Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue
Not on view
Superbly crafted in the shape of a serpent ready to strike, this labret—a type of plug inserted through a piercing below the lower lip—is a rare survival of what was once a thriving tradition of gold-working in the Aztec Empire. Gold, in Aztec belief, was teocuitlatl, a godly excrement, closely associated with the sun’s power, and ornaments made of it were worn by Aztec rulers and nobles. Historical sources describe a variety of objects made of gold, including a serpent labret sent by Hernán Cortés as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, yet nearly all of these objects were melted down at the time of the Conquest and shortly thereafter, converted to gold ingots for ease of transport and trade.
The serpent’s head features a powerful jaw with serrated teeth and two prominent fangs. Scales are represented in delicate relief on the underside of the lower jaw. A prominent snout with rounded nostrils rises above the maw of the serpent, and the eyes are surmounted by a pronounced supraorbital plate terminating in curls. On the crown of the head, a ring of ten small spheres and three loops rendered using the technique of false filigree represents a feather headdress with beads. The bifurcated tongue, ingeniously cast as a moveable piece, could be retracted, or swung from side to side, perhaps moving with the wearer’s movements. The sinuous form of the serpent’s body attaches to a cylinder or basal plug ringed with a band of tiny spheres and a band of wavelike spirals. The plain, extended flange would have held the labret in place within the wearer’s mouth.
Labrets, called tentetl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, were manifestations of political power. The Codex Ixtlilxochitl, an early colonial-period manuscript now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, includes a portrait of the ruler Nezahualcoyotl in full warrior attire, complete with a gold raptor labret (fol. 106r). Nezahualcoyotl was the lord of Texcoco, one of the three cities that formed the Triple Alliance, the union at the core of the Aztec Empire formed by the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, the Alcolhua of Texcoco, and the Tepaneca of Tlacopan. The Aztec title for the royal office was huey tlahtoani, or "great speaker," and the adornment of the mouth was highly symbolic. According to Patrick Hajovsky, a scholar of Aztec art, labrets were the visual markers of the eloquent, truthful speech expected of royalty and the nobility. Crafted from a sacred material, a labret such as this would have underscored the ruler’s divinely sanctioned authority, and asserted his position as the individual who could speak for an empire. Not surprisingly, therefore, the insertion of a labret was part of a ruler’s accession ceremony.
Labrets were also closely associated with military prowess. Specific types of labrets were awarded to warriors based on certain achievements. Gold ornaments, however, appear to have been restricted to royalty and the highest ranks of the nobility, although on occasion gold ornaments could be given by the king as gifts to provincial rulers. Because of its imperviousness to decay, gold would have been an appropriate material to suggest the enduring power of rulers. Such labrets would not have been worn on a daily basis, but rather as part of ceremonial or battle attire donned on specific occasions. Worn on ritual occasions and on the battlefield, this labret, like its wearer, a serpent ready to strike its prey, would have been a terrifying sight.
Serpents have been a favored subject in Mesoamerican art from at least the second millennium B.C. As creatures that could move between different realms, such as earth, water, and sky, they were considered particularly appropriate symbols for rulers and mythological heroes such as Quetzalcoatl, the legendary "feathered serpent." The combination of the curled eyebrow and snout, along with the feathered headdress, may mark this creature as Xiuhcoatl, a mighty fire serpent conceived of as an animate weapon of the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli. Stylistically, this labret has much in common with works in other media, from monumental stone sculptures to a turquoise mosaic double-headed serpent pectoral now in the British Museum (AOA AM 94-634).
Although gold working developed relatively late in Mesoamerica (after AD 600), metalsmiths developed innovative approaches in different regions and produced works of great artistry and technical sophistication. Oaxaca, one of the major sources for gold, was also long considered one of the primary centers for the production of gold objects. Recent research by Leonardo López Luján and José Luis Ruvalcaba Sil, however, has revealed an important gold working tradition in the Basin of Mexico. Small cast gold bells and ornaments of hammered sheet metal have been excavated at Mexico City’s Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, the sacred center at the heart of the Aztec Empire. The finds there include a bifurcated tongue fashioned from sheet gold, and cast-gold bells that once adorned a wolf and an eagle, animals that were sacrificed and placed in one of the Templo Mayor’s dedicatory caches.
Outside of the Templo Mayor finds, the majority of the Aztec works in gold that have survived—including this labret—are ornaments for the royal or noble body. Most Aztec labrets are plain obsidian or greenstone plugs (see, for example, MMA 1979.206.1090-1092), although exceptional examples were made in the form of raptors such as eagles (MMA 1978.412.218; Saint Louis Art Museum 275:1978; Museo Civico di Arte Antica, Turin; see also one in jadeite, MMA 02.18.308). Another serpent labret, possibly from Ejutla, Oaxaca, is now in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. (18/756).
This serpent labret, perhaps the finest Aztec gold ornament to survive the crucibles of the sixteenth century, is an exceedingly rare testament to the brilliance of ancient Mexican metalsmiths. Monumental sculpture in stone, ceramic vessels, and other more durable forms of cultural production shed light on key aspects of Aztec ritual and daily life. But gold, in its infinite ability to be transformed, melted and re-worked, could always be remade to suit current needs, and thus rarely survives from antiquity. Though small, this masterpiece opens a window into Aztec culture at the very highest level, a world almost entirely obliterated when Hernán Cortés arrived on the shores of Mexico in 1519.
