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The Art of Handwashing

Amanda Mikolic, Curatorial Assistant for the Department of Medieval Art
April 10, 2020
Lion Aquamanile, 1200–1250. Germany, Lower Saxony, Hildesheim, Gothic period, first half 13th century. 1972.167
Romance of Tristan (detail), 1320–30. Italy, Lombardy. Bound volume on vellum. Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS Fr. 755, fol. 115. Photo: BnF

To reduce the transmission of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends long and extensive handwashing after you have touched an item that may be frequently touched by others or before you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. People developed practices and decorative arts for handwashing throughout history. In the essay below, curatorial assistant Amanda Mikolic looks at remarkable works from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection that date to these medieval practices.

To the Greeks and the Romans, if one was civilized, one washed their hands. This practice continued into the Middle Ages — a necessity when food was eaten with the hands because dishes were shared and utensils were few.

Meals in the Middle Ages began and ended with handwashing in both the households of nobility and in monastic refectories. Diners would wash their hands away from the table; the prince washed his fingers at the table.

Manuscripts from the 1400s depict guests washing and drying their hands just prior to sitting down at banquet tables. Vessels that aided in handwashing would sit just outside the grand dining hall to allow individuals to wash before entering and after exiting for a meal. The water was often scented, as described in the Le Ménagier de Paris, a 1393 French guidebook for women on how to run a proper household:

Water for washing the hands at table: Boil some sage, then strain… and let cool or instead you can use chamomile or marjoram, or rosemary and cook with orange peel. Bay leaves also work for this.

Handwashing was not only a sign of good manners but an opportunity to display desirable possessions including basins, ewers, aquamanilia, and jugs. Medieval wills and treasury accounts often list them when they were made of fine materials. For example, the last will and testament of Jeanne d’Évreux, queen of France and wife to Charles IV, lists a basin for hand washing alongside other precious table decorations.

An aquamanile, from the Latin words aqua meaning water and manus meaning hands, was initially used to pour water over the hands of priests while celebrating Mass. These hollow vessels then became common features in households for handwashing. Small-scale functional sculptures, aquamanilia in either zoomorphic or anthropomorphic form were immensely popular from the 12th to 15th century, as hundreds of surviving examples attest.

Lion Aquamanile, 1200–1250. Germany, Lower Saxony, Hildesheim. Bronze case, chased, and punched; overall: 26.4 x 29 x 15 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Chester D. Tripp in honor of Chester D. Tripp, 1972.167

Although the lion is by far the most popular subject matter, these pieces also featured dragons, griffins, and human heads.

Aquamanile: Saddled Horse, c. 1250–1300. North Germany, Lower Saxony. Copper alloy; 23.1 x 22.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1969.26

This aquamanile example features a proud and alert horse complete with saddle; it would have been for secular or household use. The surface decoration suggests the horse is a dappled gray warhorse, highly valued during this period. Water would pour through an opening located on the horse’s forelock just above the almond-shaped eyes. The vessel would be refilled through another larger opening on the top of the head. Originally it would have had a hinged cover, which is now lost. In practice, the vessel would have been lifted and the water poured by hand into an accompanying shallow catch basin.

Pilate Washing His Hands (detail), from the Psalter of Bonmont, 1200s. German, Besançon. Bibliothéque Municipale, MS 0054, fol. 11v

Another vessel, the lavabo, was designed to hold a large quantity of water and was used in both domestic and liturgical settings, much like aquamanilia.

Lavabo, 1400s. South Netherlands, Valley of the Meuse. Brass; diam. 23.8 cm; overall: 36.9 x 46.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Norman O. Stone and Ella A. Stone Memorial Fund, 1965.22

The simple decoration on this example indicates it was likely used in a private home or outside a refectory to aid the monks in handwashing before meals. The ring at the top of the handle allowed the vessel to be suspended, usually over or near the fire in the kitchen.

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece) (detail), c. 1427–32. Workshop of Robert Campin (South Netherlandish). Oil on oak; overall (open): 64.5 x 117.8 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1956, 56.70a-c

On either side of the handle appear two human faces, while the spouts themselves are animals, perhaps lions or dogs.

Peacock-shaped Hand Washing Device, 1315. Syria, Damascus, Mamluk Period. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; overall: 31.3 x 21.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1945.383

In stark contrast to the simple lavabo is an elaborate design for an automated hand-washing device from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, written by the Muslim polymath Ibn al-Razzāz al-Jazarī in 1206. The mouth of a peacock functions as the spigot: as the water level drops, a door automatically opens, and a figure emerges holding a jar filled with soap. When the water is completely dispensed and the basin empty, another door opens for a figure to come forth carrying a towel (not shown). A detailed description of how the device works and how it could be built accompanies this drawing. It is unknown if Al-Jazarī’s hand-washing device was ever constructed.

Handwashing served as a sign of good manners and offered households the chance to further impress guests with decorated vessels. We have traded aquamanilia for today’s plastic bottles of soap or hand sanitizer, but cleaning hands remains as vital as ever.