General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Apr 2021/3 Alligator
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Fire serpent

Aztec (Mexica) stone fire serpent, British Museum

Aztec fire serpent (‘xiuhcóatl’), c. 1500, stone, Mexica, height (without base) 75.5 cms., British Museum.

The Aztec ‘xiuhcóatl’ usually displays an essentially serpentine head, but with a peculiar extended snout that curves back on itself and is edged with circular eye symbols, i.e. the eyes of night, the stars. This fantastic creature also invariably possesses short forelegs terminating in formidable claws. Its tail is particularly distinctive: a set of parallel paper strips, usually four, with central knots precedes a trapezoidal element and ray device. This combination of trapeze and ray constituted the well-known symbol for the year (‘xihuitl’), conveying the first element in the creature’s name...
Our piece portrays the fantastic creature in fairly typical fashion: with a sectioned body, clawed forelegs, prominent back-curling snout edged with star-eyes, and the standard tail assemblage. The doubling of the trapezoidal element in the ‘year symbol’ is unusual, as are the two teeth edging the body (the other pair, just above the gaping jaw, is common). Unique is the attachment of the creature to a massive trapezoidal block, the tail supported by a connective piece. This block has been called a coping stone. Whether this designation is accurate, the piece as a whole probably functioned as an architectural adornment of some kind, probably in a temple. Stylistically, the piece is distinguished by its remarkable planar angularity, with the creature depicted, in effect, as a large stone cut-out. Carved with great skill, it again exhibits the mastery over stone of the Aztec sculptors.
William Bullock, the English entrepreneur, acquired it during his trip to Mexico in 1823.

(From Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan by H.B. Nicholson and Eloise Quiñones Keber, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1983, p. 47)

Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore