Aquamanilia

Samson and Lion, German, early 15th century Robert Lehman Collection“Lions, Dragons and Other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, Vessels for Church and Table,” at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture in New York City, is the first comprehensive exhibition of these objects from the Metropolitan Museum’s world-class collection. Aquamanilia had both sacred and secular functions, used by priests to wash their hands before mass and by households at mealtimes. Each vessel required two openings, one for filling with water and a spout for pouring, but the designs were anything but utilitarian. In fact, the playful animals and human-animal hybrids, like the denizens of manuscript marginalia, testify to the inventiveness of the medieval imagination. Decorative objects such as these, largely removed from the didactic and theological systems that governed much of medieval society, have an immediate appeal and suggest how complex the medieval worldview was. One vessel with a whiff of misogyny is Aristotle and Phyllis (late fourteenth century), a popular allegory of woman’s domination over man, from the South Lowlands. According to the legend, Phyllis aroused the passion of the philosopher and cajoled him into letting her ride on his back. In this surreal-looking vessel the lady sits sidesaddle on the besotted sage, and the spout emerges from his curly beard. Another emblem of man’s animal passion, the centaur, is represented in the exhibition by an early fifteenth-century German Crowned Centaur Fighting a Dragon. The hybrid creature seems remarkably serene and civilized; he is elegantly clothed as well as crowned. Small dragons with supple curves form the spout and handle of the vessel. One of the most personable monsters on display is a Griffin from early fifteenth-century Nuremberg. A fabulous animal with the head, wings and claws of an eagle and the body of a lion, the griffin was a heraldic emblem of courage and watchfulness. In Christian iconography it signified the dual nature of Christ. In the Purgatorio Dante describes the triumphal chariot of the Church, pulled by a griffin. The aquamanile on display is imposing, if more amiable than ferocious, with upturned eyes and crisply incised feathers.

An aquamanile—from the Latin for water and hand—is a type of ewer, related to the lavabo, a ritual washing of the hands. Even in a secular context, the aquamanile is steeped in the power of ceremony, which gives it a resonance beyond the charm and ingenuity of the form. The zoomorphic shapes evoke the symbol-saturated medieval milieu described by Panofsky and Huizinga, but they also express a playful attitude about the richness and variety of the natural world. The iconography of aquamanilia frequently addresses the medieval attitude toward beasts, mythical and real, as emblems of unpredictable nature. These tabletop sculptures domesticate the adventures and terrors of the wild. An early fifteenth-century German Samson and Lion is a whimsical take on classical legend. The ancient demigod is usually depicting slaying the animal or wearing its skin as a trophy. Here the small bearded man—half acrobat, half lion tamer—kneels on the beast’s back and, making eye contact, gently pries open the jaws. Copper alloy is a fine medium for the lion’s tawny skin, and the sculpting of the curly mane is remarkable. Dragons occupy a particularly interesting place in the medieval bestiary. Despite their association with the apocalypse and the antichrist, dragons have a more ambiguous role to play in the romance genre, where they represent the dangers but also the pure energy of instinct. In knightly adventures, folktales and collections of marvels, wild creatures could be adversaries or helpers, but they were essential to the quest and the hero’s transformation. Saints’ lives, as told in hagiographic legends, reflect the complexity of the subject. If St. George slays his dragon, St. Margaret of Antioch is swallowed and regurgitated by hers (much like Jonah and the Whale); she is often depicted with the chastened dragon on a leash. In this exhibition, a magnificent North German Dragon (Wyvern) from c. 1200 holds a tiny human figure in his jaws, the spout for water piercing the half-body. The form is both functional and aesthetically pleasing, with a capacious rounded body firmly anchored on well-balanced feet and wings, and an elegant curved tail for the vessel’s handle. The surface is delicately worked to suggest scales and feathers.

The exhibition explores the techniques and materials used to fashion these extraordinary objects, the first hollow-cast vessels produced in the medieval West. The exhibition and catalogue include data on the research of contemporary silversmith Ubaldo Vitali, who reproduced an aquamanile using medieval techniques in his Italian studio. The Bard Graduate Center and the Metropolitan Museum began collaborating in 2001 on a Museum History and Practice concentration for students to study topics in depth. This exhibition is the second to be mounted in conjunction with the program. While the aquamanilia are drawn from the Metropolitan’s holdings (with a few supplements from other collections), they have never before been catalogued or displayed together. (They are customarily divided among the Department of Medieval Art, the Lehman Collection and the Cloisters.) A full-color catalogue, with essays by Peter Dandridge, Peter Barnet and Dr. Ursula Mende, is available from Yale University Press (130 illustrations, $50). Both the exhibition and the catalogue provide a rare opportunity to consider the cultural implications of some of the most formally astonishing decorative objects in art history. 

“Lions, Dragons and Other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, Vessels for Church and Table” is on view through October 15, 2006, at the Bard Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, 18 West 86th Street, New York, New York 10024. Telephone (212) 501-3000. On the web at http://www.bard.edu/bgc/

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2006, Volume 23, Number 3