European sculpture specialist Milo Dickinson talks us through a wonderful array of aquamaniles — bronze water vessels used by noblemen in the Middle Ages, here in the shape of fantastical beasts and men — ahead of their sale in London on 6 December
‘The term aquamanile comes from two Latin words: aqua, meaning water, and manus, meaning hand,’ explains Milo Dickinson, specialist in early European sculpture at Christie’s in London. From the 12th to the 15th century, before cutlery was widely used, these vessels — shaped like humans or animals — were used for pouring water, specifically for handwashing after meals. Produced in a range of mediums, from more modest pottery to bronze and higher-end silver and gilt copper, their size, design, and the materials with which they were made reflected their owners’ social status.
Aquamaniles featured in ecclesiastical life as well: deacons used them to cleanse themselves before performing the Eucharist. In both religious and secular life, then, aquamaniles became integral to medieval etiquette.
The diverse designs of aquamaniles reflect the power of medieval trade and its vast artistic influence. In one late-14th-century bronze aquamanile, shaped like a man, the decoration on the figure's jacket has been copied from a known textile made by silk weavers from Venice and Lucca. These weavers, in turn, based their designs on imported Mongol fabrics.
Another bronze aquamanile, shaped like a lion, highlights the popularity of zoomorphic themes. Dating from around 1200, the animal’s protruding tongue playfully functions as the water spout. ‘The lion was the most popular aquamanile design,’ says Dickinson, ‘because it was considered the king of the beasts.’ Its ‘royal’ status made it particularly popular with medieval rulers and nobility.
Bronze aquamaniles were made using the lost-wax technique, an ancient casting method that involved building a clay mould around a wax modello into which a molten copper alloy could be poured. Due to their fragility, few ceramic aquamaniles have survived, while more elaborate silver and gilt copper examples tend to have been melted down after their use fell out of fashion. Today, nearly all extant aquamaniles are in bronze.
Ultimately, says Dickinson, these pieces ‘were both functional and highly decorative. They take you back to the medieval period like no other object. Each one tells of a moment in history that’s now lost.’
A group of bronze aquamaniles will be offered on 6 December in Man & Beast, a special section of the European Sculpture sale at Christie’s in London.