Perhaps the finest surviving Aztec gold ornament...
Perhaps the finest surviving Aztec gold ornament, this labret–a plug to be inserted through a pierced lower lip–in the shape of a serpent is an extremely rare testament to the brilliance of the once thriving tradition of goldworking in the Aztec empire. In Aztec belief, gold was the excrement of the sun, a sacred material associated with the gods. Historical 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, but almost all of these objects were melted down at the time of the Conquest and converted to ingots for ease of transport and trade. Thus while monumental sculpture, ceramic vessels, and other, more durable works survive to shed light on Aztec ritual and daily life, their glorious goldworking tradition has been almost entirely obliterated.
Labrets were manifestations of political power. The Aztec title for royal office was huey tlahtoani, or "great speaker," and the adornment of the mouth was highly symbolic. 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.
The serpent's head features a powerful jaw with serrated teeth and two prominent fangs, but also more delicate detailing such as the scales on the underside of the lower jaw and a feathered ornament on the head. The bifurcated tongue, ingeniously cast as a moveable piece, could be retracted or swung from side to side, perhaps moving with the wearer's movements. The sinuous form of the serpent's body attaches to a decorated cylinder and flange that would have held the labret in place. Though small, this masterpiece opens a window onto the highest levels of the Aztec empire.
Andrall E. Pearson Curator
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas