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Work Griffin aquamanile

Department of Decorative Arts: Middle Ages

Aquamanile in the form of a griffon

© 2010 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Decorative Arts
Middle Ages

Barbier Muriel

The Louvre aquamanile is made in the form of a griffin. Hybrid and monstrous creatures were frequently used in the Middle Ages in illumination and sculpture as well as on silver and gold plate. Aquamaniles are ewers for washing hands and were mainly produced in northern Europe, although they were also known in the Islamic world; the Louvre example is thought to have come from Lower Saxony.

What is an aquamanile?

Aquamaniles are foremost among the bronze artifacts of the Middle Ages. They were used for washing hands for both liturgical and secular purposes. They had been used in this way since classical times, and many receptacles took the form of animals or were ornamented with human figures. They are also to be found in Islamic art where they are more frequently made of terracotta than metal.

The griffin, a mythical animal

European aquamaniles mainly depict mythological animals like lions, dragons, griffons, and sirens, or knights on horses and battling figures drawn from Christian tradition or fables. The Louvre's example is in the form of a griffin, a monster that is half lion and half eagle. It has a lion's head and is resting on the front paws of a lion, while an eagle's wings sweep to the back. There is an opening in the top, but the lip used for filling and closing the ewer has been lost; the mouth is pierced to allow water to pour out. The handle is formed by the griffin's tail, which ends in a leafy scroll. Aquamaniles featuring winged figures like griffins can be quite varied, but they are always inventive and imaginative.

The workshops of Lower Saxony in the twelfth century

Cast using the cire perdue technique (a model is made of wax, enclosed in clay and plaster, then fired to melt the wax and create a mold), most of the bronze aquamaniles that are known were made in the workshops of Lorraine in the Meuse Valley, the northern German region of Lower Saxony, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and England. In the twelfth century Lower Saxony underwent a major development under the impetus of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony (1142-95). Several groups of works in bronze like the griffon aquamanile in the Louvre have been attributed to the workshops of Lower Saxony, particularly chandeliers and aquamaniles for domestic or liturgical use.

Technical description

  • Lower Saxony? (c. 1200)

    Aquamanile in the form of a griffon

  • Copper

  • Gift of Mme Chabrière-Arlès, 1916 , 1916

    OA 6924

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Room 502
    Display case 1

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