About an Unknown Artist's
INFORMATION ABOUT THE ARTWORK
REPRODUCTION: What can I learn about how this reproduction is different
from the original artwork?
The image on the computer is a digitized image. This image was digitized
from a slide taken of the facsimile edition of 1899 which in turn was a
hand-drawn and painted reproduction (using 19th century inks) of the original
manuscript that is housed in the Library of the French Assemblee Nationale
(equivalent to the United States congress).
The original Codex Borbonicus was composed by the high priests
of the Aztec culture. The facsimile edition was published in 1899 in Paris,
France, by Ernest Lerox, editeur, under the supervision of the French scholar,
Ernest Théodore Hamy, who in that year was a Professor in the Museum
of Natural History (Paris), curator of the Museum of Ethnography (Paris),
and President of the Society of Americanists of Paris.
Folio No. 14 is 15 1/2" high x 15 5/8" wide. The entire facsimile
edition consists of 36 folios of hand-made paper, each with the same dimensions.
The facsimile is the same size as the original manuscript.
CONDITION: What can I learn about the condition of the artwork?
The condition of the original Codex Borbonicus varies from excellent
to good. The material from folio 21 to the end of the actual existing Codex
is better preserved than the first 20 folios, suggesting that the Codex
was used more as a book to consult aspects of judicial astrology and less
for consulting the feasts that were celebrated during each of the twenty-day
periods. The facsimile is a faithful rendition of the original without
attempting any restoration. Both the original folio No. 14 and its facsimile,
which is digitized by this project, are in excellent condition.
SUBJECT MATTER: What can I determine about what the artwork depicts
Folio No. 14 corresponds to a thirteen-day period (as does each of the
first 20 folios) and thus the 20 folios as a whole correspond to the divinatory
period of 260 days. (Essentially the Aztec religious calendar consisted
of 260 days while the civil calendar consisted of 360 days plus five "dead"
days of particularly bad auguries).
While the overall structure of the first 20 folios is the same, the
figures in the upper left rectangle in each specific folio are sometimes
human, sometimes animals, and of objects and very varied devices or implements.
The larger images in the upper left rectangle reflect the deity of the
particular thirteen-day period. In each of the first 20 folios, the smaller
images within the upper left rectangle represent sacrifices, rituals, ceremonies,
rewards and punishments, exercises or practices, penitences and other functions
or attributes that have a more or less intimate relationship with the larger
figures that preside over the thirteen-day period.
For the first 20 folios as a whole, the small figures contained in the
cells form 4 series. Two of these are constant because they are repeated
without varying in any of the thirteen-day periods reflected in all 20
folios. The other two series are variable with the figures not appearing
in the same cell over the 260-day period or repeating only over a considerable
distance in days. The two constant series are formed by 13 deities and
by 13 flying objects (12 birds and one butterfly); they occupy the upper
row of the horizontal sets of cells and the outer column of the vertical
set of cells.
Let us now turn to Folio No. 14 itself. We have noted that this folio,
like all the others, reserves a space for large figures on the top left
and contains a constant series in the upper horizontal row of cells and
the outer column of vertical cells. Within the upper left rectangle, the
two largest figures are depictions of Xipe Totec on the left and the feathered
serpent (ancient Aztec, Ketçalkóatl from which the
contemporary name in both Spanish and English, Quetzalcoatl
The principal image has the trappings or decorations of Xipe Totec (the
deity dressed in the flayed skin of one of its victims), as well as one
trapping that is associated with Tezcatlipoca (the smoking mirror above
the ear that also appears as the design of the red shield). Aztec deities
had several manifestations; this one is known as the Red Tezcatlipoca.
The image is bent at the knee and is partially genuflecting. It is in full,
formal dress holding in its left hand a chicahuaztli, the ancient
Aztec word for a type of rattle the size of a cane (in English called a
rain stick, it is still used in Indian communities as a device to call
forth rain), and in the right hand, a quilted and feathered shield, elaborately
feathered headdresses. The figure also has other quilted or feathered decorations.
Its tan face has three red feathers that run horizonatally across it. The
deity is wearing a dried human skin which fits like a tunic with sleeves.
The hands of the skin hang below the wrists of the god.
Xipe Totec was one of the oldest of the ancient Mexican gods, originating
in the Zapotec and Yopi cultures of southern Mexico (particularly Oaxaca)
and incorporated into Aztec religion during the period of its ascendence
(beginning in the 14th century). Xipe Totec is the god of spring (the beginning
of the rainy season) and of new vegetation. As a symbol of new vegetation
he wore the skin of a human victim, symbolizing the "new skin"
that covered the earth in the spring.
