Derived from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus), an aquamanile (plural: aquamanilia) is an animal- or human-shaped water vessel used in hand washing, an essential component of religious and secular rituals in the Middle Ages. Aquamanilia were the first cast vessels of medieval Europe. Usually cast in copper alloy through the lostwax process (cire perdue), the hundreds of surviving examples date from the twelfth through fifteenth century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the most important collections of aquamanilia in the world, with examples at The Cloisters and in the main building on Fifth Avenue, in both the medieval galleries and the Lehman Collection.

To see the whole collection, check out the brilliant Met digital collection here:

Here are some examples.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Lion 12th century North German

The lion, because of its exceptional strength, was associated in the Middle Ages with Christ and was the animal most frequently employed for aquamanilia. The vessel was filled through the opening at the top of the head, and water was poured from the spout in the mouth.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Rooster 13th century German

The rooster’s majestic tail feathers splay in rhythmic arcs as he crows, full-throated. The artist who modeled the bird boldly balanced the body on its tiny talons.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Mounted Knight

This aquamanile, in the form of a horse and rider, exemplifies the courtly ideals of knighthood that pervaded Western medieval culture and influenced objects intended for daily use. It depicts a type of armor that disappeared toward the third quarter of the thirteenth century. Unfortunately, the shield—which probably displayed the arms of the owner—and the lance are no longer extant.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Dragon ca. 1200

The most commonly seen zoomorphic aquamaniles are lions, but dragons, griffins, and many other forms were also produced.

This striking vessel represents a dragon, which is supported by its legs in front and on the tips of its wings behind, with a tail that curls up into a handle. It was filled through an opening in the tail, now missing its hinged cover. Water was poured out through the spout formed by the hooded or cowled figure held between the dragon’s teeth. In addition to its visual power, this aquamanile is distinguished by fine casting, visible in the carefully chased dragon’s scales and other surface details.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Crowned Centaur Fighting a Dragon1200–1225

The crowned centaur (probably Chiron, the king of the centaurs),wielding a sword in his right hand, appears about to slay the dragon attacking his left side. Already representing a fantastic beast, the form here is further enriched by the dragon whose head and neck, grasped in the centaur’s left hand, form the spout.

Aquamanile in the Form of Aristotle and Phyllislate 14th or early 15th century

The subject of this celebrated example is the moralizing legend of Aristotle and Phyllis, which achieved popularity in the late Middle Ages. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and tutor of Alexander the Great, allowed himself to be humiliated by the seductive Phyllis as a lesson to the young ruler, who had succumbed to her wiles and neglected the affairs of state. Encouraging Alexander to witness his folly, Aristotle explained that if he, an old man, could be so easily deceived, the potential consequences for a young man were even more perilous. The ribald subject indicates that this aquamanile was made for a domestic setting, where it would have doubled as an object of entertainment for guests at the table.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Griffin ca. 1425–50

This magnificent aquamanile in the form of a griffin with (separately cast) outstretched wings can be grouped stylistically with the unicorn (64.101.1493) and a few other examples that were probably produced by the same Nuremberg workshop in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. The aquamanile was filled through a hole between the ears, and water was poured from the spigot in the chest, likely a rare surviving original element.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Griffon ca. 1120

Last but not least, this fantastic medieval Aquamanile is one of the oldest and most beautiful. Unlike the others above, this is in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.

Its beak serves as the spout; the fill opening is located on the arched tail that forms the handle. Lavishly embellished with niello and silver damascened and gilt decorations, it is among the earliest and finest extant aquamaniles.

It was made around 1120/1130 in Helmarshausen founded by Otto III that flourished in the 12th century. Its scriptorium and metalworks. It produced amongst others the Gospels of Henry the Lion which was sold for £8.1m pounds in 1983, making it the then most expensive book ever sold.

The monastery declined as it was fought over by the great archbishops of Cologne and Mainz and was finally dissolved in the Reformation.

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien,

Kunstkammer Inventar No. 83

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1 Comment

  1. I love this article! Brilliant! In an alternate reality, I have a large collection of these.

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