Ssssssssserpent Tree: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Modern Take on Ancient Myth

On April 28, NMWA will reveal the New York Avenue Sculpture Project! Four monumental mosaic sculptures by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) will transform the New York Avenue median between 12th and 13th Streets, NW, into one of the most vibrant public art destinations in the District.

Niki de Saint Phalle, "Arbre Serpents (Serpent Tree)", 1999, © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved

Saint Phalle’s sculptures often explore archetypical representations of femininity repeated throughout myth and history. In Saint Phalle’s own words, “I use tales and myths as a springboard to create fantastic creatures of my imagination.”[1] References to ancient myth and history are often noticeable in her work: her voluptuous “Nanas” flaunt exaggerated female figures, calling to mind the many corpulent fertility goddesses venerated by ancient civilizations. In a more subtle fashion, Saint Phalle quotes universal female symbols with her frequent depiction of sinuous snakes. Although most famously associated with the Abrahamaic tradition of Eve in Genesis, depictions of serpents have often been used to personify feminine power, both good and evil, in a variety of cultures. Serpent Tree, 1999, one of the four sculptures selected for the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, portrays a marvelous creature with many coiling serpent heads, each poised to strike, projecting from a single base.

At first glance, Serpent Tree might remind viewers of the legend of the Greek hero Herakles who, for the second of his Twelve Labors, was tasked with killing the dreaded Hydra of Lerna: a loathsome, swamp-dwelling beast (often referred to in the feminine) with nine venomous serpent heads. Using his club to bash the Hydra’s heads one by one, Herakles was horrified to find that, after destroying one hissing head, two more grew in its place. Aided by his loyal nephew Iolaus, he eventually defeated the Hydra by quickly holding a torch to the place where one of the Hydra’s heads had been bashed in, thus preventing the growth of a new one.

Heracles and the Hydra, Paestan black-figure vase, 6th B.C., J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu

Heracles and the Hydra, Paestan black-figure vase, 6th B.C.; J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu

On a more positive note, one of the best-known examples of snake imagery associated with feminine power in the history of archaeology is the now-iconic Snake Goddess figurine, excavated in 1903 by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans at the Minoan site of Knossos on Crete. Dating to approximately 1600 BC, the faience statue, now housed at the Herakleion Archaeological Museum in Crete, depicts a woman clutching two writhing snakes in either hand. While the statue’s precise function is unknown, the figurine’s bare breasts hint at an association with fertility, as do the snakes—their periodic shedding of skin suggests the renewal of life. Along with the Minoans, many other ancient civilizations venerated goddesses depicted in snake form, including the Egyptians who worshipped Renenutet, goddess of nourishment, and Meretseger, protectress of royal tombs who spat venom on would-be tomb robbers.

Minoan "Snake Goddess" figurine, c. 1600 BC; Herakleion Archaeological Museum, Crete

As a student of art and history, Saint Phalle would have been familiar with these and many other mythic representations of powerful female figures.

Raphael Sikorra is Curatorial Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


[1] Niki in the Garden: The Extraordinary Sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle at the Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Illinois. Niki Charitable Foundation, (2007): 40.

7 thoughts on “Ssssssssserpent Tree: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Modern Take on Ancient Myth

  1. Symbolic expression and use of the female form in prehistoric and historic art work reveal a sense of continuum and alliance with past and present artists. Phalle’s art symbolizes our unearthedfeminine roots

  2. I just spent hours at the show in Charlotte, NC, at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, sitting inside Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture outside. This work is brave and feminine and contemporary and mythic. She was ahead of her time, and now we are lucky enough to have it all. I left the museum of her many pieces feeling both childlike and powerful. Amazing.

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