Apr 13

"For this they (deceitful scoffers) are wilfully ignorant of, that the heavens were before, and the earth out of water, and through water, consisting by the word of God." (2 Peter iii. 5; in Theiler, 1909 p.7)


Strang (2014) suggests that water is an example where the way people interact with the material properties of things ‘generate recurrent ideas and patterns of engagement in diverse cultural and historical contexts’ (p.133).  This suggests that we do not simply place our own values and meanings onto water, but the interaction is influenced by the particular characteristics and behaviours of the material itself.  This is a contested view (see for example Normark, 2015), but the interaction between peoples in many different cultures and water within sacred festivals, ceremonies and rituals in order to cleanse and ward off evil is widely recognised and understood and would seem to be influenced if not instigated by the character of the 'stuff' itself.  The traditions of many religions reflect the belief in the sanctity of water; total immersion in sacred rivers and pools is commonly found as well as drinking and daubing the body with water. 

Font from the 11th Century Church of San Govenale, Orvieto, Italy.

The blessing of water and the idea of ‘blessed water’ is found in traditions including Buddhism, Islam, paganism and Christianity.  In some cases the water seems to represent the spiritual, in others there is a belief that the materiality is actually changed.  Some traditions believe that water has to be contained to be able to be blessed, while others believe that flowing water (such as rivers, springs and streams) can also be sacred.  There is a strong belief in the strength of the power of holy water or sacred waters which may perhaps reflect or stem from an experience of the real physical power of water.

In the Roman Catholic faith, water is used for exorcism, purification/cleansing and protection.  Theiler (1909) suggests that salt is commonly added to contained water and this saline solution may have some cleansing properties.  Pilgrims make journeys to holy springs where the water is commonly drunk in spite of the growing evidence of contamination and disease potential from various sources of ‘holy’ water.  Kirschner et al. (2012) found a range of microbiological and chemical problems that can cause serious illness in both springs and church fonts.  In Ethiopia pulmonary tuberculosis has been shown to be present in holy water sites.  Oestigaard (2017) suggests that people’s interactions with holy water in various forms helps to establish and define holiness itself.  He does also recognise the paradox in a belief of the holy water as beneficial, while in many cases actual dangers exist from pollution of the waters used.


Federighi’s Acquasantiera in the Chiesa di Sant’ Andrea e Bartolomeo, Orvieto, Italy

In Catholic churches fonts and holy water basins are commonly found.  Antonio Federighi’s acquasantiera (stoup or holy water basin) in the Duomo, Siena, Italy is a marvellous marble representation of the medieval combination of patronage (e.g. coats of arms) Christian thinking, pre-Christian classical and pagan mythology and tradition.  Richter (2008) describes the elaborate decoration that Federighi (c1428-83) used in his work and the influence he had on important buildings such as the cathedrals in Siena and Orvieto.  He was important in the revival of pagan imagery and sensuality in religious art and architecture and by doings so influenced a number of artists including Michelangelo. Richter describes Federighi as a ‘major contributor to Renaissance art’ (p25). 

During a recent visit to Orvieto I stumbled across an acquasantiera in the Chiesa di Sant Andrea e Bartolomeo, a 12th century Catholic church situated in the piazza della Republica.  All the guidebook said was that it was sculpted by Federighi.  What caught my attention was the extraordinary sculpting inside the bowl.  Most such basins are quite plain on the inside; a simple container for holy water while the external appearances vary tremendously.  This one has both fish and eels apparently swimming within the holy water of the basin.  The external design was unusually plain for Federighi’s work, but perhaps he had saved up his imagination for the stoup that resides in the nearby Duomo.  On further investigation I found that Federighi was particularly fond of filling his stoups with fish and marine animals.  Richter describes one fairly recently found in a collectors possession in London as having ‘fish and sea serpents’ (Ibid p24).  Certainly the creatures in the Siena stoup resemble fish and eels and are recognised as such by the Courtald Institute label on the image.  Those in the Sant’ Andrea stoup were most definitely eels rather than serpents.

Holy Water Basin (Acquasantiera) by Antonio Federighi in the Duomo, Siena 

Another and even more internally elaborate acquasantiera designed by Federighi can be seen in the Duomo at Grosseto.  In addition to fish and eels, this has turtles, crabs, frogs and other creatures filling and overflowing from the bowl.  In addition cherubs riding dolphins on the column support the basin.   While Federighi was not the only sculptor to use fish in holy water basins, it does seem to be unusual, and certainly the inclusion of eels is interesting when they are commonly associated with darkness and mud rather than cleansing and sanctity.

Acquasantiera by Antonio Federighi at the Duomo, Grosseto, Italy.



Church of Saints Saint Cajetan and Maximillian, Salzburg, Austria


A&A Art & Architecture, The Courtauld Institute of Art.  Website: http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/conway/77998e87.html

Abatene, D.D., Moges, F. and Tessema, B (2017) ‘Smear positive pulmonary tuberculosis and associated risk factors among tuberculosis suspects attending spiritual holy water sites in Northwest Ethiopia’, BMC Infectious Diseases 17(1): 1-8. DOI: 10.1186/s12879-017-2211-5

Kirschner, A.K.T., Atteneder, M., Schmidhuber, A. and Sommer, R., (2012) ‘Holy springs and holy water: Underestimated sources of illness?’ Journal of Water and Health 10(3):349-57. DOI: 10.2166/wh.2012.005

Normark, J. (2015) Going against the flow. Reaction to Veronica Strang, Archaeological Dialogues 22(02):199-206.  DOI: 10.1017/S1380203815000252

Oestigaard, T. (2017) ‘Holy water: the works of water in defining and understanding holiness’, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water e1205. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1205

Richter, E.M. (2008) ‘Pulling out All the Stoups: A Newly-discovered Acquasantiera by Antonio Federighi’, Artibus et Historia 29(58): 9-27.

Strang, V. (2014) ‘Fluid consistencies: Material relationality in human engagements with water’ Archaeological Dialogues 21(02):133-150.  DOI: 10.1017/S1380203814000130

Theiler, H. (1909) Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics (New York, Pustet & Co).  Available: https://archive.org/details/holywateranditss00theiuoft


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