Home Stoups: Piety in the House

Stoups - vessels used to hold holy water for sprinkling worshippers, rooms and objects - are most often associated with sacral areas. They appear in the ninth century when the Roman pontiff Leo IV introduced the practice of sprinkling followers of the Church every Sunday with blessed water kept in special vessels. These holy water fonts are broadly divided into stationary (immobile) and portable (mobile) types. The latter were used both in places of worship and for private devotions, i.e. as home or “family” stoups.

Holy water gradually made its way into household use. It was brought to homes from churches and was used when making the sign of the cross, offering a blessing, and to ward off evil spirits. It was kept in household holy water fonts - small decorated stoups used in Christian families to express and encourage pious devotion in the privacy of the home.

These objects of religious culture were numerous and widely disseminated across all societal strata within the Christian community from the sixteenth to the first decades of the twentieth century. They were used equally by the clergy, the laity, aristocrats and by the common folk. They point to the significance attributed to the use of blessed water and designated a place for prayer and personal and/or family religious rituals. These were, then, sacral elements in residential settings.

The two home stoups presented here are from the Modern Age Collection of the Archaeological Museum of Istria and attest to the presence and use of holy water fonts among followers of the Church in Istria. The ceramic stoup was manufactured in the broad area of northern/central Italy in the second half of the eighteenth century, while the glass font was produced in Venice in the nineteenth century.


Conceptual reconstruction of a nineteenth century bedroom. Two home stoups hang on the wall next to the master bed

(drawing by: I. Juričić).


The history

Home stoups first appear in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Their use is widespread in the sixteenth century, from which we have our oldest preserved specimens. Initially they were found for the most part among the priesthood and members of monastic communities. They saw use in the seventeenth century as part of the furnishings of the private chapels of aristocratic families. In the eighteenth century they became an essential feature of the bedrooms of all societal strata. They were usually installed next to the bed where worshippers could make the sign of the cross and pray in the morning and evening. Stoups were often also installed at the entrance to a house where the hosts and visitors could use them when entering and leaving.

Numerous factors, including improved economic conditions, speedier distribution of products and the introduction of serial production, led to an increase in the production of home holy water fonts beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century. Manufacturing was facilitated, prices became more accessible and led to greater sales. The period between the two World Wars and especially the post-World War II period saw a gradual end to the use of home stoups, with only sporadic specimens now found in private houses.

We can follow the history of home stoups in art - paintings specifically - from the late fifteenth century on. We see home stoups as details in many depictions of interiors. From these depictions we can understand their placement and the development of forms. One such painting is Italian baroque period artist Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s La Pulce or The Flea Hunt, a work from the first half of the eighteenth century. It depicts an everyday scene in the simple multi-use room of the kind home to the common folk, with a metal holy water font and a rosary hanging from the wall next to the bed.

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, La Pulce or The Flea Hunt, 1725, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum, Paris

(izvor: Web Gallery of Art)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crespi,_Giuseppe_Maria_-_Searcher_for_Fleas_-_1720s.png (11.06.2018.)


Form and content

By form and content home stoups followed the development of fashion and tastes in different historical periods, thus documenting the stylistic characteristics of the time in which they were created. They also pointed to the personality, faith, piety and societal status of the owner.

A broad range of home stoup forms were seen through the period of their use. The oldest has a holy water bucket, i.e. situla, (the aspersorium), with a handle used to suspend or carry it, accompanied by a sprinkler (the aspergillum) or olive branch. Flatter forms developed over time with a small aspersorium and a vertical plaque above that was either mounted on a wall or placed on furniture with a small base or foot.

Many other kinds were also in use, including holy water fonts acquired on pilgrimages or travels; pocket sprinklers, usually in the form of a small cylinder fitted into a metal holder; fonts in the form of a Crucifix, with the vessel near the base; and double fonts of identical form but differing iconographic imagery to be installed in bedrooms, one to each side of the master bed. Among the favoured types were those with prominent architectural elements and sacral imagery or figures depicted at the centre of the object, the form of which was reminiscent of a shrine (altar, chapel, tabernacle etc.). These forms emerged from the significance and purpose of holy water fonts which, in homes, designated a very localised holy place and were symbolically representative of family and personal chapels.

