QUETZALCOATL - FEATHERED SERPENT

AZTEC - Mexico

1300 – 1521 A.D.

  • Height: 28.7 cm
  • Width: 21 cm
  • Depth: 29.5 cm

Grey-brown porphyric volcanic stone (tranchyandesite type).

Zoomorphic sculpture representing the god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.

The serpent is coiled in the form of a vertical pyramid, taking on the shape of a mountain. He shows his entire featherwork. Only his head and the tip of his tail are visible, emerging from a fan of feathers. The head rests on the top of the so-called pyramid. The long forked tongue emerges from the mouth; the nostrils are hollowed-out; the eyes in the shape of cupules are in relief; the small ears are lightly engraved; the top of the head is flat. The tail end, with its characteristic rattle made up of a series of loosely interlocking hollow shells, identifies the serpent as a crotalus or rattlesnake. The featherwork of the quetzal bird is gorgeous, covering the entire animal. The feathers are triangular-shaped, lightly engraved and in relief; they seem filled by the blowing wind; they even seem to be in movement. The bottom base of the sculpture is also carved and incised and covered by the very same coat of feathers.

Quetzalcoatl, translated as “feathered serpent” from the Nahuatl language, is a pre-Columbian deity who has been worshipped by many different cultures throughout Mesoamerican history, from Teotihuacan to the Aztec Empire. The serpent is a significant sacred animal in pre-Columbian cosmology and iconography and serpent motifs are frequent. God of the wind, of Venus and of the dawn, Quetzalcoatl is the patron god of the Aztec priesthood and one of the most important deities of the Aztec pantheon. He is also known as the god of merchants, of the arts, crafts and knowledge. Quetzalcoatl is characterized by an abundant featherwork covering the entire serpent’s body. Its plumage seems to be filled by the blowing wind, a reference to Ehecatl, god of the wind, one of the aspects of Quetzalcoatl. Indeed, the breezes announcing the fertile rainfalls come from the East, i.e. the land of the Mayas, which is also the land of the quetzal birds. The quetzal featherwork is also characterized by its green and verdant aspect, symbol of renewal, rebirth and fertility. The feathered serpent becomes then a flying reptile, much like a dragon, and is a boundary-maker between earth and sky. He is a symbol of fertility and might have contributed essentially to the creation of mankind.

This piece is an exceptional artwork. The artist carved it from a single block and created the feathered serpent using the original shape of the stone. The natural and precise rendition, typical of Aztec art, livens up the sculpture, giving us the impression that we face the real animal. Sculptures of Quetzalcoatl are extremely rare and only a very few examples are known to date. The object we present here is one of the most beautiful feathered serpents ever referenced, together with the one exhibited in the Vatican Museums and published in the following book: Aztecs, exh. cat., from 16th November 2002 to 11th April 2003, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2002, p. 192, fig. 114. The beauty of the stone, the perfect technical mastery and the richness of the iconography make this item an absolute masterpiece.