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The Ancient Art of Handwashing

Nearly half a year into our pandemic, the ritual of handwashing could not be less glamorous. We sing Happy Birthday to ourselves over the sink or squirt foul-smelling sanitizer onto our hands from cheap plastic bottles. Maybe it is time to take inspiration from the Middle Ages and consider aquamanilia—art that added purpose to a mundane act. From the Latin for water (aqua) and hand (manus), aquamanilia are hollow vessels cast in bronze, often in the form of animals. They were used for handwashing in northern Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries.

This free-standing bronze sculpture shows the rounded, stylized forms of a person with long limbs riding astride a horse with noticeably short legs. The horse and rider are angled to our right in this photograph. The dark brown bronze gleams white where the light catches the smooth surfaces, and some areas are a burnished gold color. The horse looks ahead with large eyes. It has short ears, and its mouth is parted. The person riding the horse holds the reins with the right hand, closer to us. The reins wrap halfway around the horse’s neck and are then broken off. The cleanshaven rider has a heavy brow ridge and a long, straight nose. He wears a flat-topped cap and a robe that reaches to his ankles. The pointed toes of his shoe pokes through the small stirrup we can see. A rounded handle connects the rider’s upper back to the back of the horse. The background is taupe-gray behind the sculpture and darkens at the upper corners.

Probably English or Scandinavian, Aquamanile in the Form of a Horseman, 13th century, bronze, Widener Collection, 1942.9.280

North French or Mosan, Aquamanile in the Form of a Lion, c. 1200, bronze with traces of gilding, Widener Collection, 1942.9.281

Two aquamanilia in the Gallery’s collection are the Horseman (13th century), probably made in England or Scandinavia, and the finer of the two, Lion (c. 1200), which comes from northern France or the area of the Meuse River in present-day Belgium. This gilded vessel was designed to be lifted so that water poured from the lion’s mouth onto a person’s hands. It was refilled through a hole on the animal’s head disguised with a hinged covering. Aquamanilia originally served priests, who used them to wash their hands during the celebration of Mass, but the objects quickly found their way to the banqueting tables of the wealthy. The Horseman is unambiguously secular and must have belonged to a person of some means. The Lion could have been used for secular or religious purposes, as the animal symbolized kings as well as Jesus Christ.

Since antiquity, handwashing had been a sign of good manners, expected of all civilized people before and after meals. Handwashing was not performed to prevent the transmission of disease, however. Removing dirt for the sake of appearing clean signified social status. In religion there were different associations with handwashing. Water flowing over hands represented a symbolic cleansing, or ablution. According to the Bible, Pontius Pilate washed his hands with water not to clean them of Christ's actual blood but to wash away symbolically the sins that the blood signified.

The Greek physician Galen, who lived during the second century CE, developed a basic notion of contagion that influenced European medicine during the Renaissance. He recognized that humans could pass disease to one another, although not through germs, unknown at the time, but by poisonous “seeds” that spread through bad air and invaded people’s bodies. It did not occur to anyone that handwashing—and bathing in general—could limit contagion.

In a world before running water in the home, bathing was largely the domain of the wealthy, although still far from the daily activity it is now. Overexposure to water was widely considered to be bad for your health, another of the many reasons why plagues wrought such havoc on populations during early modern times. No one thought to scrub with the frequency and the intensity of purpose that we do today. Instead, acts of cleanliness were about appearance and status, not a defense against what was still unknown: bacteria and viruses.