The feathered serpent, companion to Xipe Totec, in contemporary English
called Quetzalcoatl, devours a human, probably a sinner, inasmuch as next
to it is located the snake with two heads, makiçkóatl,
sign of mischief makers or evil gossips.
Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered
Serpent was one of the major deities of the Aztecs and other ancient Mexican
cultures. In Folio No. 14 he is featured in his earliest manifestation
(dating from the 3rd to 8th centuries A.D. during the Teotihuacán
civilization of the Toltecs) as a vegetation god and therefore is associated
with Xipe Totec who is the premier deity of the spring and of new vegetation.
Between the two large figures appears the heiroglyph (a black and white
dog's head with a red dot above it) ce itzcuintli, which
can be translated as one dog, the first day of the thirteen-day week that
is ruled by Xipe Totec. At the bottom far left of the large rectangle is
the symbol of an eagle with three dots (two green and one red). Further
to the right is a heiroglyph with four dots (two above and two below).
This is the symbol of four sun. The function of these dates has not been
deciphered although it is speculated that the sun heiroglyph may be a setting
sun related to the unfortunate fate that is being suffered by the human
being swallowed by the serpent.
The glyphs that appear in the L-shaped brace are calendrical in nature,
describing on the one hand one of the 20 signs for days and on the other
one of the 9 signs of the Lords of the night. For example, the bottom left
is the sign of the day "one dog," the fifth in the series is
"five jaguar," and the sixth is "six eagle."
TOOLS, MATERIALS, AND PROCESSES: What can I learn about how the artwork
The original Codex Borbonicus consists of one long extense or
band of Indian paper produced from the bark of a tree that grows in Mexico
which is called the amátl (contemporary Spanish, amate,
a type of fig tree). The original is creased in the form of a folding screen.
There now exist 36 folios or rectangles of the original, each with a height
of 15 1/2" and a width of 15 5/8" (there are slight variations
in the width of each rectangle). Accordingly, the current length of the
Codex is 46 feet and 1/2 feet. Originally the Codex consisted
of 40 pages or rectangles, and therefore originally it would have had a
length of almost 52 feet. The first two pages of the original are missing
as well as two pages at the end.
There was nothing unusual about the Codex being formed from one
long paper. This was common practice among the Aztecs according to sources
who participated in the conquest of Mexico or soon after. The Aztecs used
these so called "long papers" as the equivalent of Western books
and, using painting and glyphs, expressed their wars and victories, famines
and pestilences, religious matters, and other elements of their culture.
The amate paper, popularly known as "birch bark" in
the United States, today functions as one of the most popular materials
for Mexican water color paintings which are usually produced for tourist
purchase. These paintings are often produced by children from Mexican Indian
communities, particularly in central and southern Mexico.
The pigments of the original Codex Borbonicus, originally
produced from such natural substances as wild holly root (mustard color),
red juniper root and Hematite (red), yellow sweet clover (yellow), prickly
pear cactus fruit (tan), and red onion skin (green) are bright and vivid,
with red, green, tan, and gray predominating. The image seen in this project
is a digital copy of a slide which in turn reproduced the original folio
with Western inks manufactured in the 19th century.
Sensory Lesson Index
What visual elements do you see?
The color scheme of the image is primarily based on red but also includes
green and tan.
The artmakers have outlined the figures to define their shapes and then
colored in each of the resulting outlines.
The image has primarily a utilitarian function inasmuch as it describes
the days under the domination of the deity, Xipe Totec, other aspects of
the Aztec calendar including 6 of the 20-day months, and signs and portents
related to the composing of a possible horoscope of individuals born within
the timespan of this part of the Aztec calendar. For this utilitarian reason
the folio has a cluttered quality: Aztec religion and science predominate
in the design of the folio. Nevertheless, great attention has been paid
to aesthetic details and color in order to make the calendar vivid and
visually provocative. In this regard, folio No. 14 as well as the entire
Codex Borbonicus functions in a way analogous to an illuminated
manuscript, such as those produced by medieval Irish monks. Primary for
both the Aztec and the Irish illuminators would be the religious content
of their work. However, a very important element would also be the aesthetic.
