The serpent played an important role in Mexica* religion. Many superb stone sculptures have survived, the majority of them representing rattlesnakes carved with striking realism and great skill. This magnificent sculpture has a blend of both realistic and mythical creatures. It exhibits all the elements characteristic of Xiuhcoatl, the Fire Serpent, with the head of a serpent, short legs finishing in claws and a curved snout. The end of the figure’s tail is formed by the conventional Mexican year symbol (xihuitl): a triangle, like the solar ray sign, and two entwined trapezes.
The Fire Serpent is commonly represented in Mexica art in a variety of media, including codices (screenfold books). It is used for example, as a back ornament for Xiuhtecuhtli, the fire god, and Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica patron god.
This piece was probably used to decorate a building. According to Guillermo Dupaix, a collector of Mexican antiquities, it came from Texcoco, a city on the east side of the lake on which the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlan, was founded. William Bullock, also a famous collector, acquired it in 1823 during his trip to Mexico and exhibited in London, at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.
*The people and culture we know as ‘Aztec’ referred to themselves as the Mexica (pronounced Me-shee-ka).
© The Trustees of the British Museum
M. E. Miller and K. Taube, An illustrated dictionary of t (London, Thames and Hudson, 1997)
E. Pasztory, Aztec art (New York, Abrams, 1983)
H.B. Nicholson and E. Quiñones Keber, Art of Aztec Mexico, treasures (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983)
C. McEwan, Ancient Mexico in the British (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)