Snake motifs and their use in the decorative arts

Post by Daisy Watson

Ouroboros, an emblematic serpent of ancient Egypt and Greece represented with its tail in its mouth, continually devouring itself and being reborn from itself.

The snake is a key figure in several symbolic universes and a hotbed of aesthetic activity.

For thousands of years, the motif of the snake has been applied to the decorative arts across the world, in almost every civilisation, culture, and time period. Whilst there appear to be many commonalities in the snake’s symbolic interpretation, there are also many differences.

The history of man’s relationship with the snake has often been dependent on the deadliness of the species and on geographical location. This relationship has been characterised by emotions, ranging from hatred and fear to wonderment, adoration, and even idolisation. For many cultures, the snake has been incorporated into the decorative arts for their supernatural connotations, yet paradoxically other traditions interpret the snake’s chilling, seductive, and silent presence.

The ancient duality of our feelings towards the serpent has given rise to several myths and beliefs, rendering it an ideal symbol of healing, wisdom, guardianship, immorality, sensuality, evil, and death.


Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art gives a brief overview of the application of the snake motif across the history of art, and its symbolic value. The first of these that we will cover is the snake as a symbol of evil, sin, and death.

Evil, sin, and death

As previously stated, the venomous and often deadly nature of snakes has contributed to their depiction and associations with death. This is very true in Western decorative arts. 

In Christianity, the biblical paradigm of the book of genesis establishes man’s relationship with the deceiving and evil serpent from the Garden of Eden. Thus the symbol of the snake connotes the original sin of humankind.

"The infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile, 
Stirr'd up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind" Paradise Lost

A French 11th-century oak sculpture of the enthroned virgin and child shows a trampled dragon under her feet, a visual reference to the Book of Genesis in which God declares to the serpent ‘I will put enmity between thee and the woman… she shall crush they head” (Genesis 3:15). One of the most common depictions of the Virgin Mary has her standing on a snake. Eve was seduced by the word of Satan symbolised by the snake, and so Mary in her turn must undo the evil lie that seduced Eve and reverse her disobedience.

Enthroned Virgin and Child, ca. 1210–20 North French, Oak with traces of polychromy; (123.2 x 51.4 x 48.3cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the Italian Renaissance, and solidified in the Baroque, the use of the snake motif played with a fascination for sensation as the arts became a pedagogical tool to create an emotional effect on spectators. Yet even from the Hellenistic Period, the marble copy of the Laocoön and His Sons demonstrates a dramatic application of the snake motif, which would later influence the Italian art into the baroque period. Found in 1506 and now located in the Vatican, Laocoön and His Sons depicts a scene from classical mythology described by Virgil in his epic poem Aeneid. The priest Laocoön after warning fellow Trojans of the Greek’s attack aroused the anger of Poseidon who sent sea serpents to attack him and his sons. The three figures frantically attempt to flee the attack of giant snakes which constrict, strangle and bite the figures with sharp fangs, probably intended as venomous as in the Aeneid. The scene is shocking, striking fear into the viewer who lays witness to the power of the snake and the suffering it can cause. 

Laocoön and His Sons. Marble. 1st century CE. Rome, Vatican Museums, Pio-Clementine Museum.

Although the tradition of snakes as symbols of evil, sin and death (Memento Mori) had been a hallmark of Christian thought since the fourth century, many artists of the Renaissance looked to antiquity for inspiration in the employment of the motif. This leads us onto the snake’s second symbolic value of wisdom and medicine. 

Wisdom and Medicine

The snake has served as a medical emblem for more than 2400 years since its association with the ancient Greek god of medicine Asclepius, who holds entwined snakes wrapped around the staff of knowledge and wisdom, a symbol which is today still heavily associated with the medical field. It has also been postulated that the double-snake motif was reintroduced by Renaissance philosophers as a medical emblem due to the symbolic connections of Hermes and deliverance and redemption. It was also during this period that the snake motif was revived to represent the provider of antidotes to snake poison. The association of the snake with health is mainly due to its process of shedding its skin, a process that symbolises metamorphosis and renewal. The word Asclepius is even thought to have derived from the word “askalabos”, which means “snake” in Greek. Whether wrapped around the rod of Asclepius or Hermes, the snake is today proudly used in the medical world with 62% of professional medical institutions, as of 1992, using the motif to symbolise their practice.

