Samson and Lion Aquamanile

Northern German (possibly Schleswig-Holstein)
Medieval (Gothic)
early 14th century


34 x 36.8 x 11.4 cm (13 3/8 x 14 1/2 x 4 1/2 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Leaded latten (81.7% copper, 9.9% tin, 7% lead, 1.4% zinc)

On View

Museum Council Gallery (Gallery 254)





Pouring vessel in the shape of Samson battling the lion with the lion’s tail arranged as a handle, an aperture for filling in the top of Samson’s head, and a spout in the shape of a beast head below the lion’s left ear. Cast in one piece, chased and punched. Represented at the moment he springs onto the back of the lion, Samson rests his left leg on one side of the animal, while pressing the lion’s front ribs with his right leg, the knee bent outward. The lion, as if caught by surprise, twists his head backward to face his adversary, who grasps his open jaws. Samson’s head is adorned by a narrow band and finely delineated long wavy hair streaming down his back. He wears pointed shoes marked by rows of dots and parallel lines, those ornamented on the right thigh with an eight-pointed rosette, and a short tunic. The latter falls in vertical folds gathered at the waist and decorated with groups of four punched dots forming a lozenge and a band containing a row of punched dots along the edges. The mantle draped over Samson’s back has a pattern (resembling that of a Near Eastern textile) with a row of large circles containing smaller concentric punched circles and dots; pointed leaves fill the interstices and lower border. The oval face bears a slight smile and large almond eyes with double edges.
The stocky lion, with its finely modeled mane arranged in curled tufts, has a collar with a row of punched dots running around the face from ear to ear and an s-shaped tail with tufts resembling flames attached to Samson’s back. The ears are nearly round cavities with hatchings on the edges to indicate fur; the double-edged elongated eyes have deeply incised pupils. A band of hatching for the eyebrows continues along the side of the nose and the face, delineating the snout decorated with punched dots. The open mouth with tongue curled over the side shows four triangular teeth in the front and smaller teeth in back. Legs are marked at the top by parallel rows of punched dots (extending up to the shoulder on the front legs) and at the bottom on the outside by a row of dots between thin vertical ribs (suggesting tendons and bones) with hatchings (indicating fur) on either side. The latter pattern is repeated on the underside in front of the genitals. An undulating surface on the claws reveals bone structure and cavities from shrinkage underneath.
There are small square copper pins (arranged symmetrically) to plug holes for the chaplets, a cast-on patch filling a rectangular hole (probably for removal of the core) on the lion’s chest, and a cast-on repair on the lion’s face.

Aquamaniles are vessels to hold the water used for washing hands. First used by priests during religious ceremonies, aquamaniles later appeared on the table in monasteries and noble households. Produced in large numbers between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, aquamaniles took many forms, including knights on horseback, dragons, and lions. This rare narrative example represents the Old Testament story of Samson wrestling a lion. Christians interpreted this event as a prefiguration of Christ’s conquest of the Devil.


Probably by 1470, parish church of Oberachern, Germany; 1881, sold by the church to a private collector (?) [see note 1]. By 1888, Albert Figdor (b. 1843 - d. 1927), Vienna [see note 2]; September 29, 1930, posthumous Figdor sale, Cassirer, Berlin, lot 514, to the Brummer Gallery, New York (stock no. H99) and Dr. Jacob Hirsch, New York, for 106,000 M [see note 3]; 1940, sold by Brummer and Hirsch to the MFA for $42,000. (Accession Date: May 9, 1940)

[1] This may be the aquamanile mentioned in a document (May 7, 1470) as having been given by Johanns von Bergazbern (b. 1447 - d. 1475) to his church at Oberachern. See K. Reinfried, "Kleinere Mitteilungen," Freiburger Diöcesan-Archiv 21 (1890): 303-307, where the aquamanile is said to have been sold in 1881 to a "princely cabinet of rarities" -- whether this refers to Figdor's collection is not known. Curt Engel, "Fusswaschung seit fünf Jahrhunderten," (Source unknown; copy, from a German newspaper, in MFA curatorial file), April 19/20, 1973, states that it went to Frankfurt before entering the Figdor collection. Whether it went to Figdor through a Frankfurt dealer is not specified. [2] Jakob von Falke, Geschichte des Deutschen Kunstgewerbes (Berlin, 1888), 56, fig. 16. [3] The sale results were published by Jakob Rosenberg, "Die Berliner Versteigerung Figdor," Kunst und Künstler 29 (November, 1930): 86-87. On Brummer's inventory card, the object is said to be "in half ownership with Dr. Hirsch."

Credit Line

Benjamin Shelton Fund