NEW YORK, NY -- In Russian culture, bread and salt are traditional symbols of health and prosperity. Bread, usually served with every meal, is held in special reverence. Perhaps the most common of all Russian adages is Bread is the staff of life. Salt, by contrast, was throughout ancient and Medieval Russian history a luxury only the wealthy could afford. In the 17th century, the rising cost of salt led to riots in Moscow, and it was only when a tax on salt was completely repealed at the end of the 19th century that it finally became affordable to the wider population.
The high cost of salt in Russia reserved its use for special occasions, such as the visit of an important guest. Over time, a tradition developed, whereby an arriving guest was greeted by a woman dressed in traditional costume holding a round loaf of bread surmounted by a salt cellar or throne. The guest would break off a piece of bread and dip it in salt before eating it, thus sealing the friendship between guest and host. This tradition of presenting bread and salt lives on in Russia today, especially at official receptions where dignitaries or honored guests are greeted in a special ceremony.
Salt thrones were produced by Russian silversmiths not only as ceremonial pieces but also as simply functional or decorative objects. They were part of a wider trend in the Russian visual arts of re-introducing traditional Russian forms (the kovsh is another common example) and using Russian vernacular ornament for their decoration. While most took the same basic form, salt thrones were produced in various styles. They may incorporate elements of traditional Russian folk architecture like the izba (a peasant’s house or cottage) or feature trompe l’oeil decoration and colorful cloisonné enamel.
Russian Works of Art
Doyle’s January 30, 2019 Russian Works of Art auction showcases a collection of Russian silver, enamel and niello salt thrones from the Estate of a Gentleman, Park Avenue and Southampton, New York. Featuring examples by the finest silversmiths working in pre-revolutionary Russia, such as Ovchinnikov and Khlebnikov, this remarkable collection offers a survey of styles dating from the late 19th to early 20th centuries.