Amoxtli: Painted Histories of Indigenous Mexico

New Books for a New Time: Indigenous Codices of Colonial Mexico

The fall of Tenochtitlan is of great historical importance, representing a moment in history where two civilizations from completely different cultural backgrounds encountered one another for the first time. Initially coming to Mexico with the intent to search for gold, a group of Spanish men led by Hernan Cortés fought a series of bloody battles and ultimately conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521. While the population of Tenochtitlan was greater than that of the Spanish forces, with a 150,000 to 200,000 person population to their 550 to 1500 people, the Spanish were still victorious in great part due to the help of roughly 100,000 indigenous allies. After this fall, the indigenous population underwent great changes and hardships, notably the smallpox epidemic, and thus the indigenous population in Mexico City dropped from roughly 12-25 million people, to one million people by 1580. Following the fall of Tenochtitlan, there have been great impacts on the resulting indigenous historical manuscripts that document the post-conquest world. Thus, by studying manuscripts from this period, historians can observe a shift in content and communication, due to the newfound power dynamic that emerged from Tenochtitlan’s fall and consequent Spanish conquest. The authors of these manuscripts and their backgrounds play a great role in how this history has been recorded and consumed, as different groups view and portray the events in various ways. For example, some manuscripts depicting the battle from indigenous perspectives portrayed the destruction in a much more gruesome manner, whereas some Spanish manuscripts were more focused on their side’s power and valor. Religion also plays an interesting role in post-conquest manuscripts, as the unequal power-dynamic of the Europeans and their religion can be observed in various indigenous works after the fall. Despite the drastic changes and influences that occurred after the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlan, indigenous writers continued to find ways to communicate and advocate for themselves in the new colonial world. In this section, these various influences and nuances will be explored, as we dive into the content, authors, style, and context of these post-conquest manuscripts.

Indigenous Histories of the Conquest

The first case, titled “Indigenous Histories of the Conquest,” entails three manuscripts which, in part, depict the invasion and downfall of Tenochtitlan as led by Hernan Cortes. After having traveled from Spain to various cities in Central America, Cortes heard of the magnificence of Tenochtitlan— a thriving metropolis which is now modern day Mexico City. In the year 1519, Cortes arrived in the Gulf of Mexico and first entered Tenochtitlan; they were greeted by Moctezuma, the emperor (or tlatoani) of the Mexica empire who was killed 6 months later. It wasn’t until August 13, 1521, however, that the Spaniards declared to have seized the city. The first manuscript is the Codex Azcatitlan, a work produced post-conquest by indigenous artist scribes. This work consists of 25 folios which depict the history of the Mexica people, spanning from their migration to Tenochtitlan all the way up to the fall of the city itself and post-conquest period. The second manuscript, the Florentine Codex, is a 12-book encyclopedic work which largely covers the cultural and religious practices of the Mexica. The production of the text was overseen by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun and written by indigenous nobles and students. Each folio (of which there are over 1,200) contains two panels: one with indigenous pictographs and Nahuatl written text, the other with a Spanish “translation” of the Nahuatl. The Spanish text, however, was largely a summary of the Nahuatl text with a European perspective biasing the content. It is the 12th book which focuses on the conquest, as presented in this case. Finally, the third text is one which translates the Nahuatl text of this 12th volume into English. Thus, while all three of these manuscripts tell of the conquest of present-day Mexico, each one has a rich and unique context of production and history, which includes portraying the often-conflicting indigenous and European perspectives.
Indigenous Histories of the Conquest

In 1521, Spanish forces and their indigenous allies seized the Mexica (Aztec) capital, Tenochtitlan. These events, later described as a “conquest,” were recorded in various Indigenous manuscripts produced in the following decades. The Codex Azcatitlan addresses the history of Mexica migration, the fight against the Spanish, and selected post-conquest events. Book 12 of the Florentine Codex, an encylopedia of the indigenous world, presents an indigenous view of the war against Tenochtitlan.

