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Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Since serpents regularly shed their skins and emerge shining and fresh as though made anew, they seemed to Aztec mystics to transcend the dull cycle of aging. Likewise snakes’ ability to hide in the earth, swim in water, and climb high into the rainforest canopy made them a symbol of transcending physical boundaries: snakes were seen as liaisons of the gods capable of traveling through heaven, earth, and the underworld.  In fact many of the most important Aztec gods were snakes like Xiuhcoatl (the fire serpent), Mixcoatl (the cloud serpent), and Quetzalcoatl himself (the feathered serpent who acts as chief of the gods).

Here then, as a final post of 2013 and a first post of 2014, is an exquisite Aztec artifact:  a double-headed wooden serpent inset with a mosaic of turquoise, spondylus (thorny oyster), and conch shell.  Once upon a time the ornament had eyes (possibly of gold or pyrite which were affixed to the wooden serpent with gluey beeswax) but they disappeared at some point in the five hundred years since the object was made—and their absence might make for a stronger piece. The serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (the opposite side is unadorned and hollow).  It is made from wood from the Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) a tree with natural termite resistance long-used to make boxes, musical instruments, furniture, and fine carvings (obviously).

(Detail)

(Detail)

Really look at the carving for a moment, it was a sacred treasure of a mighty vanished civilization. It represents the nature of time: mighty and ferocious with unknowable divine attributes, but also regular and cyclical (and beautiful).  The double-headed serpent has no beginning or end. Like an ouroboros, or a figure-eight, it is a symbol of infinity—of time closing in on itself in an unending circle.

The Aztecs of course ended: their realm blew apart in fire, bloodshed, and smallpox.  Their greatest treasures were melted down for inbred Spaniards to wear as chains…or hung up on a wall at the British museum.   But of course the Aztecs are not really gone.  Their descendants are everywhere and their customs live on.  Likewise the living spondylus shell in the ocean is the descendant of countless millions of generations of evolving mollusks—changing color, shape, and temperament over the long eons.

I chose to highlight this this simple object because it unites so many of the topics on this site: snakes, color, art, trees, history, mollusks, bees (because of the wax), the underworld, and the heavens.  The double-headed snake represents the way in which many different ideas are enmeshed with each other and flow together, even as time relentlessly pushes us all onward.  Isn’t that what life is?

Best wishes for a very happy new year and, as always thank you for reading!

(Detail)

(Detail)

The Crown of Empress Marie Louise (made in 1810)

Although I often write about crowns, I have barely ever seen one.  I live in a republic and, sadly, I rarely go overseas where monarchs (and their headdresses) are located.  Today’s crown however is an exception.  I have seen it often at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The crown was created as a wedding gift from Napoleon to his second wife Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha Lucia von Habsburg-Lothringen (aka Marie Louise), Empress of the French from 1810 to 1814.  Napoleon divorced his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais for failing to provide a son and he then married Marie Louise, the eldest child of Emperor Francis I of Austria in order to provide both legitimacy for his royal dynasty and an heir.  Concerning his second wife Napoleon is said to have remarked that he “had married a womb.”

French Empress Marie Louise

Whatever his feelings, the crown Napoleon gave his second Empress is certainly lovely.  The crown itself is made of silver and encrusted with 950 diamonds. It originally had 79 large emeralds but these were replaced with Persian turquoise cabochons when the crown was purchased from from Archduchess Alice Elisabeth and her son Archduke Karl Stefan in the early 1950s by Van Cleef & Arpels jewelers. To quote allaboutgemstones.com:

The original emeralds were re-set by Van Cleef & Arpels into contemporary jewelry and marketed with the slogan, “An emerald for you from the historic Napoleonic tiara.” The Marie-Louise tiara is now located at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Although undoubtedly the original emeralds were lovely, I have always liked the distinctive look of the turquoise set among the diamonds.  Many 19th century crowns were made of the most precious gems, but no others have the unique silver and sky blue color scheme which resulted from the crown’s strange history.

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