Formal Analysis

feathered serpant @ MET.JPG

      The Aztec feathered serpent sculpture on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a stone sculpture that portrays a coiled snake like creature with feathers. The piece dates to the 15th to early 16th century and sits roughly a foot in length and width as well as six inches in height. Even though it is smaller in size than other carved Aztec stones such as the Calendar Stone or the Stone of Tizoc, the compact composition and the emphasis in detail gives the sculpture a great presence.

      The sculpture is likely to be of a volcanic rock, which was a common medium amongst the Aztecs. The heavy volcanic stone and its darker color add a weight that grounds the sculpture. In addition to this, the cylindrical shape of the base emphasizes the tightly coiled body of the snake and highlights its compact form as well. The viewers’ eyes can follow the cylindrical coil of the snake’s body decorated in feathers from head to tail. The body appears to loop twice before ending in a tail unlike the rest of the body. The tail is located on the left side of the sculpture and is represented with several soft diagonal incisions which make the tail look like a sharp rattle. The tail is tucked below a body of feathers and is presented as a texture that is smooth in relation to the heavily carved feather details. This difference in texture allows for the rattle to subtly stand out from the rest of the sculpture adorned in a feather pattern.

      The feathers that coat the serpent’s body are a major aspect of the sculpture as a whole, for they cover the majority of the piece and were carved with intricate detail. The feathers are carved in high relief and have a long curved triangular shape with several thinly carved lines inside.  The carved lines gave off a lighter color, and this was purposefully done by the Aztecs to add definition and highlight such a dark stone. The carved feathers can be compared to thick blades of grass, for all of the feathers were tightly packed and have the pointed quality that grass also has. While each feather seems to go in different directions, the feather pattern is the same throughout. The Aztecs masterfully used the same triangular shaped feather and scaled it up and down to coincide with the snakes growing body. The Aztecs also flipped over the long triangular shaped feather in order to achieve the feather pointing in different directions.  The feathers do not give off a light and plumy feeling; rather they are reminiscent of hard dragon scales because of their thickness, their tight layering on top of each other, and the fact that they are dark stone. Although the feathers are scale like, there is a sense of movement with the alternating directions of the many feathers that lay on the snakes’ body.  The lines within the feathers masterfully create the illusion that there are more feathers on the serpent than there actually are. The feathers begin centered at the top of the head and are shorter than the rest, but they increase in size and frequency as the body continues. Feathers adorn the entirety of the densely coiled body of the snake except on its facial features as well as the rattle tail mentioned above. The disruption of the pattern adds to the great presence of the serpent because it forces the viewer to acknowledge discontinuity th

      The head of the snake presents prominent facial features all carved from the stone.  The head is centered on top of the snake and has four exposed upper teeth with a half oval shaped tongue that ends with a point.  The pointed oval shape looks similar to a flint knife and is carved just below the four teeth. The snake’s tongue is forked and extends downward and then curls in symmetrically on either side. While unadorned with feathers, the tongue and flint knife fangs use curved lines in high relief just like that of the feathers.  Lines are also used to define the mouth that extends back on either side of the face all the way to the eyes. The elongated mouth is frontal yet it also highlights the all-around detail of the statue which adds to the idea that this sculpture is intended to be viewed from all angles. The curved lines on the face compliment the other details of the sculpture and add to the cohesiveness of the piece as a whole as well. The eyes of the serpent are on either side of the snake’s face and covered with lattice like square lids. The low reliefs of the eyes combined with their lid coverings are not as prominent as other details of the sculpture such as the feathers. One can suggest that this small detail of having the inability to clearly see the eye of the serpent is powerful and adds to its menacing presence. While being coiled and having the head straight and center with exposed teeth, a mouth wide open, and flared nostrils, the serpent looks as if it is ready to attack. It is as if the viewer is seeing the snake moments before it leaps out at the viewer. The immense detail of the relief along with the tight cylindrical shape of the sculpture with head jutting out of the overall spiral creates the active position of the serpent and adds to the great presence and unsettling nature of the relatively small sculpture. One can also argue that the snake’s life size form can also play into its great presence because its size can be considered life like.

      This particular feathered serpent sculpture created by the Aztecs was designed with repetition of high relief design and curving lines. The use of both repetition of high relief design and curvature indicates the Aztec’s intention to form a cohesive whole. The head and face of the serpent are the only parts of the body that are truly symmetrical in design while the rest of the body is in a spiraled position which makes for the cylindrical coils of the body to be on a slant. This slight contrast works in favor of the subject matter because it adds to the serpent’s natural shape all the while causing a disruption in the continuity of the pattern, which is the key to the snake’s great presence.  With the snake’s feather pattern and large symmetrical face, the asymmetry of the body strays from what the viewer may assume would accompany such present details. The slant is slight enough were it works well with the other elements of the sculpture, but it is definitely noticeable and cannot be dismissed.

      This particular feathered serpent is a prime example of how the Aztecs were capable of producing well crafted and emotion provoking art no matter the size. Elements such as the stone medium, the dense coiled and compact form, and the intricately carved detail all culminate into a strong sculptural piece.

Formal Analysis