A marvel of exquisite craftsmanship, this small, gold-mounted rock-crystal salt cellar, which rests on a high, knopped stem above a tapered, conical base, is a rare example of Early Gothic goldsmiths' work. The crystal salt cellar is meticulously carved with a pointed prow, a flat yet sloping stern, a keel that is rectangular in profile, and simple notching for the double oarlocks. Three interconnected hollows in the interior are arranged symmetrically along the boat's axis. The upper surface of the rim of the vessel is decorated with seed pearls, and emeralds; below is a border of tiny ivy leaves. One-fourth of the hinged lid can be lifted by means of a tiny handle in the form of a serpent. The gems and pearls in combination with the serpent probably had an apotropaic meaning, as serpents' tongues were thought to warn against poison by breaking out into a sweat.
The form of The Cloisters' object recalls that of two reliquaries of the Holy Thorn, preserved in the Treasury of Saint-Maurice d'Agaune in Switzerland and in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. Both are believed to have been made in Paris-the first, about 1262, and the second, before 1270. Consequently, a date in the mid-thirteenth century is certain for The Cloisters' work, and a Paris localization for its manufacture is indicated. The capital's goldsmiths' center of activity was the Pont-Neuf. The Parisian guild regulations also include crystal carvers, cited in Étienne Boileau's "Le Livre des métiers", of about 1268. The diminutive scale and costly materials suggest that this luxury object served as a receptacle for a precious commodity for the table, such as salt or a spice. Ecclesiastical salt cellars, used in the sacrament of baptism and for the hallowing of water, appear only rarely in medieval inventories, but such a usage for this object cannot be excluded. Indeed, it is possible that these works may have been made first for an aristocratic or royal table and were later to be transferred as a gift or a bequest to a church for ecclesiastical use. Information gleaned from early inventories does suggest that such prestigious objects, made of gold and crystal and enhanced with gems, emanated from royal patronage, ownership, or presentation.
In any case, few Early Gothic secular table furnishings have survived intact. Many works were buried, destroyed, or melted down during the long periods of looting, war, and revolution.