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The Serpent Mask

There is very strong interplay between art and religion in just about every culture I know anything about. Here is an Ancient Aztec (or Mexica) example of religious art that had both visual and experiential function.


By visual I mean it uses a mosaic pattern to give it a particular look but it was experiential in that it was worn by priests as part of religious rites. That makes the so-named Serpent Mask go beyond passive viewing to a degree of active participation. Maybe like 3D glasses? A lot of effort went into creating its look, though, that’s apparent. The mask itself is wood with the turquoise mosaic and conch shell teeth glued on with resin. And that is one intricate mosaic, I wish I knew how long it took. The rattles above the eyes are thought to have once been gilded and it was worn with a headdress of blue-green feathers. It’s elaborate, intense, and calculated to provoke an emotional response.


For me the response is just plain terror. It’s called the Serpent Mask because the turquoise mosaic is configured as two snakes (one blue and the other green) intertwined about the face. If that thought doesn’t scare you then we are clearly separated by a difference of opinion on snakes. If their goal was to inspire the fear of deity in someone, consider me sufficiently afraid just imagining the priest in his ritual garb. And that’s before imagining the rituals themselves.


There is some uncertainty about which of two gods this mask signified. Quetzalcoatl was represented as a feathered serpent, which fits what we know about how it was worn. But the blue and green colors could be symbols of water & vegetation, which may imply devotion to the rain god Tlaloc. In either case, it says a lot about the mask’s power that it can get a visceral reaction even centuries after its precise meaning has been lost.


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