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Serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl or Tlaloc

Mosaic serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl/Tlaloc, 15th-16th century C.E., Mexica/Mixtec, cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, gold, conch shell, beeswax, 18.2 x 16.5 x 12.5 cm
Mosaic serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl/Tlaloc, 15th-16th century C.E., Mexica/Mixtec, cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, gold, conch shell, beeswax, 18.2 x 16.5 x 12.5 cm, Mexico
© Trustees of the British Museum
Intertwined looped serpents
This mask is believed to represent Quetzalcoatl or the Rain God Tlaloc; both are associated with serpents. The mask is formed of two intertwined and looped serpents worked in contrasting colors of turquoise mosaic; one in green and one in blue that twist across the face and around the eyes, blending over the nose. Turquoise mosaic feathers hang on both sides of the eye sockets. The mask is made of 'cedro' wood (Cedrela odorata) with pine resin adhesive. The teeth are made of conch (Strombus) shell and the resin adhesive in the mouth is coloured red with hematite. The rattles of the serpent tails were originally gilded. They are molded from a mixture of beeswax and pine resin; the same resin mixture coats the interior surface of the mask.
The Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún, writing in the sixteenth century, describes a mask like this one. It was a gift of the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma II to the Spanish captain Hernán Cortés (1485-1547). The Aztec ruler thought that Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) returning from the East. This mask was part of the adornments associated with this god. According to Sahagún's description it was worn with a crown of beautiful long greenish-blue iridescent feathers, probably those of the quetzal (a bird that lives in the tropical rain forest).
Mosaic serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl/Tlaloc, 15th-16th century C.E., Mexica/Mixtec, cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, gold, conch shell, beeswax, 18.2 x 16.5 x 12.5 cm
Side view of mask (detail), Mosaic serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl/Tlaloc, 15th-16th century C.E., Mexica/Mixtec, cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, gold, conch shell, beeswax, 18.2 x 16.5 x 12.5 cm, Mexico © Trustees of the British Museum

Quetzalcoatl?

Though the Rain God Tlaloc was also sometimes represented with serpents twisting around his eyes, the feathers are more consistent with the image of Quetzalcoatl. The earliest image of Quetzalcoatl as the Feathered Serpent appears at Teotihuacan in Central Mexico, on the façade of the temple that now bears his name.

Tlaloc?

The goggled-eyed effect created by the twining serpents is typical of Tlaloc. The mask has also been associated with the feather serpent, Quetzalcoatl, mainly because of the plumes that hang down from the tails of the two serpents. Two serpents of blue and green turquoise mosaic entwine to form this stylized mask. Their interwoven bodies create the prominent twisted nose and goggle eyes associated with Tlaloc, the god of rain. The eyebrows double as the two rattles from the serpents' tails.
Mosaic serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl/Tlaloc (detail), 15th-16th century C.E., Mexica/Mixtec, cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, gold, conch shell, beeswax, 18.2 x 16.5 x 12.5 cm
Close up on eyes of mask (detail), Mosaic serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl/Tlaloc (detail), 15th-16th century C.E., Mexica/Mixtec, cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, gold, conch shell, beeswax, 18.2 x 16.5 x 12.5 cm, Mexico © Trustees of the British Museum
Snakes copulate by intertwining, sometimes in a vertical position. In Mesoamerica, this act of procreation may have been observed and adapted, both visually and metaphorically, to symbolize the fertilizing rains sent by Tlaloc. The striking green and blue colors of the mosaic evoke the waters and vegetation covering the earth's surface. On the mask's forehead an engraved mosaic tile in the shape of a bivalve shell may symbolize water, while the large green mosaic tile on the opposite snake perhaps represents vegetation, both aspects associated with Tlaloc. Mosaic representations of feathers flanking the face may have mimicked part of a larger headdress that once complemented the mask.
Open cavities in the eyes and suspension holes indicate that this mask may once have been worn. The priest who served Tlaloc in the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan was known as Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui, and may have worn a mask like this as part of his ritual attire. Another example of a Tlaloc wooden mask, painted in blue, has recently been excavated from the Templo Mayor. It bears similar perforations and may have been worn by a deity impersonator.

Suggested readings:
C. R. Cartwright and N. D. Meeks "Aztec conch shell working: high- tech design," British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 1, (2007), 35-42.
C. McEwan, Ancient Mexico in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1994).
C. McEwan, A. Middleton, C.R. Cartwright, R. Stacey, Turquoise mosaics from Mexico (London, The British Museum Press, 2006).
Pasztory, E., Aztec Art, New York. 1983.
Vila Llonch, E., "Cat.66: Tlaloc Mosaic Mask," Colin McEwan and Leonardo Lopez Lujan (eds.), Moctezuma, Aztec Ruler, London: British Museum Press, 2009.
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Ailene Tan
    I noticed that Quetzalcoati had quetzal( the bird) and coati (snake). Does that mean that that god was bird and snake, or was it just a coincidence? I know it means Feathered Serpent ( the name) but does it also mean something else?
    (10 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user J Z
    Could the mask represent both Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl?

    Especially since it sounds like there was a title for the priest at Templo Mayor called "Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui" (or was that the priest's name? The phrasing is a little unclear in that sentence; I think it's the title for the priest representing Tlaloc but I'm not 100% sure).

    I am sure the experts have asked - and maybe answered - this question ("could the mask represent both"), but it would be nice to see some analysis or summary of that included here, since it seems like such an obvious question to ask given the content of the article, but no mention of it is made.
    (4 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Emily Zheng
    I can infer that to the Aztecs, this mask is also related to snakes, but does this mask happen to have anything to do with the ancient pterosaur known as the Quetzalcoatlus? The names are very similar so I thought it could be. Or perhaps the Quetzalcoatlus was named after Quetzalcoatl?
    (2 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user louisaandgreta
    So the Mexica Ruler thought that Cortes was a god? Gifted him that mask and then the Christian Spanish Colonisers slaughtered them and destroyed their city?
    In other documents about the Mexica it states that warfare, capturing enemies, sacrificing them, subjugating other populations in surrounding areas was part of Mexica culture, it’s how they retained their power. Why would their first instinct be to welcome these newly arrived folks who did not look like them, did not have the same language, culture, etc,... AND think that Cortes is not just a god but one of the most important gods in all of Meso-America?
    (1 vote)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Emily
    when and how was the artifact discovered?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Bo
    Do historians know why Motechzoma believed Cortes was a god. Was it because of his light skin?
    (0 votes)
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