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Griffin Ewer

  • Object:

    Ewer

  • Place of origin:

    Germany (possibly, made)
    Mosan (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1120 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Bronze, gilt, cast and chased; silver, niello

  • Museum number:

    1471-1870

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 10

An aquamanile was a jug used both in the home and at church for washing hands ('aqua' means water in Latin and 'manus' hand). These jugs were made from precious metals, base metals or ceramic.

From the 12th century onwards aquamaniles depicting lions, horses, dragons and other beasts were very popular. This example represents a griffin, a fantastical creature with the head and claws of a lion and the wings of an eagle. In medieval times griffins were considered to be noble creatures, who acted as guardians and protectors.

Physical description

A Griffin Ewer, gilt bronze, cast and chased, decorated with silver and niello. In the form of a Griffin, resting upon two feet with an extra decorative support underneath his tail. The beast faces forward with wings folded. A design resembling a heraldic shield adorns each wing. The ewer would have been filled through the hole in the creature's tail (the lid is now missing) and poured through the mouth of the beast.

The griffin is a fantastical creature that combines the head and claws of a lion with the wings of an eagle. The western form of the griffin was influenced by the eastern senmurvs, images of which were woven into ancient Sassanian and Byzantine sillks imported into Europe.

In antiquity the griffin held a positive image as a protector and guardian. This continued into the Middle Ages particularly in Romanesque art, where sculptural forms of the griffin act as guardians on the facades of churches and cathedrals. The image of the griffin appeared less frequently in Gothic art.

Place of Origin

Germany (possibly, made)
Mosan (possibly, made)

Date

ca. 1120 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Bronze, gilt, cast and chased; silver, niello

Dimensions

Height: 18.7 cm, Length: 12.5 cm, Depth: 20.5 cm, Weight: 2.36 kg

Object history note

Middle Ages Exhibition R.F.2002/903
Canossa Exhibition RF.2005/481

Purchase

Historical significance: Only a few dozen aquamaniles survive: this is one of the oldest and most technically sophisticated, the cast copper alloy inlaid with sheet silver and niello (an ancient and skilled technique which goes back at least to Ancient Egypt). A companion to this piece is in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. It is in the shape of a dragon and has very similar technical finish.

Since its acquisition this piece has been considered an important work of medieval art. Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt, nineteenth century Art Refereree, architect and journalist wrote "so fine and historical a piece of metalwork seldom occurs for sale...designed and executed by a master of his craft (with) admirable hardiesse."

This ewer's Viennese counterpart inspired nineteenth century versions in silver and ceramic. It also influenced other nineteenth century objects. A Claret Jug (M.20-1986) made in 1877 is believed to have a form derived from a Vienna Porcelain Chocolate pot (eighteenth century) which in turn was derived from the aquamanile in the Kunstshistoriches Museum. There is no evidence however, that the V&A ewer ever influenced nineteenth century art.

Historical context note

Ewers, often known as aquamanilia (from the Latin, aqua= water, manus=hand), are vessel used for washing hands. They were used in the church, during the mass, or in a domestic context, before and after meals. From the 12th century onwards ewers depicting creatures such as lions, horses, unicorns, dragons and birds were very popular. They were made in precious metals, base metals and ceramics.

Descriptive line

Griffin aquamanile, cast copper inlaid with sheet silver and niello

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Sievernich, Gereon, and Budde, Hendrik, Europa und der Orient 800-1900 , Berlin, 1989. Catalogue of the exhibition, 28 May - 27 August, 1989. 923 p., ill. ISBN 3750048144
Catalogue entry 4/74 p587 (Ill.201 p.185)
Fortnum, C, Catalogue of Bronzes, London, 1876, p.112, pl.xvi
Hungerford Pollen, J, Gold and Silversmiths Work in the South Kensington Museum, London, 1878, p.23
Swarzenski, H, Monuments of Romanesque Art, London 1955 no.262, pl.115, no.266, pl.250
La Niece, S, " Niello; an Historical and Technical Survey",Antiquaries Journal, LXIII, 1983, p.279-91
Williamson, P, ed. A Medieval Treasury, London, 1986, p.137 and pl.9
Bloch, P, Aquamanilen- Mittelaterliche Bronzen für Sakralen ad Profanen Gebrauch, Weber, 1981, figs. 21 & 22
Peter Barnet and Pete Dandridge, Lions, Dragons and Other Beasts: Vessels for Church and Table, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006, p.12, fig. 1-8
Mende, Ursula. Die Mittelalterlichen Bronzen im Germanischen Nationalmuseum. Bestandskatalog. Nuremberg: Germanischen Nationalmuseums, 2013. ISBN 9783936688627

Production Note

Made in Germany, or Mosan (the land of the Meuse River valley)

Materials

Bronze; Gold; Silver; Niello

Techniques

Casting; Chasing; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Griffins

Categories

Metalwork; Myths & Legends

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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