Double-headed serpent
turquoise mosaic

Mexico, 15th-16th century AD

An icon of Mexica (Aztec) art, this striking object was probably worn on ceremonial occasions as a pectoral (an ornament worn on the chest).

It is carved in wood (Cedrela odorata) and covered with turquoise mosaic. The wood is hollowed at the back.

Serpent imagery occurs throughout the religious iconography of Mesoamerica. The serpent is associated with several Mexica deities including Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent), Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent) and Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent) or Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt), the mother of the Mexica god Huitzilopochtli. The habit of snakes to shed their skin each year probably led to them being used to convey ideas concerning renewal and transformation. Likewise the ability of many species to move freely between water, earth and the forest canopy helped underline their symbolic role as intermediaries between the different layers of the cosmos (underworld, earth and sky).

Spondylus (thorny oyster) shell was used for the bright red details around the nose and mouth of both of this object's serpent heads. Strombus (conch) shell was used for the white teeth. Within the gaping mouths the resin adhesive was coloured bright red with hematite. Beeswax adheres to the edges of the empty eye sockets which were probably originally inlaid, perhaps with iron pyrites.

The reverse of the body is undecorated, although the surface may have originally been gilded, but the heads are worked in mosaic on both sides. Resins from pine and Bursera (copal) were used as adhesives for the mosaic.


Mexican turquoise mosaics

Video

Ancient Mexico is renowned for the production of vivid turquoise mosaics. The finest examples were probably fashioned by highly skilled Mixtec craftsmen who excelled both in stone and metal work.

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Mexica (Aztecs)

Mask

The people and culture we know as 'Aztec' referred to themselves as the Mexica, which is pronounced 'Mé-shee-ka'.

Mexica (Aztecs) world culture


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Turquoise mosaic of a double-headed serpent

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  • Close up view

    Close up view

 

More information

Bibliography

Dimensions

Height: 20.5 cm
Width: 43.5 cm
Depth: 5 cm

 

Museum number

AOA 1894-634

ESA6789

Purchased with the Christy Fund

Location

Find in the collection online

Related products

Book

A History of the World in 100 objects

 
By Neil MacGregor

Accompanies the BBC Radio 4 series




This object features in A History of the World in 100 objects


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