- Museum number
- Series: The Turquoise Mosaics
Serpent mask of Tlaloc, in the form of two intertwined and looped serpents worked in contrasting colours of turquoise mosaic. Made of 'cedro' wood (Cedrela odorata) with pine resin adhesive. The teeth are made of conch (Strombus) shell and the resin adhesive in the mouth is coloured red with hematite. The rattles of the serpent tails were originally gilded. They are moulded from a mixture of beeswax and pine resin; the same resin mixture coats the interior surface of the mask.
- Production date
Height: 18.20 centimetres
Width: 16.50 centimetres
Depth: 12.50 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Vila Llonch, In McEwan 2009, Cat.66, p.158
"Two serpents of blue and green turquoise mosaic entwine to form this stylised mask. Their interwoven bodies create the prominent twisted nose and goggle eyes associated with Tlaloc, the god of rain. The eyebrows, which double as the two rattles from the serpents' tails, are made from pine resin and beeswax and would originally have been gilded. The teeth are depicted in white strombus shell.
Snakes copulate by intertwining, sometimes in a vertical position. In Mesoamerica, this act of procreation may have been observed and adapted, both visually and metaphorically, to symbolise the fertilizing rains sent by Tlaloc. The striking green and blue colours of the mosaic evoke the waters and vegetation covering the earth's surface. On the mask's forehead an engraved mosaic tile in the shape of a bivalve shell may symbolise water, while the large green mosaic tile on the opposite snake perhaps represents vegetation, both aspects associated with Tlaloc. Mosaic representations of feathers flanking the face may have mimicked part of a larger headdress that once complemented the mask.
Open cavities in the eyes and suspension holes indicate that this mask may once have been worn. The priest who served Tlaloc in the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan was known as Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui, and may have worn a mask like this as part of his ritual attire. Another example of a Tlaloc wooden mask, painted in blue, has recently been excavated from the Templo Mayor (offering 102). It bears similar perforations and may have been worn by a deity impersonator."
The goggled eyed effect created by the twining serpents is typical of Tlaloc. The mask has also been associated with the feather serpent, Quetzalcoatl, mainly because of the plumes that hang down from the tails of the two serpents.
Carmichael, E., 1970. 'Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico', London; pp.25,36
Garcia Moll, R., Solis Olguin, F., and J. Bali, 1990. 'El Tesoro de Moctezuma', Mexico City. p.178
McEwan, C., 1994. 'Ancient Mexico in the British Museum', London. p.74
McEwan, C. et al. 2006. 'Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico', London: British Museum Press. pp.42-43, 45, 47, 50
McEwan, C., 2009. 'Ancient American Art in Detail', London. p.96
Miller, M., and Taube, K., 1993. 'The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion', London. pp.166-167
Pasztory, E., 1983. 'Aztec Art', New York. pp.275-77
Vila Llonch, E., 2009. 'Cat.66: Tlaloc Mosaic Mask', p.158 in Colin McEwan and Leonardo Lopez Lujan (eds.) 'Moctezuma, Aztec Ruler', London: British Museum Press
- On display (G27/dc6)
- Exhibition history
1987-1994, London, Museum of Mankind (Room 1), 'Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico'
2009-2010 24 Sep-24 Jan, London, BM, Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Demidoff Collection Sale, Paris, 1870; Sale catalogue, lot 475. Purchased out of Christy Fund from M[onsieur] Leman, Paris. See Christy Register,1869-77, p.145, 30/4/1870, and p.156, 24/5/1870 (Additions, 1870). See also Document P.4270 "Accounts of the British Museum" , section IV, Purchases out of Christy Fund.
See also King et al. 2012. p.188
The skull mask with intertwined serpents emerged in the six day sale in Paris, in March 1870, of the collection of the immensely rich Anatole Demidov (1812-70), 1st Prince of San Donato. Anatole lived mostly in Paris although he had inherited his father’s palatial mansion near Florence . The mask was submerged in the catalogue along with five other odds and ends – objets variés – being described merely as
475. Masque antique, couvert de turquoises et formé d’un serpent enroulé (Demidov, 1870: 86).
The sale took place on Wednesday, 30 March. Annotated copies of the sale catalogue (Art Sales Catalogues Online) record that the mask was bought by a M. Léman, for the modest price of 255 francs.
The British Museum curator A W. Franks (1826-878) q.v. in a report dated 11 May 1870 (BM, Central Archive) informed the Trustees that he had spent a week in Paris (25 April to 3 May) where he bought from Léman, through an intermediary, “a very remarkable Mexican mask made of a mosaic of turquoises” together with a New Guinea [pottery] stamp, for a total of £24. 12s. (BM, Central Archive). Franks remarked to the BM Trustees in a report dated 8 June:
With respect to the purchase from M. Leman it did not appear to Mr Franks expedient that it should be known that the object was bought for the British Museum & the negotiation with M. Leman was very troublesome as he originally asked double the price paid... (BM, Central Archive).
It was suggested by Franks’s Assistant Hercules Read, in 1894, that this mosaic mask (or the earlier Hertz piece)(Am St.400) may be that described in a Medici inventory of 1640-5. (Read, 1895: 387)
See M Caygill, ‘Henry Christy, A W Franks and the British Museum’s turquoise mosaics’ in King et al (eds) Turquoise in Mexico and North America: Science, Conservation, Culture and Collections (2012)
Demidov, A N (1870), Collections de San Donato, Objets d’art. Ordre des ventes … Me Charles Pillet, commissaire-priseur … M. Charles Manheim, expert, Paris: n.p.
Read, H. (1895). “On an ancient Mexican Head-piece, coated with Mosaic,” Archaeologia LIV, II: 383-98.
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: Am1973,Q.1 (previous Q-Register no.)