Prior to the arrival of European explorers in the Western Hemisphere in the late 15th century, the Americas were populated by 40 million people who spoke more than 1,000 languages. Indigenous cultures ranged from the rudimentary and nomadic, in which basic survival was the primary goal, to sophisticated civilizations that had impressive architecture, advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, and elaborate political and social institutions. Today we can study these cultures through the achievements that have survived the ensuing centuries: their buildings and cities, monuments and statuary, pottery, murals, and books, known in Latin America as códices. (The singular term "codex" is Latin for "book" or "manuscript.")

Numerous civilizations produced códices, which were considered sacred documents. They recorded history, genealogies, astronomical charts, divinatory tables, calendars, and religious ceremonies. Códices were consulted on a daily basis to determine advantageous times for planting crops, to perform religious ceremonies at the proper times and in the proper way, to trace the path of the stars, to recall the history of the people, and to predict the fate of individuals and entire cultures. These manuscripts, each one unique, provide a window into the beliefs and values of these early Americans. This exhibit focuses on the códices of the Mesoamerican region, extending from central Mexico south to Guatemala.

Códices were made of bark paper (made from fig trees or agave plants) or deer hide. The base material was prepared with a gesso-like base, glued together to form long strips, folded accordion style, and finally painted with ritual, numeric, and calendric images. Paintbrushes in many sizes were used, usually made from rabbit skin. The paints were made from minerals dissolved in water, similar to European watercolors. A cover made of wood or animal hide was sometimes added to protect a codex. Specially schooled artist-scribes created the manuscripts, thereby playing an important role as keepers of history and knowledge. They were honored and consulted as wise ones. In the Aztec culture, artist-scribes known as tlacuilos were assigned to particular temples, tribute houses, markets, palaces, and other sites in order to document numerous aspects of daily life.

During the conquest and colonization of Mexico and Central America, Spanish priests deliberately destroyed countless códices, considering them pagan and dangerous to the spread of Christianity in this newly-conquered outpost of the Spanish Empire. Many other códices were lost in battles, such as during the siege of Tenochtitlán (the principal city of the Aztecs and seat of their Empire) in 1521. Of the few surviving códices that were created before European contact, most were sent initially to the King of Spain as trophies or curiosities from the conquered civilizations. Today most of the original manuscripts are in museums and libraries in Europe and available for use by specialist scholars. The copies on exhibit are photographic facsimiles that have been published to enable widespread access to these precious texts.

Following the conquest, some European priests wanted to understand indigenous religions in order to assess how to convert the Indians more effectively. Friars such as Bernardino de Sahagún, Andrés de Olmos, and Diego Durán collaborated with the tlacuilos to produce many new códices. A tlacuilo would paint the images, and a Spanish priest would then prepare a text in Spanish or Latin.

Most surviving Mesoamerican códices are now identified by the name or location of the museum or library that owns the original manuscript. Examples include the Madrid Codex, the Dresden, the Borbonicus (named for the Palais Bourbon in France), and the Vaticanus (in the Vatican Library in Rome). Other códices are named for a former owner, as in the case of Borgia and Fejérváry-Mayer, or for the scholar who made them known, such as Nuttall.

Scholars classify the códices in four groups based on their place of origin; the post-conquest códices comprise a fifth group. Following an overview of the Mesoamerican landscape and an examination of important cultural features that were shared by the cultures of the area, this exhibit provides an overview of each of the five categories:

The materials in the online exhibit are from the collections of the UC Irvine Libraries, principally the Department of Special Collections and Archives. Realms Of The Sacred in Daily Life: Early Written Records Of Mesoamerica was curated by Jacobo Sefamí, Professor and Chair of UC Irvine's Department of Spanish and Portuguese; Dawn Anderson, Romance and German Literatures Librarian; and with contributions by Professors Ivette Hernández-Torres and Juan Bruce-Novoa.

Start the exhibit tour
Online library exhibits home