serves to focus the eye upon the dominant frontal figures.
…the upper container is decorated with a pattern that serves a dual purpose: on the lower half it represents the foliage of a tree, while on the upper half it provides water on which the ship sails. To mark the transition from plant to water, the junction is decorated with a double row of rings. This motif is actually more characteristic of Owo than Bini art.”

* description from Ezio Bassani and William B. Fagg, Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory (1988)

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Type: photo
Date: 1525-1600
Location: Benin, Nigeria
Continent: Africa
Keywords: ivory