Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile

November 8, 2013 - March 23, 2014

This first Masterpieces & Curiosities installment centers around a rare Jewish aquamanile, a lion-shaped handwashing pitcher made of bronze and created in Germany in the twelfth century.

Installation view of Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile, the Jewish Museum, New York. Photograph by David Heald © 2013 The Jewish Museum.

The first in the new series Masterpieces & Curiosities that focuses on a single work in the Jewish Museum collection, this exhibition will feature a rare Jewish lion aquamanile (handwashing pitcher) that was recently acquired. It was created in Germany in the twelfth century, probably for secular or church use, but was transformed into a synagogue ritual object after the mid-sixteenth century through the addition of a Hebrew dedication inscription. Using additional works, the exhibition will examine the contexts in which the aquamanile was created and converted, and explore the issues that it raises about valuation, sanctification, and cultural borrowing.

Aquamanilia are bronze handwashing pitchers in the shape of animals, mythical creatures or humans that began to appear in Europe beginning in the twelfth century. They were used to cleanse the hands during meals or in the celebration of the Eucharist in churches. This exhibition will focus on a recent museum acquisition, a rare Jewish lion aquamanile that was created in Germany in the twelfth century. While its original function is unknown, several centuries later a man named Berekhiah Segal added a Hebrew dedicatory inscription, probably on the occasion of its donation to a synagogue. The aquamanile therefore represents an intriguing story of a centuries-old object that was still valued enough to become an honored gift to a Jewish house of worship. Although aquamanilia are not uncommon, only four from Jewish contexts have been identified.

This example of preserving and repurposing an antique object is not unique in Jewish ceremonial art. To explore this phenomenon, the aquamanile will be displayed in the context of other collection works that were proudly inscribed by their new owners a century or more after they were made. Whether they were family heirlooms, refurbished synagogue objects worn out through constant use, or obtained through second-hand dealers, these works were valued and renewed in the service of Jewish ritual.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile is organized by Susan L. Braunstein, Henry J. Leir Curator. It is the first in a series of small essay exhibitions each focusing on a single work from the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum, each contextualizing and rethinking the piece on view by surrounding it with other artworks, documents, and source materials. The series is organized by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs, and Emily Casden, Curatorial Assistant.