However, for the Irish monks, the primary information came from the written
words. There was no alphabet in the Aztec tongue. Instead they had glyphs,
pictorial representations; but these could be drawn well or crudely depending
on the skill of the artmaker. The Codex Borbonicus is one of the
finest aesthetic examples of existing Aztec "long papers," due
to its detailed drawings and vivid colors.
FORMAL ORGANIZATION: How do the elements in the artwork work together?
Each of the first 20 folios, including No. 14, has the same overall
design consisting of two parts: one rectangular above and to the left,
where there are large figures, the dimensions of which average 10 1/4"
high by 9 3/4" wide; and the other part, in the form of an L-shaped
brace, occupying the rest of the folio and consisting of 26 cells or small
rectangles, filled with small figures and forming two matched sets of 13
cells each. These 26 cells are distributed in the following manner: 14
(7 above and 7 below) in a horizontal array occupyng the bottom of the
page; and 12 (6 external and 6 internal) in a vertical array, which are
located on the right side of the page.
In Folio No. 14, the top left rectangular space is dedicated to the
two major deities, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl and to sins and portents
related to their domination of this part of the calendar and to a proper
reading of a horoscope born under these signs. The L-shaped brace of 26
small rectangles reflects the days of the thirteen-day Aztec week ruled
by Xipe Totec and 6 of the twenty-day months in the Aztec calendar.
The figures themselves are made up mostly of the heiroglyphs of various
deities combined with animals, primarily birds but also dogs, a jaguar,
a two-headed snake, and a butterfly. Numerous dots appear (usually painted
red) which are associated with the glyphs and which are used to count the
days or months in question.
INFORMATION ABOUT THE ARTMAKER
The information that we have about the ancient Aztecs comes from their
own accounts as related to Europeans (almost always Spanish missionaries
or other religious personnel or military personnel); Western interpretations
of their own works such as the Codex Borbonicus and other manuscripts,
their temples, and other creations or artifacts; and from archaelogical
and anthropological discoveries.
All sources agree that Aztec society was highly complex and heirarchical.
The priests had a central place in Aztec society and undoubtedly were creators
of the content of the Codex Borbonicus which presumably they supervised
very closely for content since this manuscript would be used by them on
a daily basis.
Since the Aztecs had developed guilds and specialists for the numerous
trades and crafts in which they excelled, probably the assignment of producing
the "long paper" for the Codex was given to experts in
amátl paper-making; the creation of pigments to draw and
illustrate the manuscript would have been the assignment of specialists
in the creation of those natural resources; and finally, the actual painting
of the work would have been the responsibility of one or more Aztec scribes
working under the supervision of the Aztec priests. The accounts of the
first conquerors of Mexico and the groups who came to Mexico in the years
immediately after the conquest, while Aztec culture still prevailed over
the land, often refer to the use of the "long papers" which were
housed in temples for every day use and on special days honoring the deity
or deities of the temple, were brought out, extended their full length
(usually of about 51 and 1/2 feet, the longest one referred to being about
20 brazos or 51 and 1/2 feet) and hung from masts or poles erected
within the temple for the occasion.
FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about how the artwork was used?
The primary function of the Codex Borbonicus was to illustrate
all of the elements of the Aztec cycle of 52 years and to function also
as a yearly calendar. Within years, the Codex Borbonicus divides
time into periods of 13 days of which the manuscript contains 20 series
and establishes a larger series of 18 "months" of 20 days (totalling
360 days). To summarize, the Codex has three components, all of
which are related to the Aztec calendar: (1) a calendar of the days of
the Aztec cycle; (2) a calendar of the years of the 52-year cycle; and
(3) a calendar of the 20-day months of the Aztec calendrical cycle.
The calendrical cycle established by the ancient Aztecs, based on their
very high expertise in astronomy and philosophy, made use not only of the
solar year which is the exclusive guide of time of Western culture, but
of other various components, including the periods of the moon.
The Aztec calendar as laid out by the Codex Borbonicus ruled
both the individual and community life of the ancient Aztecs. The Codex
Borbonicus also served to fix the structure of the Aztec calendar
and mark, from an astronomical basis, the major dates of both the religious
and secular calendar. The religious and secular calendars differed from
each other not only with respect to the significance of specific dates,
but with respect to the beginning and ending of the year for each.
It should be noted that in the Codex Borbonicus, a good
example of pre-Conquest art, the pictures were the text. This contrasts
with European books, where a text based on words produced by a written
representation of the alphabet conveys the primary information and the
illustrations may serve a secondary, even purely decorative role.
CULTURAL CONTEXT: What can I determine about what people thought, believed,
or did in the culture in which the artwork was made?
