This Aztec Feathered Serpent is a stone representation of the Aztec creator God named Quetzalcoatl. It is currently being displayed in the Meso-American exhibit at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, Germany. This object is believed to be made between the years of 1350-1521CE, and was discovered in Central Mexico. Although the function of this stone sculpture is not fully known, it was believed to be used in ceremonial religious worship of Quetzalcoatl and displayed along with other stone depictions of Aztec gods in temples throughout Mexico under control of the Aztec State (1350-1521CE).
Stone sculptures such as the Aztec Feathered Serpent were made by Aztec artisans, and were routinely used for display in the worship of the Aztec gods. Sculptures such as the one above were made purely by hand with obsidian (volcanic glass) and stone tools. The Aztec Feathered Serpent was discovered, along with several other sculptures of coiled serpents and jaguars in the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan which is now modern day Mexico City. No rare metals or stone were used in the production of this sculpture with the exception of obsidian, although that is not to say that this piece did not play a role in Aztec rituals and religion.
Coiled serpents such as the one above were commonly made throughout the Aztec state, and Meso-American historian Dirk Tuerenhout states "Aztec stone sculptors loved portraying animals, especially snakes and jaguars. Some of the snakes were extremely naturalistic, but others were more stylized when referencing Quetzalcoatl."(Tuerenhout 2005, 219). However, the difference between this piece, and other stone coiled serpents is that this sculpture is feathered, and therefore was most likely used in religious rituals in worship of Quetzalcoatl. Snakes played many different roles in Aztec culture, and some stone snake sculptures such as the one in the Metropolitan Museum were used as a symbol of fertility.
Local Historical ContextEdit
In Aztec society religion played a massive role in the life of every individual. It is for this reason that sculptures depicting Aztec gods were commissioned by Aztec rulers and priests so that they may be placed in temples and used for ritual purposes. The Aztec's, like every other civilization had a system of social stratification. The social stratification of the Aztec civilization centered around a warrior mentality with the Ruler at the head of the Aztec government, followed by the Nobility and priest class, then the commoner class (artisans, serfs, farmers), and lastly slaves (Carrasco 2011, 140). The Ruler in the Aztec world was viewed almost as a living deity living in the tallest palace in the city of Tenochtitlan to keep his distance between himself and the commoners. The ruler of the Aztec state oversaw every aspect of government, ruled the courts, collected taxes, as well as played a key role in the Aztec religion. Several passages from Cortez's men display the ruler of the Aztecs as an almost god like figure wearing Quetzal feathers, jade jewelry, and many pieces of gold (Carrasco 2011, 135).
The nobility in Aztec culture was a birthright, and a commoner could not elevate his status to become a part of the nobility. The nobility and priest class were believed to have a higher knowledge of how the world worked as opposed to the common people, and for this reason noble families oversaw artisan workshops, held positions in Aztec courts, ran Aztec schools, and could even command troops (Carrasco 2011, 139). The commoner class (artisans, serfs, farmers) made up the majority of the Aztec population, but even within the commoner class some individuals had more influence than others; these were the Aztec sculptors and artisans. The artisans enjoyed more economical powers than farmers and serfs because they were commissioned by the nobility and sometimes the ruler himself for their specialized work (Aguilar-Moreno 2006, 179). Sculptures such as the Aztec Feathered Serpent pictured above were used by the priest class in ritual worship (in this case for the Creator Quetzalcoatl), and since these works of stone took absolute precision with stone tools the artisans were paid handsomely for their works. In almost every case, sculptors worked either in their own homes or in workshops overseen by the nobility, and were paid in advance for their work (Aguilar-Moreno, 179). Many stone sculptures such as the one above were placed inside temples once they were finished so that the ruler, and priest class could properly worship the God the sculpture resembled.
World Historical ContextEdit
The significance of the Aztec Empire in a World Historical context is that this Empire which covered all of Central Mexico and into Guatemala was the first and only Empire in Meso-America. The ancient Olmecs, Mayas, and Incas ruled on a city-state territory where the Aztecs managed to build themselves an expansive Empire state in Meso-America. The Aztec Empire was founded around the year of 1350 with its capital based at Tenochtitlan. Like many other ancient societies, the Aztecs engaged in massive infrastructure developments building pyramids to honor the gods, constructing canals to irrigate crops (Main crops were corn, beans, and squash), constructing schools for education in warfare, and even building roads (Aguilar-Moreno 2006, 74). The Aztec society was a society which highly ritualized warfare, and used highly valued captives in war to sacrifice to their gods for the stability of their livelihood. With regards to the feathered serpent above, the Aztecs were not the first people in Meso-America to carve sculptures out of stone. Stone carving dates back to as early as 1200BCE with theAncient Olmec society in Meso-America. However, the ancient Olmec Stone Heads, and the Aztec feathered serpent did not have the same function. the Olmec heads most likely depicted powerful rulers at the time where the feathered serpent was used in ritual worship of Quetzacoatl. Lastly, the destruction of Tenochtitlan, and the Aztec Empire came about shortly after the arrival of Hernan Cortes, and his Spanish Conquistadors in 1519 (Levy 2008, 124). The Aztec people were almost completely annihilated within only a span of two years because of rampant famine, disease (smallpox and measles), and the arrival of guns and steel weapons (Levy 2008, 313). While the Aztec society may have crumbled with the arrival of Cortes and his Conquistadors, their art, and architecture still remain today.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Aztec Stone Sculpture," http://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/HD/azss/hd_azss.htm.
Tuerenhout, Dirk. The Aztecs: New Perspectives. California: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
Carrasco, David. Daily Life of the Aztecs. California: Greenwood, 2011.
Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Ancient History Encyclopedia. "Olmec Colossal Stone Heads," http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/672/.
Levy, Buddy. Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. New York: Random House LLC, 2008.