This Aquamanile, which is in the form of an equestrian knight, was a vessel used during the Medieval period for the washing of hands over a basin at meal times. This practice was part of both upper-class meals and the Christian Eucharist. This Aquamanile was filled with water through the hole at the top of the knight’s helmet and emptied through the spout in the horse’s head.
This copper alloy vessel is in the form of a knight, seated in the saddled horse and is turned slightly to the lance side. The knight’s helmet is flat-topped with a trefoil in relief at the front, and it has slits for the eyes. Covering his protective mail is a surcoat engraved with fleurs-de-lis and stars in a diamond pattern with cross-hatched lines. The horse’s bridle and breastband are in relief and decorated with rosettes. Missing and lost from this Knight Aquamanile are the lance, shield, lid of the helmet, the feet of the knight and the horse’s tail.
Persian aquamaniles predate any animal form aquamaniles found in Europe and it was through the Byzantine Empire’s cultural connections with the east that this form of aquamanile was introduced into the Christian Mediterranean world. The earliest European portable aquamaniles date to the eleventh century when ewers and basins were needed in Christian liturgy for the ritual in which the priest washes his hands before vesting, again before the consecration of the Eucharist and after mass. The Aquamanile tradition was then taken up enthusiastically by the aristocracy in Europe, where it remained popular until the Renaissance.
In the traditional Roman Rite in the Catholic Church, the celebrant washes their hands before vesting for Mass. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Rite had two washing of hands, one before and one after the offertory. This first one has since disappeared, and the one which remains is the second. In the new Mass the celebrant says the prayer:
“Lord, wash away my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin”
– Psalm 50:2, Psalm 51:2 in the Hebrew
In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the priest says the last six verses from Psalm 26:
“I will wash my hands in innocency ….. “
After vesting, he washes his hands before approaching the altar of preparation, where he will prepare the bread and wine for the Divine Liturgy. This lavabo takes place outside of the view of the congregation.
- Was this object used by a wealthy aristocrat or by a priest to wash their hands?
- The Byzantine Empire’s cultural connections between East and West was crucial to the transfer of ideas. What were other exchanges made through the Byzantine Empire?
- Why do many religions have the tradition of washing hands before entering a sacred space for worship or conducting a religious ritual?
Explore Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection at the British Museum
- Ain Sakhri Lovers
- The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
- Lewis Chessmen
- Holy Thorn Reliquary
- Mechanical Galleon
- Black St George Icon
- Knight Aquamanile
- Gold Mold Cape
- Masterpieces of the British Museum
- Title: Knight Aquamanile
- Date: 1275-1300
- Find site: Tyne River, England
- Materials: Copper alloy
- Culture: Late Medieval
- Dimensions: H: 333 mm; W: 250 mm; D: 112 mm
- Museum: The British Museum
“No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.”
– William of Ockham
Photo Credit: 1) JOM