At Nicholas Wells Antiques Ltd a Giustini-neigebauer type bronze figure of Asclepius is derived from a late neoclassical archetype, showcasing erudite Grand Tourist’s keen interest in ancient deities and their symbolic resonance.

Giustini-Neigebauer type bronze figure of Asclepius. Grand Tour Sculpture.

For much of the neoclassical art that draws influence from antiquity, the incorporation of the snake motif would be a direct transfer in imitation. At Nicholas Wells Antiques Ltd, Bartonlini’s Tazza contains a pair on entwined snakes forming handles which arguably alludes to the entwined snakes of Asclepius and Hermes, and thus asserts the connotations of health and erudition, appropriate for the Chatsworth patrons.

The Bartolini Tazza : Detail of snake handles

However, the snakes symbolic background can be traced even further in ancient theology to the worship of gods of earth’s blossom in ancient Egypt and earth-related deities of the archaic period of Greek antiquity. The goddess Eileithyia, deity of earth’s blossom was inseminated each year by a snake, the latter was then transformed into a god with healing attributes. The healing symbol of the snake was also present in the ancient Hebraic tradition which was passed onto the Christian religion. The Israelites of the Old Testament were healed from snakebites when looking upon the bronze symbol of the serpent raised by Moses.

The symbol of the snake also came to be regarded as symbol of wisdom and attribute of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom as well as in Christianity as a symbol of prudence personified.

‘be wary as serpents’ Matthew 10:16. 

The serpent occurs frequently in coats of arms from England, Ireland, and Italy, holding connotations of wisdom whilst also perhaps referring to medicine. Atop the Cavendish family crest rests a snake curled into itself, forming a loop. As families embarked on the Grand Tour to Italy and Greece it could be assumed this motif of the snake would have been incorporated in the family crest due to its ancient symbolic significance in knowledge, renewal, and immorality. The arms of the O’Donovans of Ireland contain a snake wrapped around a sword, paying homage to the legend of St. Patrick who banished all serpents from Ireland. However, the snakes depiction entwined around the sword harks back to Asclepius and his healing power.

In European heraldry, the serpent is more often depicted as a dragon. The arms of the Visconti duchy of Milan contain the biscione in the act of eating or giving birth to a human. These images of the biscione have been found throughout history in different civilisations, such as the representation of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl yet it is doubtful the European application of biscione had any origins of influence from the Aztec serpent.

Civilisations such as the Aztecs saw the snake as representing more than knowledge and wisdom, they believed the snake held supernatural powers, leading us onto the next application of snakes in the decorative arts.

Immorality, deification, and rejuvenation

The ouroboros, a serpent biting or eating its tale, first appeared in ancient Egypt but was continuously used in other contexts to represent a similar message. Due to its circular appearance, it represented the ‘circle’ or ‘wheel’ of life, eternity, and rejuvenation. The snake’s ability to shed its skin was a confirmation of the belief in resurrection to the ancient sage, and they thought that with its skin it also shed old age. The oldest known ouroboros appeared on the shrine in the tomb of Tutankhamen in the 13th century BC. Referential to the mystery of cyclical time, the ancient Egyptians understood time as a series of repetitive cycles and central to this idea was the journey of the sun and the flooding of the Nile. The worship of pythons in Africa is also fundamentally linked to cycles of nature and fertility yet the snake also obtains a role as guardian. The serpent in many parts of Africa is looked upon as the incarnation of deceased relatives.

A Golden Shrine in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Egypt 13th century BC

The symbol of the ouroboros was significant to other civilisations. It is the oldest allegorical symbol in alchemy, adopted by Greek alchemists of Hellenistic Alexandria. The pictorial image of the ouroboros dealt with the creation of gold, yet in other cultures and religions such as Hinduism, the ouroboros forms part of the foundation upon which the Earth rests.

