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  • John N. Lupia

Type of ewer, usually of metal, used for the washing of hands in a liturgical or domestic context. It is often zoomorphic in form and usually has two openings, one for filling with water and the other for pouring. In their original usage aquamanilia expressed the symbolic significance of the lavabo, the ritual washing of the hands by the priest before vesting, before the consecration of the Eucharist and after mass. The earliest production of aquamanilia is associated with Mosan art of the Meuse Valley in northern France, and with Lower Saxony in north-east Germany. The majority of surviving examples are made of a variety of bronze that resembles gold when polished, while nearly all those made of precious metals are known only from church inventories.

Aquamanile in the form of a lion, bronze, Lower Saxony, Germany, c. 1400 (London, Victoria and Albert Museum); photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Art Resource, NY

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Church documents refer to aquamanilia as early as the 5th century, when canon regulations stipulated that on ordination the subdeacon should receive such a vessel. Various documents from the 5th century to the beginning of the 11th sometimes use the term to denote both the ewer and its basin. Sometime after the beginning of the 11th century the term became transferred to a type of vessel, usually in the shape of an animal (e.g. lion, stag, horse; see fig.), bird (cock, dove) or fantastic beast (dragon, griffin, unicorn), but sometimes also shaped as a human figure, bust or head. Some aquamanilia have clear iconographic meaning, for example those in the shape of a dove symbolize spiritual cleansing (Psalm 26:6), those in the shape of a hart signify the celebrant’s spiritual devotion (Psalm 42:1), while aquamanilia in the form of demonic creatures served as exhortative warnings to the clergy to remain obedient to their vows and to live virtuous lives.

Aquamanile in the form of a mounted knight, copper alloy, 14 3/4 x 12 5/8 x 5 9/16 in. (37.5 x 32 x 14.2 cm), late 13th century (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964, Accession ID: 64.101.1492); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Non-liturgical aquamanilia were increasingly widespread from the 12th century until the late 16th and were used in banquets, monastic refectories, inns and private homes, for hand ablutions after meals. Monastic refectory aquamanilia were cast in the form of creatures such as those carved on the capitals in the cloisters from which the water was drawn. There is evidence that aquamanilia were only used at the superior’s table; other members of the religious community used ablution fountains. The earliest examples of secular aquamanilia were cast in the form of mounted knights (see fig.), a form that may have reflected the assertion of nobility by divine right, inspired by the ideas of the Investiture Contest (1074–1122). The allegorical connection to ablutions would have served as a warning to remain honourable and just. Later, some aquamanilia evolved into sculptural table decorations, while others took on humanistic subjects such as the humiliation of Aristotle by Phyllis (New York, Met.). In the 14th century they began to influence dinanderie ewers, which, although usually referred to as ewers rather than aquamanilia, often had figured spouts, lids, handles and feet. German bellarmines (a type of Rhenish stoneware wine decanter) imitated the secular aquamanilia, as did English pottery. In the 19th-century Gothic Revival, German workshops began to reproduce aquamanilia, many of which have been confused with authentic pieces and have found their way into both private and public collections.

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  • J. Braun: Das christliche Altargerat in seinem Sein und in seiner Entwicklung (Munich, 1932), pp. 531–51, figs 423–43
  • O. van Falke and E. Meyer: Bronzegeräte des Mittelalters, 1 (Berlin, 1935), pp. 38–96, 106–18 [pls and bibliog.]
  • G. Swarzenski: ‘Romanesque Aquamanile of the Guennol Collection’, Brooklyn Museum Bulletin, 10 (1949), pp. 1–10
  • E. Meyer: ‘Romanesque Aquamanile in the Form of a Dragon’, Burlington Magazine, 92 (1950), pp. 102–5
  • Medieval Art from Private Collections: A Special Exhibition at the Cloisters (exh. cat., ed. C. Gomez-Moreno; New York, Cloisters, 1968)
  • K. Niehr: ‘Horaz in Hildesheim—Zum Problem einer mittelalterlichen Kunsttheorie’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte [merger of Z. Bild. Kst with Repert. Kstwiss. & with Jb. Kstwiss.], 1 (1989), pp. 1–24
  • P. Bloch: Aquamaniles: Objets sacrés et profanes du Moyen Age (Milan, 1982)
  • B. Scholkmann: ‘Die Aquamanilen aus Bebenhausen und Jettenburg: Neue Ergebnisse zu einer Gruppe mittelalterlicher Tongefässe in Südwestdeutschland’, Fundberichte aus Baden-Württemberg, 14/1 (1989), pp. 669–91
  • U. Mende: ‘Das Wiener Greifen-Aquamanile’, Helmarshausen und das Evangeliar Heinrichs des Löwen (Göttingen, 1992)
  • M. Hutt: Aquamanilien: Gebrauch und Form (Mainz, 1993)
  • P. Barnet and P. Dandrige: Lions, Dragons, and Other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, Vessels for Church and Table (New Haven, 2006)
  • M. Brandt: Bild und Bestie: Hildesheimer Bronzen der Stauferzeit (Regensburg, 2008)