An Illustrated Commentary on the Aztec Picture-Books

Click here to view or download THE AZTEC CODICES.

Also click here for THE AZTEC PANTHEON, an illustrated encyclopedia of Aztec deities,

Or click here for THE AZTEC ICONS, new icons inspired by the codices.

The Aztec codices (picture-books) are our only documents from five hundred years ago, our only clues to the lost world of Old Mexico. The native peoples of central Mexico, who spoke Nahuatl and many other tongues, never developed a system for writing their languages.

Instead they painted pictures, created great galleries of mysterious images in confusing sequences, intriguing combinations, and startling violence, both physical and aesthetic. Their surviving graphic art will surely challenge today’s mind to appreciate the humanity and the divinity it embodies.

Four of the fifteen pre-Conquest Aztec codices contain calendars of the sacred Turquoise Year with the 13 days of a week aligned across the bottom or top and up or down one side around a larger image of the patron deity. Those are Borbonicus, Rios, Telleriano-Remensis, and Tonalamatl Aubin, each stylistically quite distinct.  Borbonicus and Rios also include other sections of historical and social illustration.

My artistic favorite of the calendars is Borbonicus for its elegant iconography (and use of blue). Rios and Telleriano-Remensis are almost echoes of each other in many of their images, surely representing a graphic tradition wide-spread before the book-burning.

While the calendars are divinatory, quite like horoscopes, some of the other codices seem to be even more divinatory. Maybe they were used for prophecy, but they’re essentially religious (divine), rather like prayers, litanies, or catechisms for the myriad deities.

Six of the codices are such: Borgia, Cospi, Fejervary-Mayer, Laud, Magliabechiano, and Vaticanus.  They vary widely in ornamentation, focus, and graphic sophistication.  My favorite of these is Borgia, if only for its exuberant and enigmatic design, but the rest are also remarkably beautiful in their own right.

The remaining five codices are basically historical records: Becker, Bodley, Nuttall, Selden, and Vindobonensis.  My artistic favorite of these is either Nuttall or Vindobonensis for the temples and various types of people and activities.


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