Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca, originally uploaded by Nolan Willis.

Mosaic Mask of Tezcatlipoca

Aztec/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD From Mexico

Height: 19.5 cm Width: 12.5 cm

The Skull of the Smoking Mirror

This mask is believed to represent the god Tezcatlipoca, one of the Aztec creator gods. He was also the god of rulers, warriors and sorcerers. His name can be translated as ‘Smoking Mirror’. In fact, in many depictions during the Postclassic period (A.D. 900/1000-1521) his foot is replaced by a mirror.

The base for this mask is a human skull. Alternate bands of turquoise and lignite mosaic work cover the front of the skull. The eyes are made of two discs of iron pyrites set in rings made of shell. The back of the skull has been cut away and lined with leather. The jaw is movable and hinged on the leather.

Turquoise was sent as tribute to the Aztec capital from several provinces of the empire. Some of those provinces were located in present-day Veracruz, Guerrero and Oaxaca. The turquoise was sent as raw chunks or as cut and polished mosaic tiles decorating a variety of objects, such as masks, shields, staffs, discs, knives and bracelets. We know from a tribute list issued by the emperor Motecuhzoma II that ten turquoise mosaic masks, made by skilled Mixtec artisans, were sent each year from a province in Oaxaca.

Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca – The British Museum


British Museum 14 on Flickr – Photo Sharing! by Chris Youd

Turquoise mosaic mask | Mixtec-Aztec, AD 1400-1521


British Museum 15 on Flickr – by Chris Youd

Mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl

Aztec/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD From Mexico

Height: 17.3 cm Width: 16.7 cm

The Feathered Serpent

This mask is believed to represent Quetzalcoatl or the Rain God Tlaloc, both associated with serpents. It is made of cedar wood and covered with turquoise mosaic work. The teeth are made of shell. Two serpents, one in green turquoise and one in blue, twist across the face and around the eyes, blending over the nose. Turquoise mosaic feathers hang on both sides of the eye sockets.

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).

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.

Mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl – The British Museum


Aztec Serpent Mosaic, 15th Century, British Museum – Castaway in Wales

Aztec serpent mosaic – British Museum – cactusbones

Turquoise mosaic of a double-headed serpent

Aztec/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD From Mexico

Height: 20.5 cm Width: 43.3 cm

An icon of Aztec art

This ornament was probably worn on ceremonial occasions as a pectoral (an ornament worn on the chest). It is carved in wood and covered with turquoise mosaic. The eye sockets were probably inlaid with iron pyrites and shell. Red and white shell was used to add details to the nose and mouth of both serpent heads. The mosaic work covers both sides of the serpents’ heads.

The serpent played a very important role in Aztec religion. It is associated with several gods such as Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent), Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent), Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent) or Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt), the mother of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli. The word for serpent in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, is coatl.

The word coatl is also part of many place names, such as Coatepec (‘the hill of the serpents’). Coatepec is the birthplace of the god Huitzilopochtli, the principal Aztec god, thus one of the most important places in Aztec mythology.

Serpents were also used as architectural elements. For example, a wall of serpents (coatepantli) was used to mark out sacred spaces within a ceremonial area. At the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, such a wall surrounded part of the Great Temple, which was the ritual focus for the entire city.

Turquoise mosaic of a double-headed serpent – The British Museum

Mosaic Art Source Archives – more mosaics from Mexico

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