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Medieval Aquamanilia

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An aquamanile (pl. aquamanilia), from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus), is an animal- or human-shaped vessel for pouring water used in hand washing, an essential component of religious and secular rituals in medieval society. The hundreds of surviving examples attest to their popularity during the Middle Ages. Some pottery aquamanilia—made for a more humble clientele—survive, usually in fragments, but most extant aquamanilia were cast in copper alloy through the lost-wax process; medieval European examples date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century. The Metropolitan Museum has one of the largest and most important collections of aquamanilia in the world. The variety of forms seen in the collection—lions, horses, griffins, unicorns, and figures from biblical and ancient traditions—reveals the sculptural character of these finely crafted objects, which served practical as well as aesthetic purposes.


At elaborate banquet feasts, aquamanilia were functional vessels as well as sumptuous table decorations.

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The tradition of casting objects in copper alloy for use in a sacred space ultimately traces to the biblical account of the building of King Solomon's temple. A wide array of objects embellished the medieval church, starting at its great entrance doors (2007.20). Christian ceremony required vessels for hand washing, containers for oil and holy water, censers, cross bases, and candelabra. Hand washing played an important role in the liturgy of the medieval church. At each Mass, with the help of a deacon, who poured water from a pitcher or aquamanile, the priest washes his hands twice, before donning his vestments and in preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist, the sacrament in which bread and wine are believed to become the body and blood of Christ. A few medieval images of ritual hand washing using an aquamanile survive, but none of these represents a priest. Rather they depict the Gospel account of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate washing his hands after condemning Jesus to death.


Indeed, ritual hand washing was not confined to the liturgy. In households of the nobility and those emulating their customs, and in monastic refectories, meals began and ended with hand washing, a practical consideration in an age of shared dishes and few utensils. Hand washing was also an important aspect of medieval courtly etiquette. At elaborate banquet feasts, aquamanilia were functional vessels as well as sumptuous table decorations; this seems especially true of the large, later examples, such as the griffin (1975.1.1413) and Aristotle and Phyllis (1975.1.1416). Like most aquamanilia made after about 1400, these have spigots, suggesting that they were meant to remain stationary.


A tradition of hollow-cast vessels in animal form existed in late Roman, early Byzantine, and Islamic cultures. Although late Roman and early Byzantine examples were made to contain oil rather than water, they may be seen as precursors of medieval aquamanilia in their methods of casting and finishing, as well as in the use of animal forms for the handles or the bodies of the vessels. From an early date, Islamic metalworkers produced sophisticated cast objects in the form of animals, in both monumental and portable sizes, and the proficiency of these artists has long been of interest to scholars looking for the sources of innovations in Western art. They undoubtedly played a significant role in the emergence in Europe of sophisticated cast objects. To create aquamanilia, Western European metalworkers, already proficient in the casting of solid objects, adopted a set of skills that had been unknown in the West since antiquity.


Several factors led to contacts between Western Europe and the Byzantine and Islamic cultures, in which animal imagery, particularly fantastic animals such as griffins and dragons, was a feature of the artistic repertory. The Muslim kingdoms in Spain (al-Andalus) provided nearby opportunities for artistic exchange through trade as well as plunder. Trade centers in Venice, Sicily, Genoa, and Pisa brought commercial goods from the Islamic and Byzantine worlds to Europe, and vice versa. The period from the First through the Fourth Crusade (1095–1204) led to an increased presence of Europeans in Constantinople, and the Holy Land. Islamic aquamanilia could have been among the luxury items brought to the West through diplomatic gift exchange, commercial routes, or even as booty from the Crusades. Sumptuous metalwork, enamel, ivory, and silk were easily transported and numerous examples came into the treasuries of European churches. The forms were adapted rather than copied by Western craftsmen and surviving evidence is insufficient to define precise relationships between Eastern and Western works.


