Mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl
Mexica*/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD
The Feathered Serpent
This mask is believed to represent Quetzalcoatl (‘the feathered serpent’) or the rain god Tlaloc. Both deities are associated with serpents. The mask is carved from a single piece of Cedrela odorata wood and covered with turquoise mosaic work. The teeth are made of white conch shell (Strombus).
The design incorporates two serpents, one in pale green turquoise and one in blue, which encircle the eyes and are entwined over the nose and around the mouth. The serpent tails finish at the temples with rattles that are moulded in relief and were originally gilded. Turquoise mosaic plumes hang on both sides of the eye sockets.
The Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún, writing in the 16th century, describes a mask like this one. It was a gift of the Mexica emperor Moctezuma II to the Spanish captain Hernán Cortés (1485-1547). Moctezuma thought Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl returning from the east and the mask described by Sahagún was probably part of the adornments associated with this god. According to Sahagún's description it was worn with a crown of beautiful long greenish-blue iridescent feathers, probably those of the quetzal (a tropical rain forest bird with shimmering green-blue plumage).
While the feathers featured in the design of this mask are consistent with the symbolic elements associated with the image of Quetzalcoatl, the ‘goggle-eyes’ produced by the intertwining serpents is a visual signifier often used to identify the rain god Tlaloc.
*The people and culture we know as 'Aztec' referred to themselves as the Mexica (pronounced 'Mé-shee-ka').
C. McEwan, A. Middleton, C.R. Cartwright, R. Stacey Turquoise mosaics from Mexico (London, The British Museum Press, 2006)
C. R. Cartwright and N. D. Meeks ‘Aztec conch shell working: high- tech design’, British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 1, (2007), 35-42.
C. McEwan, Ancient Mexico in the British Museum(London, The British Museum Press, 1994)