The aquamanile is a ewer or jug-type vessel in the form of one or more animal or human figures. It usually contained water for the washing of hands (aqua + manos) over a basin, which was part of both upper-class meals and the Christian Eucharist. Historically the term was sometimes used for any shape of basin or ewer so used, regardless of shape. Most surviving examples are in metal, typically copper alloys (brass or bronze), as pottery versions have rarely survived.
This exquisite aquamanile is made in the form of the creature known as the caquesseitao. The caquesseitao (“ancestors of the devil”) was first recorded by the celebrated Portuguese explorer Fernao Mendes Pinto (c. 1503-1583) in his memoir Peregrinacao, or Pilgrimages: “We also saw here what was for us a very unusual and strange-looking animal that the natives called Caquesseitao, about the size of a big duck, deep black in color, covered with scales, a row of spines running down the back…, wings like a bat with a very long, greenish-black tail….” The animal that Pinto saw is believed to be a fruit bat, commonly referred to as a “flying fox.”
The specific form of the caquesseitao, with its bird-like feet, scale-chased body, dragon head, prominent tongue, and hinged wings, was a recurrent and popular ornament, particularly in Indo-Portuguese art in the late 17th and early 18th century. The creature’s form was developed in silver, its natural shape adapting easily for pouring water as an aquamanile. The silver caquesseitao was particularly prized, and there are few now in existence. The king of Portugal Dom Fernando II kept one in his study in the Palaccio das Necessidades; the Russian prince Feliz Youssoupov had one which was confiscated after the Russian Revolution, and one that belonged to Baron James de Rothschild is now in the Museé d’Ecouen.