Part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Coiled Serpent is a sculpture from ancient Mexico that depicts a serpent or snake. The work dates to the fifteenth or early sixteenth century and is by an unknown Aztec artist. Carved in ruddy brown and granular stone, this sculpture in the round measures nearly a foot both high and deep and three-fourths of a foot wide. With the length of the whole reptile coiled in that space, the Coiled Serpent forms a dense and tangled mass. In it, the artist captures the potential energy of the serpent through an organic interweaving of its continuously looped and, from some angles, seemingly infinite body.
At first, the Coiled Serpent appears a bulbous knot carved of stone. The core of the work is a contortion of loops formed by the serpent’s long body. The artist has carved these loops to represent the serpent not in the typical serpentine posture of a piled coil spread across the ground but as a ball tangled up in its own anatomy. Even at the base, this globular appearance remains: instead of flattening its bottom to rest the work on the ground, the artist balances it on loops and so lifts the whole work off the flat surface. Carved in varying heights of relief, these carved loops create a complex mass that is both compact and rhythmic. One loop of the snake’s body emerges on top of another loop to disappear beneath yet another one. No elements protrude far from this close core. Instead, the work closes in and over itself, creating a centripetal pull in this contained writhing. At the same time, the swirling and contorted motion of the loops about this core encourages the eye to sweep across the work and trace the serpent’s body as it disappears and reappears in front of and behind itself.
From a distance, little breaks this tangled ball and so little characterizes such a tangle as a snake. However, upon closer inspection of the sculpture, one can see the head of a snake breaking free from the top of this knotted mass. Emerging from the bundle of its body, it is not clear if the serpent’s head is meant to face forward or to the side. The head is flattened with a long snout as well as two raised bumps or ridges just above the eyes. The artist has carved these eyes as sunken, almond-shaped recesses in the head. The snake’s head also has a closed mouth, which is delineated by a carved line in the lower half of the head. Near the eyes, the line of the mouth curves upward. This slight lift of the closed mouth complements the raised curves of the ridges carved atop the eye sockets. The artist does not depict this serpent with a forked tongue or fangs.
In addition to the protruding head, the large contortion of the Coiled Serpent is broken by the inclusion of a snake tail, which also helps make the subject matter of the coiled ball more apparent. Viewing the snake with its head in profile, one sees that the artist has carved a tail with two rattles in shallow relief. This tail wraps across the tangle of the snake’s body, beneath its upward thrusting snout, to tuck on the snake’s proper left side. The artist creates these two rattles by carving a slightly raised and stylized band on one of the loops of the snake’s body. The artist closes that loop, rather than passing it through the knotted body again, with a forked tip beside the band.
The artist of the Coiled Serpent has rendered the whole snake using a red-brown stone. Rather than polishing the stone, the artist has retained the rough qualities of the medium in the sculpture so that the surface appears rough and uneven to the touch. Moreover, the stone used is itself quite granular. Small particles or flecks remain visible in the sculpture and so mottle the exterior. This choice of material and its treatment lends an earthy quality and color to the serpent, befitting it as a creature intimate with the terrestrial.
Despite the elements of head and tail, it is difficult for the viewer to trace the serpent from its body’s beginning to its end. Because the work is carved in the round, the composition changes from different viewpoints. As the work is installed at the Metropolitan Museum, one cannot walk around the entirety of the sculpture. However, no wall directly abuts the work so a variety of viewpoints remain available. Approaching the sculpture in profile from its proper right side, one cannot see the tail of the serpent and so the work appears an unending tangle. This is also true when one approaches the work frontally, facing the head of the serpent. While the protrusion of the head makes clear the origin of the sculpted animal’s body, the artist’s tucking of the snake’s body into itself packs an infinite length into a one foot ball of a reptile. From these angles, there is no end to its tangled up extension in sight. To the viewer, it appears that this snake could writhe into infinitely more complex coils and further tangles. Even when the tail is visible to the viewer, the work retains an air of unknowability. Just how much snake is contained within the dense mass is not clear from the carved loops.
Despite the convolutions of the serpent, the Coiled Serpent does not appear utterly stylized and unnatural. The overlapping and interlacing of loops results in a sculpture whose form remains organic despite the implausibility of the posture. That is, even if the posture is itself implausible, the coiling of the loops recalls the elasticity and slithering abilities of a snake. Further, the artist does not define the muscles of these body loops so they do not appear tensely flexed in their tight knot. Instead, this knot appears a comfortable, solid pose for the serpent. Through the combination of this unstrained composure with the motion recalled in the body’s coiling, the artist of the Coiled Serpent creates a sense of potential energy in this work. The form of the snake contains all the energy of its carved coiling in a compact and stable ball. By interweaving the length of the snake with itself, the artist literally winds up the serpent. Being the serpent can be viewed as infinitely long through the artist’s looping of its body, the full extent of this energy is not known to the viewer.