Home stoups were fabricated of diverse materials. The most numerous, and the most widely available, were ceramic. Other materials included stoneware, porcelain, alabaster, marble, ivory, glass, wood and metals/alloys such as silver and bronze. Luxurious specimens were decorated with polychrome enamel, coral and precious and semi-precious gems.

They depicted a broad range of iconographic themes, usually occupying the upper centre of the plaque. The lion’s share of the imagery is focused on the figure of the Christ, in particular the Nativity, the Passion and the Crucifixion. There are also frequent depictions of the Mother of God and of saints. Besides the saints that are broadly and generally worshipped (Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Lucy and others), we also see saints of local significance, associated, for example, with the place of worship. Angels also feature prominently on stoups, as do various symbols such as the Crucifix, the instruments of the Passion of the Christ, the IHS Christogram, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Mary’s monogram. Some include a prayer and liturgical items with the Host. There are also rare examples of holy water fonts with the coats of arms of aristocratic families, or with the name and surname of the future owner when the vessel was a gift at baptism, marriage or on some other occasion.






1. Wall mounted home stoup with a font and a plaque above. Slip cast, ochre ceramic. Fully glazed: front with white opaque glaze, back with transparent glaze. The basin has a semi-circular opening and narrows towards the bottom. Decorated with a painted vegetal/geometric motif. There are a number of perforations on the plaque above the font. The top of the plaque terminates with a stylised palmette with two perforations at the centre used to mount the item on a wall. The decoration is done in low relief and painted. A centrally-placed oval medallion contains a bust of the Christ, with the head of an angel above. The central image is flanked by a motif of an open curtain knotted at the middle. Colours: orange, yellow, blue, green, dark brown. Restored.

Inv. code: AMI-NV-3261

Material(s)/technique: ceramic, slip cast

Dimensions: height 21.4 cm; width 9 cm

Site: unknown

Date: second half of the 18th century; northern/central Italy

2. Wall mounted home stoup consisting of a font and a plaque above. The lower end consists of a half-dome basin, with contouring on the front side, made of milky white glass, terminating at the bottom with a round appliqué knob. The painted decoration depicts a multicoloured floral garland surrounding a centrally placed Marian monogram (interlocking letters forming the name MARIA) done in gold colour. The upper section is formed by a wooden backing with lateral reinforcement and a small metal mounting hook, and a paper facing (with residual reddish colour). Applied to this is a miniature coloured copper-plate engraving showing the Crucifixion of the Christ. The Christ is depicted with a crown of thorns, aureole, with a purple perizoma (loincloth), nailed to a cross with three spikes. Discernible in the background is a desert landscape with palm trees, a city and a deep blue sky above. The front of the upper section consists of a glass plaque, cut at the edges, with the inside decorated with gilt flowers and leaves framing the central imagery. Restored.

Inv. code: AMI-NV-1488

Material(s): glass, wood, paper

Dimensions: height 21 cm; width 9.7 cm

Site: unknown

Date: 19th century; Venice




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Home Stoups: piety in the House


Carrarina 4, Pula

 Window to the Past

4. 2. – 4. 4. 2019.

 Exhibition and text author by:

Aleksandra Mahić

 Organizer and publisher: Archaeological Museum of Istria

 For the organizer and publisher:

Darko Komšo

Editorial Board:

Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

 Set up & graphic design:

Vjeran Juhas


 Alamy Stock Photo


Ivo Juričić

 Restoration by:

Monika Petrović

 Exhibition coordinator:

Monika Petrović

 Translation in Italian:

Elis Barbalich-Geromella

 English translation:

Neven Ferenčić


Irena Buršić, Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić

 Print: MPS Pula

 Print run: 500

 Pula, 2019.



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