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Xiuhcoatl, Fire Serpent

Aztec, Late Postclassic
1500 - 1520 CE
43.5 cm x 45.4 cm (17 1/8 in. x 17 7/8 in.)
quartz diorite

On view


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Snakes were important symbolic animals in ancient Mesoamerica and particularly in Aztec mythology. As such, they are represented frequently in Aztec art. While some artists created veristic snake sculptures, others produced stylized versions representing hybrid supernatural creatures. Commonly known as a Fire Serpent, this coiled snake represents a Xiuhcóatl, a mythical creature whose Nahuatl name translates as “turquoise snake.” To the Aztecs, turquoise denoted preciousness and was related to time, the calendar, fire, and celestial bodies. Fire Serpents carried the sun on its journey across the sky, bringing light to the world each day. They were also associated with several Aztec gods, including Huitzilopochtli, who carried a Fire Serpent as a weapon, and Xiuhtecuhtli, the fire god at the center of the world.

The head of this coiled snake is damaged and its snout is missing, but three sets of curved fangs still remain, protruding from each side of the mouth. There may once have been a bifurcated tongue or symbolic sacrificial knife extending from the mouth. Its body is segmented and two arms flank the head and terminate in menacing claws. These may allude to the thoracic legs of caterpillars, which were associated with igniting fires and shooting stars by the Aztecs. The end of the tail bears a glyph representing a year sign. The underside of this sculpture bears two glyphs. The year ‘2 Reed’ appears in a
cartouche, and the name of the ruler Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (502–520 CE) is indicated by a ruler’s headdress with a curl of smoke or speech. Read together, these glyphs refer to the year 1507. This was the date of a New Fire Ceremony, one of the Aztec calendar’s most important events. This event commemorated the passage of a fifty-two-year cycle, when all fires were extinguished, and sacrifices were made to ensure the beginning of a new era and a return of light and fire to the Aztec world. The snake shown here, a symbol of fire and time, may have commemorated Motecuhzoma’s patronage of the event.

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Exhibition History
American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, March 1941 - June 1942, November 1942 - February 1947.

"Ancient American Art", Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA, April - June 1942; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, July - August 1942; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, September - October 1942 (catalogue # 110).

"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1962.

"Azteca Mexica, Las Culturas del Mexico Antiguo", Museo de America, Madrid, 1992.

"The Story of Time", National Maritime Museum, London, England, 12/1/1999 - 9/24/2000 p. 90, cat. no. 083.

"The Aztec Empire", Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, 10/14/2004 - 2/13/2005; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain 3/15/ - 9/4/2005.

"Moctezuma, Aztec Ruler", The Britism Museum, London, 9/24/2009 - 1/24/2010.

Acquisition History
Purchased from William Spratling, New York, by Robert Woods Bliss, 1940.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1940-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Aztecs | Glyphs | Serpents