Religion, primarily based on cosmography, was the premier element of
Aztec society. The Aztecs believed in time cycles equivalent to 52 year
periods in Western society. Similarly, they believed that the world had
been destroyed four times previously and that they were living in the fourth
world but that the signs as interpreted by the Aztec priests were predicting
a destruction of that world and the beginning of the fifth era (they called
it the "fifth sun"). The first of the eras (each era lasted for
a certain multiple of 52-year cycles) was that of the Water Sun, which
was destroyed by flood. The second era was the Sun of the Earth, which
was destroyed by earthquake. The third era was the Wind Sun, which was
destroyed by a giant, leaving only Quetzalcoatl,
the feathered serpent as the survivor. The fourth era, coinciding with
the Spanish Conquest, was the Sun of Fire, which was predicted to end in
a general conflagration.
Aztec religion was also noted for its numerous gods which governed every
facet of natural order or disharmony, every function of life, growth, decay,
death, and afterlife of the natural order and the supernatural order. They
governed not only the developmental patterns or cycles of humans but animals,
and plants as well, especially the growth of crops, the principal being
maize. Aztec deities (just like Egyptian or Greek deities) needed to be
propitiated with sacrifices or offerings, and honored or recognized in
multiple ways, often at specific times within the cyles established by
Aztec religion, those cycles having been determined by such natural factors
as the appearance and junction of planets and stars, the growth cycle of
the foodstuffs essential to Aztec society, or the daily appearance of the
sun, moon, and planets in the heavans.
In this society, the Codex Borbonicus occupied a central place
because it codified the Aztec calendar of days, months, years, and 52-year
time cycles, because it helped divine the future and gave information about
dates necessary or appropriate for specific religious or civic activities,
and because it was a resource for plotting the horoscopes of individuals.
ARTWORLD CONTEXT: What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs, and
activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was
When the Codex Borbonicus was created, certain aspects of Aztec
creativity had come to dedicate itself to themes separated from religion
or utilitarian culture. This is particularly true of Aztec creative literature
(poetry is what has survived primarily) where poems such as by the famous
poet-prince Nezahualcóyotl evoke the shortness of life and the beauty
of the natural world (particularly flowers, birds, and butterflies) in
a fashion quite removed from religion or utilitarian culture.
On the other hand, in contrast to the poetry of a Nezahualcóyotl,
there are no known examples of works identified as having been created
by specific visual artists Similarly, there are no examples of the Aztec
visual arts not primarily connected to either religious or utilitarian
functions. However, the guilds of scribes, potters, feather workers, stone
cutters, and other artisans and craftsmen had been developing aesthetic
standards and standards of excellence in their artistry for several centuries
since the Aztecs established themselves in central Mexico (in accordance
with their catalog the founded Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, in
1325 A.D., before that they were farmers and vassals of the Toltecs). Working
within the constraints of decorating a temple, creating a headdress, or
illustrating a "long paper," all created for specific religious,
military, or other functional purposes, standards of excellence had become
well established. Aztec decoration also enjoyed changing trends and motifs
over long periods of time so that archaeologists have used those changes
(particularly through the analysis of the motifs of pottery) to categorize
the development of Aztec society and religion.
VIEWPOINTS FOR INTERPRETATION
MAKER'S INTENTION: What can I learn about why the maker wanted the artwork
to look the way it does?
The artmakers wanted the Codex Borbonicus to function as a practical
calendar and book for determining horoscopes to be consulted by priests
probably on a daily basis. Thus the Codex was manufactured in a
very utilitarian fashion for long-standing use, and folded into folios
for easy consultation. The images themselves are not unique, but rather,
standardized. They consist primarily of heiroglyphs that were used throughout
the Aztec empire for recording religious and civic events, recounting military
campaigns, and for commercial transactions or the paying of tribute by
the societies that were dominated by the Aztecs.
Viewer Lesson Index
ARTWORLD VIEWER UNDERSTANDING: What can I determine
about how the viewer, patron, or user undertstood the artwork?
The primary users or patrons of the Codex Borbonicus were the
Aztec priests, who in turn undoubtedly supervised the composition and illustration
of the book in the first place. The Codex Borbonicus was
a sacred book consulted by the priests in order to determine auguries of
the future and other calendrical matters.
CULTURAL IMPACT: What can I learn about how the artwork was understood
within the culture in which it was made?
