An aquamanile (plural aquamanilia or simply aquamaniles) is a special ewer for the washing of hands (aqua + manos) over a basin.
Iranian aquamaniles predate any zoomorphic aquamaniles known in Europe. An Iranian (Abbasid caliphate), Aquamanile in the form of an eagle, bearing the date 180 AH/CE 796-797, of bronze, inlaid with silver and copper, is in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. The latest in date is also at the State Hermitage Museum, a late pre-Islamic aquamanile from Khorasan, dated 1206. Islamic law deprecated the use of such representational figures, and the zoomorphic aquamanile tradition died out.
The Byzantine Empire's cultural connections with Sassanid Persia and the Abbasid caliphate, never peaceful in the political sphere, nevertheless brought the aquamanile into the Christian Mediterranean world. The earliest European portable aquamaniles date to the eleventh century.
Aquamaniles were needed in Christian liturgy for the ritual of the lavabo, in which the officiating priest washes his hands before vesting, again before the consecration of the Eucharist and after mass. As a ritual object, metal was considered more suitable than pottery, although most examples in pottery no doubt were broken and discarded. The aquamaniles made in the Mosan—or Meuse valley— region, using the brass alloy of silvery tint called dinanderie (from the center of its manufacture in the region of Dinant) were often fantastic and zoomorphic in their forms, which were constrained only by the need for a larger opening for filling the vessel and a spout for pouring. Church records inventory aquamaniles in silver or gilt copper, but the great majority of surviving examples are in base metals, which were not worth melting down.
As well as the altar, aquamaniles were used at the tables of the great, where extravagant designs of symbolic or fantastical beasts—lions were especially popular— were developed in purely secular iconography. A gold aquamanile, c 1215, in the treasury of the cathedral at Aachen, takes the form of a man's bust; it is a rare survival of an aquamanile in a precious metal. An aquamanile (ref. Metropolitan Museum) in the form of Aristotle on hands and knees, being ridden by Phyllis, bore several moral lessons, with ribald undertones; such an aquamanile was distinctly secular in nature.
Bronze aquamaniles in the form of leopards were part of court ritual in Benin, where the concept may have arrived from the Islamic north. An eighteenth-century bronze leopard aquamanile from Benin is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
A late version of the aquamanile was the silver-gilt mounted rider on a stand, bought in 1700 for the treasury of the Basilica of St-Denis and sold in 1798. Its form is recorded in an engraving by Félibien (ref. St-Denis)
The idea of ewers in fantastic shapes has never died out. Today's Toby jugs and cow cream jugs are the direct descendants of the aquamanile.