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Many of their important deities were snakes, Xiuhcoatl the fire serpent, Mixcoatl the cloud serpent and the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, often depicted in the form of an ouroboros. In Mesoamerican history, different ethnopolitical groups all worshipped a feathered-serpent deity. Alongside the snake’s ability to shed its skin, its deification could be accounted for the ability of many species to move freely between water, earth, and forest canopy. This helped underline their symbolic role as intermediaries between different layers of the cosmos.

In Mesoamerican Mexica, the serpent was considered powerful, bridging different spheres, and held associations with fertility and water. The Nahuatl term ‘coatl’ can be translated as both serpent and twin. The iconic double-headed serpent mosaic pectoral at the British Museum may represent the celestial realm, or perhaps an emblem of authority worn as ritual regalia. The intense blue-green hues and decorated feathered snout recall Quetzalcoatl, thus again alluding to the powerful symbolism of the snake.

Pectoral; The Turquoise Mosaics. c.1400-1521. The British Museum

Closely linked to the snake’s symbolic power of immorality and rejuvenation is its deification. The snake as a symbol of god and as guardian. We have touched base with many civilisations that incorporate the image of the snake in their religious practices, yet their role as guardian is as frequently adopted in the decorative arts.

Serpents are represented as guardians of temples and sacred spaces in Buddhism. Perhaps this role was made in connection to the manner in which some snakes, such as rattlesnakes and cobras, defend their ground in a threatening and dramatic display. Nāga, the snake-like being, protected Gautama Buddha from the elements after his enlightenment with his hood. This is true too in Indian mythology, in which serpents function as beneficent mediators between gods and humans.

Sandstone Buddha Protected by a Seven-headed Naga. Late 12th-13th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

However, despite the snake’s omnipotent and benevolent application in some decorative arts, phallic imagery and lustful illusions conjure a different side to its symbolism.

Phallic symbolism and lust

Androgyny, phallus, pleasure, sensuality and temptation are words brought to mind when thinking of the serpent. It is both a feminine symbol because of its engulfing stomach yet is also masculine in its phallic shape.

In Greek mythology, the mythical king of Athens Erichthonius, was born out of the earth with a snake’s tail and created from a violent union of Athena and Hephaestus. In Athena’s fight to maintain her chastity, a piece of Athena’s soiled cloth fell to the ground and was fertilised with help of Gaea, the Earth. Thus the snake holds phallic symbolism associated with the earth goddess in the fertility rites of primitive man. The snake and the phallus were also symbols of the Greek god Dionysus. The first conception of Dionysus is bound up in the lustful symbolism of the snake according to the followers of Orpheus who believed Zeus took on the guise of the serpent and conceived a child with Persephone. While under the Dionysus’s inspiration, the bacchantes were believed to possess powers to charm snakes.

Marble relief of Dionysos with a snake’s body, Egypt, mid 1st century – 2nd century. The British Musuem

Naturally, it has also been postulated that the snake in the Garden of Eden represented the temptation of lust, due to the masculinisation of the serpent as Eve’s first consort. Historically, the depiction of women has often been paralleled alongside the motif of the snake. In Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, a snake with a female head symbolises deceit. Many Edo period publications depict Nure-onna, a Japanese yōkai, with the head of a women and body of a snake. In legends, she is a monstrous being, similar to Medusa in Greek mythology, described as having venomous snakes in place of hair. In pre-classic Aegean civilisations, woman and serpent together were considered holy since both embody the power of life but despite this the use of the snake motif in the decorative arts alongside feminine figures is, if not always, a symbol of danger. Artistic depictions of Medusa and Nure-onna symbolise the perils of lust in a crude and misogynistic warning to men.


From Christendom and antiquity, Asia, Africa, and Mesoamerica, the eternal symbol of the snake has crossed every path in myth and culture. Among most peoples, the snake played an extraordinarily important and diverse role as a symbolic animal, hence its dual nature in the decorative arts.


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