Gods to God: Analyzing Mexica Religion through Colonial Codices

The second case, titled “Gods to God: Analyzing Mexica Religion through Colonial Codices,” showcases three colonial indigenous religious manuscripts. Religion was an integral part of Mexica culture, with various myths and rituals taking a central role in daily social and political life. Mexica culture was rooted in religious tradition, with gods such as Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli playing a significant role in retellings of history, ceremonial rites, and shaping the Mexica worldview. Reading religious codices, therefore, provides some of the best insights into Mexica culture. However, the way in which Mexica religion has been documented and shared through manuscripts has varied greatly. This can be seen, firstly, in the difference in attitudes on Mexica religion between pre-Hispanic and colonial manuscripts, as well as the differing views on the subject within the colonial period. Most pre-Hispanic texts, especially religious codices, were destroyed by the Spanish, who did not want to preserve Mexica religion, which they saw as being sinful and corrupt. This sentiment continued into the colonial period, where many Spaniards remained opposed to the existence of any sort of record of Mexica religion. This was evident in statements such as King Philip II of Spain’s 1577 decree ordering that no one be permitted “for any reason, in any language, to write concerning the superstitions and ways of life these Indians had.” However, conflicting views on this subject emerged during the colonial period. While many Spaniards were opposed to the preservation of Mexica religion, others, such as the friar Bernardino de Sahagún, felt it was better to compile knowledge on Mexica religion in order to expose its false nature, establish the superiority of Christianity, and aid in conversion efforts.5 The representation of Mexica religion differed not only between pre-Hispanic and colonial manuscripts and within existing colonial mentalities but also in the authorial backgrounds of different colonial manuscripts. Regarding the objects in this case, the authors range from indigenous painters to a Franciscan friar. Although these three objects were all written roughly around the same time (the exact dates of creation for the Codices Ríos and Magliabechiano are as yet unknown), the attitudes that they adopt towards indigenous religions greatly differ, which could likely be attributed to the difference in backgrounds of the authors and compilers responsible for the creation of these works.

This case includes the Codex Magliabechiano, the Florentine Codex and the Codex Ríos, which are all colonial codices that include portrayals of indigenous religions—albeit with different lenses. Created in the early Spanish colonial period, the Codex Magliabechiano adopted a traditional indigenous pictorial style, inspired by that of pre-Hispanic manuscripts. Although the exact context of its creation is unknown, it is thought to have been produced by two indigenous artists, working under Spanish mendicant friars, as well as two Spanish scribes. It is, however, significant to note that the Spanish largely took a back seat in terms of dictating the content of this manuscript. European influences in the Codex Magliabechiano left the portrayal of Mexica religion largely untouched, instead manifesting primarily in the form of artistic style and the European paper used for the manuscript’s creation. This case also includes Volume I of the Florentine Codex, which focuses specifically on the Mexica gods, traditions, and religious practices. Sahagún hoped to explain and better understand indigenous religion as a strategy to help with his goals of converting the Mexica. Lastly, this case includes the Codex Ríos. Composed of 100 folios on European paper, The Codex Ríos (also known as the Codex Vaticanus A) was compiled in Italy during the 1560s by the Dominican friar Pedro le los Ríos. The codex consists of indigenous paintings paired with Italian commentary, believed to be translated and copied from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis as well as another unknown codex. It is divided into five sections — native cosmogony, cosmology, mythology, native customs and people, and a 52-year calendrical table. Because the codex was created by a missionary and for Italian eyes, it is important to understand this religious and historical Mexica document as a colonial manuscript with a European perspective. At times, a Christian perspective enters the text, comparing different aspects of the Mexica religion to the European understanding of religion and demeaning Mexica beliefs.
Gods to God: Analyzing Mexica Religion through Colonial Codices

This case showcases depictions of pre-contact indigenous religion in three colonial manuscripts: the Codex Magliabechiano, the Florentine Codex, and the Codex Ríos. The manuscripts combine indigenous and European elements. Unlike pre-Hispanic religious manuscripts, these codices approach native religion from a Christian perspective; this is often revealed not in the images but rather in the accompanying texts. Despite various levels of Christian influence, these documents remain valuable resources for understanding Mexica (Aztec) culture and religion.

Painting Arguments

The third case in New Books for a New Time, “Painting Arguments,” focuses on objects that depicts the colonial-indigenous culture advocating for itself. This advocacy found itself consol-idating Spanish and indigenous traditions and, in doing so, created something new. As Deane & Leibsohn eloquently argued, this new culture should not be considered a 'hybrid' because this is a modern political take that obscures conversations about the history of colonial America by creating a black box that simplifies the complicated stories. 'Hybridity' is a concept that only exists now, it didn't during the period in which the 'hybridity' took place, so in emphasizing this concept nuances are lost, and arbitrary divisions are made. "Painting Arguments" is an exploration of how colonial indigenous communities advocated for a place in Spanish society by using practices built on top of their cultural predecessors in various domains. In this case, we will discuss how self-advocacy can be seen in depictions of history, medicine, and law.

