Recycling the sacred: the Stonyhurst Salt

This elaborate salt cellar constructed of silver-gilt and rock crystal was made in London by John Robinson in 1577. Designed as the centrepiece for a wealthy client’s dinner table, this ornamental piece was intended for domestic use. Parts of it, however, had a prior existence as ecclesiastical plate. It incorporates material salvaged from melted-down liturgical silver rendered redundant by the Reformation and is studded with rubies and carbuncles that date from between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. But we should not see this transformation as evidence of a process of secularisation: salt itself was a substance with powerful spiritual connotations within Protestant culture. Providing evidence of how some sacred objects survived the Reformation by being recycled for ‘profane’ purposes, it also offers insight into how the memory of former religious artefacts lingered for generations. Significantly, this item later passed back into Catholic hands. Purchased by the Jesuit foundation Stonyhurst College and redeployed as a reliquary or pyx for holding the consecrated host, it was sold to a private collector in 1914 and acquired by the British Museum in 1957. The convoluted biography of this hybrid, modified object highlights the complicated ways in which Protestantism simultaneously effaced and preserved traces of the medieval Catholic past. AW

The Stonyhurst Salt, c. 1577–8

British Museum: 1958, 1004.1

Image: © Trustees of the British Museum

Further Reading

Hugh Tait, ‘The “Stonyhurst” Salt’, Apollo, 79 (1964), pp. 270–8.

Victoria Yeoman, ‘Reformation as Continuity: Objects of Dining and Devotion in Early Modern England’ (forthcoming).

Alexander Nagel, ‘The Afterlife of the Reliquary’, in Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann, and James Robinson (eds), Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe (Baltimore, 2010), pp. 211–222.

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