A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Archive for January, 2015

Mosaic Skull Mask, British Museum

Mosaic Skull, © The British Museum

Mosaic Skull, © The British Museum

The Aztecs practised several forms of human sacrifice. They are famous for sawing open the chest of the victim with a knife, removing the still palpitating heart and holding it up to the gods. Skulls of sacrificial victims were placed on ‘skull’ racks. This skull of a thirty year old man has been decorated with stripes of bright blue turquoise and black lignite mosaic. The skull has been cut along the frontal bone to remove the back portion, leaving only the front portion. The eyes are made from polished discs of iron pyrites set in circles of white shell. The skull may represent the creator god Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror.’  Tezcatlipoca was the patron of the night sky, the great bear, highwaymen, sorcerers and warriors.

The skull is lined with deerskin and has long deerskin straps. The moveable lower jaw is attached to the lining with a hinge. The nasal cavity is lined with plates of bright red thorny oyster shell. The skull would have been worn as part of priestly regalia. The turquoise, lignite and pyrite were all brought from the furthest reaches of the Aztec Empire and beyond.


The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens

The Judgement of Paris by  Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

Peter Paul Reubens was born in Siegen, Germany in 1577, and when he was 10 years old he moved to Antwerp, Belgium with his parents. He was described as a likeable chap, with  ‘a tall stature, a stately bearing, with a regularly shaped face, rosy cheeks, chestnut brown hair, sparkling eyes but with passion restrained, a laughing air, gentle and courteous’.

He ran a large studio in Antwerp, which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe. Reubans was also a classically trained scholar, an art collector and a diplomat. He was knighted by Philip IV, the King of Spain and Charles I, King of England.

In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53 year old painter married the 16 year old Hélène Fourmant. His young wife was the inspiration for the sensuously painted female goddesses in this painting. This painting brings to life the stories from ancient Greek legends.

Paris, the seated gentlemen in the blue robe, is the son of Priam, the King of Troy. Paris was abandoned as a baby by his father, because of a prophecy that he would bring ruin to the city of Troy. Priam was rescued by sheperds who raised him as one of their own. Mercury the messenger with his winged hat, has brought Paris to judge a beauty contest between the three godesses. Minerva, on the far right tried to bribe Paris, by offering him wisdom and skill in war. She stands next to a shield which bears the monstrous Medusa with her hair of snakes. One look from Medusa would turn anyone to stone. Venus, the Goddess of love, the second from right, offers Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. Juno stands with a peacock, and tries to tempt Pais with the promise of power and wealth.

Paris chooses Venus and offers her the prize, a golden apple. He then goes on to abduct Helen of Troy, stealing her away from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta. This starts the disastrous Trojan Wars.


Double Headed Serpent, British Museum

Double Headed Serpent,  © British Museum

Double Headed Serpent, © British Museum

This striking Aztec double headed serpent would have been worn to ceremonial occasions as an ornament across the chest. It is carved out of a single piece of Spanish cedar wood, and decorated with beautiful turquoise mosaics, which come in a variety of colours. The open jaws have menacing fangs, which are made of conch shell. The red gums and details are made from thorny oyster shell.

Snakes were sacred to the Aztecs. They thought that snakes were powerful creatures that could travel between the different layers of cosmos; between the underworld, water and the sky. Serpents were also associated with fertility, and with water. Snakes shed their skin every year, which may have been linked with the idea of renewal and transformation. The Aztecs worshipped many different serpent Gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent and Coatlicue, she of the serpent skirt.

The Aztec Empire came to an end when Hernando Cortez and his Spanish troops arrived in 1519. The Spanish expedition was welcomed by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma who gave them gifts. This double headed serpent may have been one of the gifts given to Cortez and his men. The Aztecs had a tradition that the god – king of their ancestors, a pale skinned bearded god would return one day to claim their land. The Spanish became greedy after receiving the gifts and were not so friendly. After bitter fighting the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521.