Self-advocacy requires creative expressions of oneself. In the Codex Mendoza this was seen by depicting a great history of conquest up until the arrival of the Spanish. The Mexica history was actively advocated for but there was an omission of religious tradition not because it wasn't important, but it weakened their arguments against the pious Christian Spanish. El Lienzo de Tlaxacala is another example of self-advocacy by modifying history. The Tlaxcalans were enemies of the Mexica and important allies to the Spanish, however they did not have the perfect alliance from the beginning. El Lienzo (or cloth) was created about three decades after the conquest. It high-lighted and partially exaggerated the parts of history that made the Tlaxacalans seem like amazing allies so that the Tlaxcalans could be seen favorably by the Spanish monarchy and be compensated for their alliance. The human figures on the cloth reflect European influence on artistic expression and may be part of the argument that the Tlaxacalans have been good allies. Self-advocacy for the Spanish eye is a recurring theme throughout this case and can be seen in other contexts.

El Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco (The College of Santa Cruz) was established in 1536 to provide the Nahua elite with a European religious education. The College selected young boys from wealthy families to study European philosophy and train them to become Franciscans. The College produced a generation of academics who were literate in Nahuatl, Spanish, and Latin, and produced literature in these languages. Here, codices such as the Codex Cruz-Badiano continued to occupy a niche in society that included formal documents and histories tailored to European aesthetics and philosophies. The manuscripts created by this caste of academics exist in conversation with colonial power and serve as a primary source of knowledge about indigenous culture after the Conquest.

​​In addition to advocating for themselves through historical and medical documentation, indigenous communities also played a large role in the legal system of the new colonial world. As explained by Elizabeth Boone in her writings, the “painted testimonies” created by the tlacuiloque, or indigneous painters, were often used in pre-Hispanic contexts. The use of pictorial documentation in the legal setting continued into the colonial era due to the factual detailing in the records. Two examples of codices used in Spanish courts include the Codex Huejotzingo (1531) and the Codex Osuna (1565). In both cases, the images by Nahua painters detailed exact amounts of goods and services that went uncompensated or were taxed too highly by Spanish authorities. The legitimacy of the documents persisted due to the usefulness of the Nahua tradition of careful record-keeping. The importance of these images is just one example of how pre-Hispanic techniques persisted in a colonial world and were used by the indigenous communities to advocate for themselves. Manuscripts such as the Lienzo de Tlaxcala and the Codex Cruz-Badiano worked in conjunction with legal documents like the Codex Osuna as communities attempted to adapt while still advocating for their rights in a new colonial environment.
Painting Arguments

Codices continued to play important roles for indigenous communities in colonial Mexico. Painted manuscripts documented information, communicated cultural knowledge, and supported arguments regarding public and private life under Spanish rule. The manuscripts in this case concern different types of information about indigenous lives. The Lienzo de Tlaxcala addresses that city’s historical role supporting the Spanish conquistadors. The Codex Cruz-Badiano documents native botanical medicine. The Codex Osuna was created to serve as evidence in a legal case.

[1] Francis Stuart. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000, pg. 14-15.

[2]Hudson, M.. "Battle of Tenochtitlán." Encyclopedia Britannica, May 15, 2021.

[3] Stuart Schwartz. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 245-246

[4] Angela Herren Rajagopalan. Portraying the Aztec Past: The Codices Boturini, Azcatitlan and Aubin. University of Texas Press, 2019, pg. 8.

[5] Kevin Terraciano, “Competing Memories of the Conquest of Mexico,” in Ilona Katzew (ed.), Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 56

[6] Schwartz 2000, 22.

[7] Kevin Terraciano, “Introduction. An Encyclopedia of Nahua Culture: Context and Content,” in Jeanette Favrot Peterson and Kevin Terraciano (eds.), The Florentine Codex: An Encyclopedia of the Nahua World in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019), 8-10.

[8] Dean, Carolyn, and Dana Leibsohn. “Hybridity and Its Discontents: Considering Visual Culture in Colonial Spanish America.” Colonial Latin American Review 12, no. 1 (2003): 24–29.

[9] Kevin Terraciano, “Competing Memories of the Conquest of Mexico,” in Ilona Katzew (ed.), Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 62-64

[10] Stuart Schwartz. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 123

[11] Elizabeth Hill Boone, “Pictorial Documents and Visual Thinking in Postconquest Mexico”, in Elizabeth Hll Boone and Thomas Cummins (eds.), Native Traditions in the Post World (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1998), 149.

[12] “Paintings of the Governor, Mayors, and Rulers of Mexico.” World Digital Library online/ October 25, 2012.