The Aztec rulers often expressed their power with body modification, such as labrets pierced through the lower lip. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently acquired a spectacular example of this adornment: a gold serpent with an articulated tongue, which would sway up and down as its wearer moved.
The 13th- to early 16th-century piece was previously on longterm loan to the museum, and is currently on view in Gallery 358 among other Mesoamerican objects. A feature on the MetCollects online series that highlights acquisitions shows its details in gorgeous photographs, that also demonstrate its tongue wagging action (no touching in the gallery!). Joanne Pillsbury, the Andrall E. Pearson curator in the Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, states in a MetCollects essay that the serpent is “[p]erhaps the finest surviving Aztec gold ornament.”
Pillsbury explains that although historic sources “describe a variety of Aztec gold ornaments worn by rulers and high nobles, including a serpent labret sent by Hernán Cortés as a gift to Charles V,” most of these “were melted down at the time of the Conquest and converted to ingots for ease of transport and trade.” So the serpent is a rare precolonial survivor of this fine lost-wax casting of gold. Although there are few survivors, researchers are able to describe some of their function, as Pillsbury writes:
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 the empire. Not surprisingly, therefore, the insertion of a labret was part of a ruler’s accession ceremony. 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.
Cortés also recorded seeing Aztecs with gold and stone ornaments hanging from their pierced lower lips. The Met already held a 14th-early 16th-century eagle head labret, which has its large beak elaborately carved in gold (it’s not currently on view), and a plainer obsidian one from the 15th to 16th century (on view in the same gallery as the serpent). The symbol of the serpent was a common sign of strength and power, evoked through the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent. A tiny burst of feathers is included on the head of the serpent labret.
Yet these are only a part of the elaborate body modification practices of the Mesoamerican world, which included teeth filed into points and studded with gems, elongated skulls that gave heads an alien shape, stretched earlobes weighed with discs, and septum rings through the nose. While some, like the labrets, were reserved for the elite, others, like the tooth gems, were popular ornamentation. Other practices seem totally contrary to our current aesthetic preferences. The Maya, for instance, appreciated crossed-eyes, with historians theorizing that parents would even encourage the trait by suspending an object in between their child’s eyes. The serpent is a striking example of Aztec art before its interruption by the Spanish, and a reminder of the shifting standards of beauty.
The Aztec serpent with articulated tongue is on view in Gallery 358 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).