Lions, Dragons, and Other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, Vessels for Church and Table
July 12 – October 15, 2006
Lions, Dragons, and Other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, the second exhibition resulting from a collaboration between Bard Graduate Center and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, featured the Metropolitan’s superb collection of medieval aquamanilia. The first hollow-cast vessels produced in the medieval West, aquamanilia were used by priests to pour water for hand-washing before mass and by lay people at mealtimes. Each vessel had two openings, one for filling with water and one for pouring. Human and animal forms were used, the animals often being fantastic creations. Aquamanilia are among the most distinctive and delightful products of the Middle Ages.
The Metropolitan Museum houses one of the most important collections of aquamanilia in the world, dating from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Examples are divided between the Department of Medieval Art, Lehman Collection, and The Cloisters, the museum’s uptown branch. Until this collaboration with the BGC, the collection was never exhibited together or catalogued. The exhibition was organized by Peter Barnet; Michel David-Weill, Curator in Charge, the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Pete Dandrige, Conservator, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For many museum visitors, aquamanilia hold a particular fascination because of their always original and sometimes whimsical sculptural forms. But if the vessels are seen out of context and usage, viewers may not fully understand their meaning and function in medieval society. This exhibition offered insight into these intriguing objects and provided viewers with a greater appreciation of the history and culture of the period.
The entire aquamanilia collection of the Metropolitan Museum, as well as selected examples from other major collections, was on display. Additional objects drawn from the Met’s extensive collection provided context. Late Antique, Byzantine, and Islamic works suggested sources and models. Stylistic and technical relationships were explored with other medieval examples in various media, such as tapestry and ceramic.
The BGC–Metropolitan collaborations are a key component of the BGC’s Museum History and Practice concentration, which was inaugurated in 2001 in order to accommodate the increasing number of students interested in museum careers. The joint projects provide opportunities for students in the BGC’s graduate programs to gain valuable hands-on museum experience, and for BGC faculty and Met curators to work together to plan exhibitions of significant decorative arts collections normally not known by the general public.
For this exhibition, BGC students collaborated with curators and conservators from the Met to conduct research on the objects and produce the gallery guide. Students made an in-depth study of medieval art, history, and culture, and conducted specific research on the Metropolitan’s aquamanilia collection. The students were also directly involved in researching additional objects included in the exhibition to help visitors better understand the importance of aquamanilia within the medieval world.
A major focus of the exhibition was the development of the techniques and materials used to cast and finish aquamanilia. Early treatises, including the 12th-century manuscript On Divers Arts, were an important resource, but much additional information about medieval metalworking generally and aquamanilia specifically was obtained from physical evidence such as tool marks and core impressions on the objects themselves. A variety of analytic techniques, including study of the alloys and core materials, were also employed. Based on the information generated by this research, Ubaldo Vitali, a fourth-generation Italian silversmith, cast an aquamanile in his studio, replicating medieval techniques. Vitali is one of the most accomplished and inspired artisans working today and a noted historian of metalworking technologies with substantial experience in the casting and finishing of metals. His process was digitally recorded and was incorporated into the exhibition and its catalogue.
The full-color catalogue, Lions, Dragons, & other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, documents the entire collection of aquamanilia in the Metropolitan Museum and presents scholarly essays by the exhibition organizers. Peter Barnet discusses the meaning, usage, and stylistic development of the aquamanile. Pete Dandridge describes the technological discoveries made during the analysis of the aquamanilia collection and explains how this information increases understanding of medieval metalworking and the production of aquamanilia. The catalogue also includes an essay by Dr. Ursula Mende, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg; entries for all exhibited aquamanilia; and a checklist of related objects.
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