Many surviving aquamanilia were created between about 1200 and 1350 in northern Germany, a region with a renowned metalwork tradition. A great high point was achieved around the year 1000 through the patronage of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony (960–1022). In the second half of the twelfth century, during the reign of Duke Henry the Lion, Braunschweig, also in Lower Saxony, emerged as a major center for the casting of monumental works. The great Braunschweig lion, nearly two meters high, is perhaps the most significant created in the region since Bishop Bernward's patronage, and it is especially important as a rare civic monument, an emblem of the Duke's family. The lion, with its mouth open to indicate a roar, was commissioned about 1166 by the duke to stand in the Burgplatz as a symbol of his power, ambition, and the importance of Braunschweig as his capital city. About twenty years later, the cathedral at Braunschweig was embellished with an altar table (the Marienaltar) supported by five superbly cast copper alloy columns with acanthus leaf capitals and a monumental seven-branched candlestick with four feet in the form of dragons each resting on a lion. The abundance of lions and dragons is thoroughly consistent with the art of this period in metalwork and in other media.


The earliest aquamanilia do not appear to be indebted to the monumental works of Braunschweig, but rather to works cast in the city of Magdeburg in neighboring Saxony. Most notable of these are the doors of Novgorod Cathedral, originally made in Magdeburg for Plock, Poland, and later taken to Russia, datable to about 1152–56. The figures on the doors reveal a predilection for engraved patterns, particularly on the borders of garments. The lion masks that anchor the door pulls on the Novgorod doors have rounded ears, deeply arched eyebrows and extensive use of short engraved strokes around the eyes. These are all characteristics of several aquamanilia such as the lion (47.101.52) and the dragon (47.101.51) in the Museum's collection. With little evidence to localize most surviving aquamanilia, well-documented monuments like the Novgorod doors provide an important point of reference that allows a significant group of aquamanilia to be attributed to Magdeburg and dated to about 1200.


Shortly after 1200, Hildesheim likewise reemerged as a center for the casting of monumental works in copper alloy. The richly decorated baptismal font of about 1220–25 in the cathedral church of Hildesheim exemplifies the importance of the monuments there. Supported by kneeling figures personifying the four Rivers of Paradise, the outside of the font itself has scenes pertaining to Baptism and the Virgin and Child Enthroned as well as bust-length representations of the symbols of the four Evangelists, Hebrew prophets, and extensive inscriptions. The font's conical cover is equally richly embellished with figurative scenes. Stylistic correspondence between aquamanilia and the font suggests that Hildesheim was a major center for the casting of such works in the thirteenth century. Other monuments in and around Hildesheim, such as the monumental eagle lectern cast in copper alloy, enable us to attribute a sizable group of portable objects to Lower Saxony.


Some aquamanilia, such as the large Samson and the Lion (1975.1.1412) and Aristotle and Phyllis (1975.1.1416), are more difficult to localize and cannot be firmly attributed to a known center of production. By about 1400, however, Nuremberg, an imperial free city in the south German region of Franconia, emerged as a major center of artistic production and for metal casting. Many surviving aquamanilia, including several in the Museum's collection, are attributed to Nuremberg workshops. A distinctive feature of many examples made in Nuremberg is the so-called "flame-tail" such as that seen on the lion (1994.244).


The most prevalent aquamanile form is the lion (approximately one-third of the surviving examples). This is not surprising in light of the positive associations for this beast in religious and heraldic symbolism. One of the most popular medieval texts, particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was the bestiary, an encyclopedia of real and fantastic beasts that was compiled from earlier sources. Considered an authoritative natural history, it incorporated knowledge from antiquity (such as Pliny the Elders' Natural History and the Greek Physiologus) and from early church fathers (such as Isidore of Seville). Descriptions of the physical features and the character of each animal were followed by a moral and religious interpretation. Most manuscripts were richly illustrated. Although bestiaries were used for teaching in monastic schools, their stories about the various beasts were widely disseminated through sermons and popular imagery. Most bestiaries begin with a lengthy entry on the lion. As the "prince of all animals," the lion was interpreted as a symbol of Christ. Yet the lion was also an exemplar of chivalric behavior: "The compassion of lions . . is clear . . for they spare the prostrate; they allow such captives as they come across to go back to their own country; they prey on men rather than women." Like the great Braunschweig lion, aquamanilia in lion form may have symbolized power and prestige. The next most popular forms of aquamanilia are dragons and horses, often mounted by a knight. Those animals would also convey power and strength. Although it is difficult to determine specific animal symbolism for any particular aquamanile, especially in instances when we do not know whether they were made for religious or secular use, the forms for aquamanilia are most often beasts associated with royalty and nobility in the Middle Ages.

Peter Barnet
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art