John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's

ANCIENT BOOKS: Borgia Group Codices

Image - Codex Fejervary Mayer
Codex Fejervary Mayer
Click on image to enlarge.
By A.D. 1300, a representational art style had been widely adopted throughout central and southern México that has been termed "Mixteca-Puebla" after the geographical area in which it reached its highest manifestation. The style is exemplified by a series of surviving painted books called codices as well as lavish polychrome pottery and other works of art. The codices were made of animal hide and covered with a gesso-like foundation upon which the figures were painted. They were folded so that they could either be stored compactly or opened to reveal all of the pages of one side.

Differences in content, ritualism, and style among the codices have led to the determination of two separate manuscript groups called the Mixtec Group, and the Borgia Group, named for the most famous work which once belonged to a renowned Italian family.


Codex Borgia and Codex Vaticanus B (Vatican Library, Rome)

Codex Laud (Bodleian Library, Oxford University, Oxford)

Codex Fejervary-Mayer (Merseyside County Museum, Liverpool)

Codex Rios (Vatican Library, Rome)

Codex Cospi (Biblioteca Universitaria, Bologna)

Codex Fonds Mexicanus 20 (Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris)

Image - Codex Borgia
Click on image to enlarge.

Codex Laud is preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. One of the five principal divinatory almanacs of the Borgia Group, most of its eleven sections are assigned to particular aspects of the tonalpohualli, the 260 day cycle of auguries. Other sections featuring bar and dot numerals probably relate to bundle offerings still featured in rituals practiced today by the Tlapanec and Mixe peoples of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

Codex Fejervary-Mayer is closely related to Codex Laud in style. It is preserved in the Free Public Museum, Liverpool. Like Laud, it shares some features with Codex Borgia but it also illustrates a unique diagrammatic scheme of the four world directions organized as a cross surrounding a sacred center. The days of the tonalpohualli are assigned to the directions and each division is presided over by a pair of gods, sacred trees, birds and other significant icons.

Codex Rios, or Codex Vaticanus A as it is also known, is found in the collections of the Vatican Library in Rome. Together with a closely related manuscript called Telleriano Remensis, located in the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, Codex Rios has served generations of scholars as a "rosetta stone" for the decipherment of the religious manuscripts of the Borgia Group. At least part of the text is attributed to Pedro de los Ríos who was a Dominican friar working in Oaxaca and Puebla between 1547 and 1562. Little more is known of the friar and his activities. Lord Kingsborough was the first to publish a facsimile of the manuscript along with an English translation from the Italian (Kingsborough 1831-1848). The trecena pages are especially informative for their detailed descriptions of the patron gods of the Nahua pantheon. Some scholars believe the manuscript may reflect the religious values of the Tehuacan Valley kingdoms in particular. Some differences in cognate scenes in members of the Borgia Group of manuscripts can be detected and these are noted below the text in the images below.

Considerable archaeological and iconographic evidence indicates that the Borgia Group codices were created by confederacies of Tolteca-Chichimeca. Their kingdoms were composed of various different ethnic groups but the most influential were the Eastern Nahuas of the Mexican states of Puebla and Tlaxcala (Nicholson and Quiñones Keber 1994, Lind 1994, Neff et al. 1994, Pohl 1997). Although they were divided into numerous small city-states, the Tolteca-Chichimeca maintained unity through their allegiance to a great pilgrimage shrine dedicated to their patron god, Quetzalcoatl or "Plumed Serpent", at the city of Cholula. The Spaniards described Cholula as the "Mecca" of New Spain. Eastern Nahua merchants had considerable influence in Veracruz and other outlying regions so it is at least possible that some Borgia Group manuscripts come from nearby regions of Mesoamerica as well.

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