Joanne Pillsbury, 2016
Andrall E. Pearson Curator
Arts of the Ancient Americas
This labret was created using the lost-wax process, a method by which molten metal is poured into a mold created with the use of a wax model. Studies by Mark Wypyski, Department of Scientific Research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have revealed that the labret was cast from an alloy consisting of approximately 59.3-64.3% gold, 26.8-33.1% copper, and 7.5-8.8% silver. Ellen Howe, Department of Objects Conservation, MMA, notes that both the articulated tongue and the false filigree and granulation details were executed in the wax model. Three circular holes (two on the neck and a third on the underside of the jaw) were probably used for core pinning during casting and then as openings to allow removal of the core after casting. A small pair of braided wires bridges an opening in the lower front of the cylinder and connects to the serpent’s body. The gold was polished and slightly enriched to create its lustrous high-gold surface, and the small circular recess in the headdress may have held a stone inlay.
Heath Steele, New York, 1930s-1949; Heath Warren Steele, Margaret Steele Fahnestock, and David Truman Steele, Great Mills, Maryland, 1949-1978; [Sotheby's New York, November 22, 1978 (lot 129)]; Jay C. Leff, Uniontown, Penn., until 1981; [Judith Small Nash, New York]; Peter G. Wray, Scottsdale, Ariz., until March 1, 1985; Herbert L. Lucas, Los Angeles, until 2004; Private Collection, New York, until 2016.
1941 Vaillant, G.C., Aztecs of Mexico - Origin, Rise and Fall of the Aztec Nation, Doubleday Doran and Co., pl. 47.
[1943, 1956] 1969 Kelemen, Pal, Medieval American Art, Masterpieces of the New World Before Columbus, Third revised edition, Dover, New York, Volume 2, Plate 229c.
1963 Emmerich, André, Art Before Columbus, Simon and Schuster, New York, p. 201.
1964 Dockstader, Frederick, Indian Art in Middle America, New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, CT, pl. 54.
1964 Flor y canto del arte prehispánico de México, Fondo Editorial de La Plástica Mexicana, Banco Nacional de Comercio External, Mexico, fig. 169.
1965 Emmerich, André, Sweat of the Sun and Tears of the Moon, Seattle, fig. 174.
1967 Nicholson, Irene, Mexican and Central American Mythology, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, p. 28.
1968 Bray, Warwick, Everyday Life of the Aztecs, Dorsett Press, New York, fig. 54 (drawing).
1970 Ekholm, Gordon, Ancient Mexico and Central America, American Museum of Natural History, Dexter Press, West Nyack, NY, p. 105.
1970 Burland, Cottie, Irene Nicholson and Harold Osborne, Mythology of the Americas, Hamlyn, London, New York, Sydney and Toronto, 1970, p. 155.
1982 Dickey, Thomas, Vance Muse and Henry Wiencek, "The God-Kings of Mexico," Treasures of the World, Stonehenge Press, Chicago, 1982, pp. 130-131.
1983 Nicholson, H.B., with Eloise Quiñones Keber, Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 154, color illus. 66.
1983 Pasztory, Esther, Aztec Art, Abrams, New York, colorplate 15.
1985 Muller, Priscilla E., "The Old World and the Gold of the New," in Julie Jones, ed., The Art of Precolumbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, p.18, fig. 6.
1984 Fagan, Brian M., The Aztecs, W. H. Freeman and Company, New York, p. 187.
1986 Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, Reader's Digest, p. 193.
1991 Levenson, Jay A., ed., Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and Yale University Press and London, 1991, fig. 374.
1994 Boone, Elizabeth Hill, The Aztec World, St. Remy Press, Montreal, Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., p. 71.
2004 Houston, Stephen D. and Tom Cummins, "Body, Presence, and Space in Andean and Mesoamerican Rulership," in Susan Toby Evans and Joanne Pillsbury, eds., Palaces of the Ancient New World, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C., p. 370, fig. 3.
2017 Pillsbury, Joanne, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum.
Long-term Loan (L.2013.72; from a private collection, New York); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, August 2013–February 2016.
Long-term Loan (L.1993.4; from Herbert L. Lucas, Los Angeles); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, January 6, 1993–November 1, 2004.
Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., October 12, 1991–January 12, 1992.
Long-term Loan (T1985.198; from Herbert L. Lucas, Los Angeles); Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, beginning 1985.
Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., September 28, 1983–January 8, 1984.
Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art/Veinte Siglos de Arte Mexicano; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1940.
Long-term Loan (T66/1): American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1937–1978 (with interruptions, including the exhibition above and the war years).
Baquedano, Elizabeth. 2005. "El oro azteca y sus conexiones con el poder, la fertilidad agrícola, la guerra y la muerte." Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 36: 359–81.
Evans, Susan Toby. 2013. Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. 3rd ed. Thames & Hudson, London.
Hajovsky, Patrick Thomas. 2015. On the Lips of Others: Moteuczoma’s Fame in Aztec Monuments and Rituals. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Jones, Julie, and Heidi King. 2002. "Gold of the Americas," Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New ser., v. 59, no. 4.
King, Timothy B. 2015. "The Case for the Aztec Goldsmith," Ancient Mesoamerica vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 313–327.
López Luján, Leonardo, and José Luis Ruvalcaba Sil. 2015. "El oro de Tenochtitlan: La colección arqueológica del Proyecto Templo Mayor." Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 49: 7–57.
Olko, Justyna. Insignia of Rank in the Nahua World: From the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2014.
Peterson, Jeanette Favrot. 2003. "Crafting the Self: Identity and the Mimetic Tradition in the Florentine Codex. In Sahagún at 500: Essays on the Quincentenary of the Birth of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún, edited by John Frederick Schwaller, pp. 223–294. Academy of American Franciscan History, Berkeley.
Pillsbury, Joanne, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017.
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