Artist not known, Central Mexico
Height: 22.5 in. Width: 13.5 in. Depth: 26 in. (measurements for one head)
Museum Purchase, 1962.291
Departmental Volunteer Fund Raiser, 1971.360
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
These Stone Serpent Heads were carved by an artist from central Mexico. They appear to have been created in a style similar to carvings from the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán [TAY-oh-TEE-wah-KAHN]. This ancient city includes numerous pyramid and temple ruins, originally built for worshiping deities and ancestors. At Teotihuacán, carved stone serpents flank the base of the main staircase of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. They also project from the pyramid’s walls. These Stone Serpent Heads, carved from a rough volcanic stone, may have served to flank a stairway, door, or other entrance. Each serpent head has a square horizontal projection, or tenon (one is broken off), that was used to anchor it in place in its architectural or sculptural setting. The rough stone is unsuited for detailed carving and the artist may have covered the serpents with plaster and polychrome paint.
Two additional heads like these are on display at a museum in Teotenango del Valle in central Mexico. One is an exact match for one of the Denver Art Museum’s heads (the one with the intact tenon, on the right of this image). Unfortunately, the specific site from which all of the sculptures originate is unknown, as is the total number of serpent heads that originally existed.
What Inspired It
Serpents have many symbolic qualities in Mexican culture and belief. Because snakes move on the ground and often live in holes, Mesoamerican peoples associated them with the earth. Cave or temple entrances were sometimes represented by open serpent mouths. Their swift, sinuous motions also likened them to both running water and lightning. Their rapid strikes and sometimes poisonous bites made them symbols of aggression. In many Mesoamerican cultures, the sky was conceived as a great supernatural serpent that arches above the world. Whatever their specific meaning, large supernatural serpent heads would have served as a warning to anyone who approached the entrance or structure they guarded.
The serpent heads are closely matched, but they are not identical. The crest at the top of the left serpent head is broken. Also, when compared to the serpent head on the right, the eye and head are more square, the teeth protrude more, and the lower jaw curves in a different direction.
In a style similar to other carvings from Teotihuacán, these serpent heads show a reduction of form, or basic structure, into simplified geometric shapes. Curving details soften the geometric shapes.
Notice the rough texture of the stone and the small holes that cover the surface of the carvings. These serpent heads were carved out of stone formed by a volcano.