William Blake, 'Eve tempted by the serpent', England, 1799-1800. Museum no. P.28-1953
'Eve tempted by the serpent'
Museum no. P.28-1953
Blake drew his inspiration for this scene from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament and from John Milton's epic poem 'Paradise Lost' (1667). In the story of Adam and Eve the serpent represents evil. It tempts Eve to eat the forbidden apple leading to God banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
'Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta', painting, India, about 1850-1870. Museum no. D.419-1889
Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta
Museum no. D.419-1889
The Hindu deity Lord Vishnu is often depicted laying on the many-headed serpent Ananta floating on the ocean, while he dreams the universe into existence. Ananta, meaning 'Endless', represents the eternal and the cycle of cosmic birth and death repeated forever. The serpent is also called Shesha, meaning 'Remainder', representing that which 'remains' when the universe ends, and which fuels the start of the next cosmic cycle.
Sword guard 'tsuba', Michitoshi, Japan, 1800-1850. Museum no. 1461-1888
Sword guard 'tsuba'
Museum no. 1461-1888
The main function of the tsuba is to prevent the warrior's hand from sliding up on to the blade of the sword during combat. It also serves to balance the weight of the blade and, to some extent, protect the hand from an opponent's blade. This tsuba is made of brass in the form of a bell and is inlaid with gold, silver and shakudo with raised decoration of a snake with gold and shakudo eyes and a copper tongue.
Netsuke, Japan, 18th century. Museum no. 947-1910
Museum no. 947-1910
The netsuke is a toggle. Japanese men used netsuke to suspend various pouches and containers from their sashes by a silk cord. Netsuke had to be small and not too heavy, yet bulky enough to do the job. They needed to be compact with no sharp protruding edges, yet also strong and hard-wearing. Above all, they had to have the means for attaching a cord. Netsuke were made in a variety of forms, the most widely appreciated being the katabori (shape carving), a three-dimensional carving, such as this one in the form of a coiled snake. A netsuke portraying an animal from the East Asian zodiac was particularly associated with the New Year festivities of the appropriate year, but could also be used at any time during that particular year, and again 12 years later in accordance with the cycle.
'Snakes and Ladders', board game, England, 1920s. Museum no. MISC.5-1980
'Snakes and Ladders'
Museum no. MISC.5-1980
Snakes and Ladders has been a favourite race game in Britain for over 100 years. When it was originally devised Snakes and Ladders was a moral game with virtues in the shape of the ladders, allowing the players to reach heaven quickly, while the vices, in the shape of snakes, forced the player back down. Snakes and Ladders is probably based upon a very old Indian game called Moksha-Patamu, which was used for religious instruction and had 12 vices but only 4 virtues. According to Hindu teaching, good and evil exist side by side in man: but only virtuous acts - represented by the ladders - will shorten the soul's journey through a series of incarnations to the state of ultimate perfection. Human wrongdoing symbolised by the head of the snake leads to reincarnation in a lower, animal form.
Earthenware dish, Bernard Palissy, France, 1565-1585. Museum no. 5476-1859
Museum no. 5476-1859
This dramatic dish with its lush decoration of slithering snakes, lizards, fish and other creatures is characteristic of work by the 16th century potter, Bernard Palissy. Palissy is famed for his ceramics with reliefs cast from reptiles and fish, and his developments with coloured glazes.
'The Royal Pastime of Cupid or Entertaining Game of the Snake', board game, R H Laurie (publishers), England, about 1850. Museum no. E.1747-1954
'The Royal Pastime of Cupid or Entertaining Game of the Snake'
R H Laurie (publishers)
Museum no. E.1747-1954
The Game of the Snake is an adaptation of the Game of the Goose. It is known to have been first published in about 1750. It is likely that this particular version is an impression from the original engraving plate with some of the lettering altered. The game begins near the head of the snake and finishes at its tail. Instead of having a separate rule booklet, the instructions for playing the game are printed on either side of the snake.
Bonbonniere, embossed copper, England, 1765-1775. Museum no. C.478-1914
Museum no. C.478-1914
Bonbonnieres were small boxes for comfits or sweets. Tiny lozenges flavoured with roses, violets, liquorice, mint or cloves, for instance, would freshen the breath, calm a cough or settle a stomach. These charming boxes drew their initial inspiration from porcelain versions from Meissen, Chelsea and the French soft-paste factories. But the huge variety of novelty designs for enamelled bonbonnieres was a manifestation of the competitive imaginations of the many toy makers of the West Midlands. This coiled snake's scales were made by light incisions through the painted enamel colours before firing. The earliest embossed hollow shapes were formed by careful hammering or pressing by hand. Then a method was developed of striking the thin copper sheet laid on a concave hardwood 'anvil' with a similarly shaped convex hardwood mallet. Copper could also be spun on a hardwood shaped chuck to form a circular hollow shape. Separate hollow parts were laced together and beaten smooth. After 1769, steel stamps were invented by a Birmingham toymaker, and the process was further facilitated by the 1790s when more durable cast-steel dies were introduced for stamping out the forms.
Staff, Armenia, about 1700-1825. Museum no. 246:1, 2-1896
Museum no. 246:1, 2-1896
Snakes have a variety of symbolic meanings in art from evil and temptation to fertility and wisdom. This object is a pastoral staff which would once have been carried by an Armenian bishop or priest who held the degree of doctor of theology. It is formed as a double serpent to signify the wisdom of his office. A full-length staff would be approximately 1.5 metres long and end with a tau cross, like the letter T.
'Head of Medusa', sculpture, Benvenuto Cellini, Italy, about 1545-1550. Museum no. A.14-1964
'Head of Medusa'
Museum no. A.14-1964
In the Greek myth, the Gorgons Stheno, Medusa was one of three hideous sisters. She was the only mortal of the three. They were winged, had hair of snakes and turned all who looked at them to stone. Benvenuto Cellini, one of the most celebrated Italian Renaissance sculptors, is famed for his monumental statue of Perseus. Perseus was the hero who beheaded Medusa with the aid of a reflection in the polished bronze surface of his shield (a gift from the goddess Athena) so to avoid her deadly gaze. Medusa's head is modelled with hair writhing with snakes. The final sculpture stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence. This bronze sculpture includes Perseus' hand holding the head and is believed to be one of many models made before the final piece was cast. Almost all the other models for this work are now lost.