January 24, 2014 - The Jewish Museum - Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile
January 24, 2014

Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile

Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile, 2013. Exhibtion view, The Jewish Museum, New York, 2013. Photo: David Heald. © The Jewish Museum, 2013.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile
November 8, 2013–March 23, 2014

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128
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The first in the new series Masterpieces & Curiosities, this exhibition features a rare Jewish lion aquamanile that was recently acquired by The Jewish Museum. It was created in Germany in the 12th 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 examines the contexts in which the aquamanile was created and converted, and explores 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 be produced 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. While the original function of this aquamanile is unknown, several centuries after its creation a man named Berekhiah Segal added a Hebrew dedicatory inscription, probably on the occasion of its donation to a synagogue. It 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 is 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.


The Jewish Museum presents Masterpieces & Curiosities: A Medieval Aquamanile
The Jewish Museum
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