About an Unknown Artist's

Codex Borbonicus


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 if anything?

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 is derived).

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 was made?

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

SENSORY ELEMENTS: 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.


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 made?

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.


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.


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 it.

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.