The Art of the Serpent: Celebrating the Year of the Snake

Nicholas Forrest
Jan 14, 2013 5:59PM
The snake (or serpent) has been a popular motif in visual art for thousands of years and remains the most frequently portrayed animal in art. Across a huge range of cultures and throughout different periods in history the snake has embodied multiple and often paradoxical connotations ranging from fertility to corruption to wisdom. The snake has also been the subject with both feminine and masculine incarnations – the feminine “Rainbow Serpent” creator being of the Australian Aborigines to the more masculine representation of Satan.

In Lucas Cranach the Elder’s beautiful painting "The Fall", Eve is watched closely by a sly serpent while she attempts to trick Adam into eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The flowing lines of the evil snake mimic Eve’s feminine curves but the head of the snake as well as its texture and colour identify it as a male entity.

In Nobuyoshi Araki’s photo "From A's Paradise", 1999, the snake could be seen to represent the sexual violation that appears to have taken place but could also be seen as representative of the female spirit. Are the snakes the perpetrators or the protectors?

Brooklyn based, Chinese born artist Xiaoqing Ding combines the traditions of Chinese art with a more contemporary aesthetic. The artist’s highly sexualised image "Year of the Snake" depicts a young looking female standing atop a scholar’s rock, her whole body wrapped with a snake that is being attacked by a phoenix-like bird. The scholar’s rock, a focus for meditation combined with the snake, a cunning and manipulative creature and the phoenix, a symbol of rebirth and chastity allude to a narrative of the struggle between good and evil. The girl knows (the scholar’s rock) which path she should walk but has been lured by the charming snake. All is not lost, however, as the phoenix offers a chance to turn from her wicked ways and be reborn.

Although the snake is a highly symbolic creature, it is also a creature of great beauty and strength. American furniture artist Wendell Castle channels the beauty and strength of the snake with his 1967 "Serpent" table. Castle celebrates the graceful form of the snake to create a piece of furniture that is beautiful yet strong.
Nicholas Forrest