This strange object, called an “aquamanile” (from the Latin aqua, “water”, and manus, “hand”) was originally a vessel to hold water for washing hands. Kept in the sacristy, it was used by priests before and after services. Artists gave these liturgical objects fanciful forms inspired by the Catholic Church’s repertoire of religious symbols. The great majority of aquamaniles are whimsical creations representing imaginary creatures with one or more animal heads (lion, dog, horse); others are winged sirens, sometimes with human faces. Lion aquamaniles were particularly popular in Lower Saxony in the twelfth century. Hybrid and chimerical creatures corresponded to the fanciful medieval spirit, and were used to decorate various types of material: textiles (tapestries, alms pouches), illuminated manuscripts, sculptures and stained glass. The aquamanile in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is a unique and significant model: a fantastic bird with a human face, holding in its slender arms a sort of bottleneck that acts as an air intake; a second animal head between its two legs serves as a spout. The bird’s wings and tail are curved to form the handle of the aquamanile, featuring a lidded opening into which water could be poured. Most of these works came from the northern countries, especially Germany, the Meuse region and the Netherlands. Although aquamaniles were originally liturgical objects, they were also used in private homes. Their production reached its peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and disappeared with the Renaissance.
Otto von Falk, Erik Meyer, Romanische Leuchter und Gefäß, Gießgefäß der Gotik (Denkmäler deutscher Kunst. Bronzegeräte des Mittelalters 1), Berlin, 1983 (1st ed. Berlin, 1935).
Chefs-d’œuvre du Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, 1985.