The Codex Borbonicus was one of the calendar-books that unified
Aztec culture by summarizing its religion and its dominating gods and goddesses
by allocating to them a portion of the Aztec time-cyle. The Codex
also established a basis for propiating deities, compiling personal horoscopes,
advancing astronomical and cosmological research, and undertaking religious,
military, civil and other activities under positive conditions as expressed
by good auguries.
CONNECTIONS AMONG ARTWORKS
STYLE: How does the artwork look like other artworks?
The Codex Borbonicus is the best preserved, most artistically
developed and generally agreed to be the most pleasing (to Western art
specialists) of the Aztec calendar-manuscripts that exist today. These
calendar- manuscripts were compiled before the Spanish conquest or in the
years immediately after. Other such codexes include the Humboldt,
the Mendocino, the Hamy, the Le Tellier, the Nuttall,
the Fuenleal, and the Moteczuma (a spelling variant of Montezuma
that is much closer to the ancient Aztec). The codices themselves mostly
have been named by Westerners, usually reflecting the scholar who first
analyzed them (e.g., Hamy) or named after the place where they are
located (e.g. Fuenleal).
The use of heiroglyphs in these manuscripts is standardized as is the
overall design of these manuscripts, which of course reflected the calendrical
content. The Codex Borbonicus has the most vivid colors, but this
is probably a reflection of the fact that it is better preserved and perhaps
one of the most recent that survived the Conquest. The Codex Borbonicus
is also longer and a bit wider than any of the other existing calendar-manuscripts.
INFLUENCE: What can I learn about how earlier artworks influenced this
artwork or about whether this artwork influenced later artworks?
The manuscript itself shows no traces of Hispanic or other European
influences except for the addition in the 16th century of some Spanish
comments scrawled on the manuscript itself (often off base to the point
that they are worthless), misguidedly intended to help Westerners understand
As a body of motifs, Aztec design and heiroglyphics has been highly
influential on both Mexican and Chicano artists. The great Mexican muralists
of the first half of the 20th century, including Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo,
David Alfaro Siqueros, José Clemente Orozco, and Juan O'Gorman,
all were influenced by Aztec motifs. Similarly, some of the mythology of
the Aztecs, most notably the myths surrounding Quetzalcoatl,
have entered the post-Aztec culture of Mexico, of Chicanos, and even of
non-Hispanic Westerners in a significant way. For example, the Chicano
poet Luis Omar Salinas has written the well known, "I am an Aztec
Angel," and one of D. H. Lawrence's notable novels is The Plumed
Serpent (1926). While Aztec culture may have influenced Chicanos and
non-Hispanic Westerners, the view of that culture is not always positive.
For example, the documentary by filmmaker Sylvia Morales, Chicana
(1979), from a feminist perspective evokes the transition of Mexican culture
from an authoritarian, patriarchal Aztec society to an equally patriarchal
Spanish colonial one.
The codices themselves have had a significant influence on Chicano artists.
See Enrique Chagoya's Insulae
Canibalium for example, where in effect the artist creates his
own, highly ironic, contemporary codex that artfully combines pre-Hispanic,
Chicano, and Anglo motifs (such as Wonder Woman).
THEMES: What general ideas connect this artwork to other artworks?
The theme of free will and being able to create one's own destiny versus
being the passive pawn of forces beyond one's control or being predestined,
is at the heart of the Codex Borbonicus, which ultimately supports
free will, but only at a moderate level. William Blake's cosmological illustrations
and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling are examples of Western
art that address one's ability to create one's own destiny.
Perhaps the most critical idea behind the Codex Borbonicus was
the notion that, when properly informed, Aztec leaders and Aztec society
could move forward and succeed in meeting all of its challenges. The life
experience of the Aztecs told them that they were greatly constrained by
the natural order (events such as the appearance and disappearance of the
sun and the moon, crop growth but also crop failure, military successes
but also defeats at the hands of enemies), but that they were not completely
at the mercy of these constraints. The Codex Borbonicus codifies
the advances perceived by the Aztecs themselves through their astronomical
science, their astrology, and their understanding of the needs of their
ruling deities. With proper consultation of the horoscopes and signs emerging
from the skillful interpretation of the Codex Borbonicus, the Aztecs
believed that they could act relatively freely in their self-interest.
Thus the Codex Borbonicus exemplifies a certain entreprenurial notion
of Aztec military, social, and religious achievements, always constrained
of course by propitiating the appropriate dieties and working within the
parameters of Aztec cosmology and religion as both interpreted and sanctioned
by the Aztec priesthood.