Stone Serpent Heads

A.D. 400-1000

Object

Artist

Artist not known, Central Mexico

Country

  • Mexico

Object Info

This object may or may not be on view currently.

Artist not known, Central Mexico

A.D. 400–1000

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.

Medium

  • stone

About

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.

Unique Characteristics
Unique Characteristics

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.

Geometric Forms
Geometric Forms

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.

Volcanic Stone
Volcanic Stone

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.

Teaching Resources

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.