Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 21, 2020
Lori Boornazian Diel The Codex Mexicanus: A Guide to Life in Late Sixteenth-Century New Spain Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018. 228 pp.; 82 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781477316733)


A curious pocket-size manuscript made in colonial Mexico, now in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, has long eluded synthetic assessment, for good reason: its diminutive size belies the complex, hybrid contents—over one hundred pages thick with information in various forms by different hands, previously dismissed as apparently miscellaneous. Recorded primarily in an Aztec pictorial system of writing around 1580, its seemingly incongruent sections engage a range of subjects drawn from both native and European traditions. In this superb monograph by Lori Boornazian Diel, the Codex Mexicanus has finally found its integration. In fact, this study does much more than translate the fascinating contents of the codex into a cohesive narrative for a modern readership. In uncovering its many mysteries, Diel becomes our guide through late sixteenth-century New Spain (to paraphrase her subtitle), where educated Nahuatl speakers, or Nahuas, navigated their profoundly challenging environment with ingenuity. This tour feels like a definitive step forward in Mexican manuscript studies because of how it illuminates not just the codex but also the wider, unstable environment in which native people were challenged to reconcile their established world with a new one imposed by their colonizers. We can now understand how the Nahua artists of the Codex Mexicanus materialized a decisive instinct to reclaim control of their lives in the wake of the Spanish invasion.

Diel’s key to unlocking the enigma of the Codex Mexicanus lies in the correlation she draws between its overall contents and a type of book from Spain known as the reportorio de los tiempos, which conveys the identity of a modern Christian nation built upon the ancient Roman (pagan) past. Just as that textual genre with roots in the medieval almanac tradition served as a compendium of scientific, astrological, medical, and other popular topics for a contemporary Iberian populace, so too did the Mexicanus assume its role as a handbook of curated information that could guide life on the opposite side of the Atlantic. What is remarkable is not merely how the creators of the codex engaged in a sort of cross-cultural translation, often finding useful equivalencies between native and Spanish traditions, but also the way that the European model was so fully subsumed within its Nahua ideation. While an example of a reportorio from the library at the Augustinian school in Mexico City’s native neighborhood of San Pablo Teopan probably informed the Mexicanus artists, they did not simply copy its concept. Instead, as Diel demonstrates, these thinkers absorbed its lessons and considered their own positions relative to its Christian message in order to create an almanac-style book that also incorporated material from deep within local traditions. The resultant manuscript confirms the identification of its Nahua associates as true Christians and native history as part of God’s plan, an encouraging notion at a time of accelerating social and political hardship.

Diel, whose first book examined the annals-style codex known as the Tira de Tepechpan, has here drawn on her deep knowledge of Aztec pictorial strategies and Mexico’s colonization to support a meticulously crafted analysis. The middle four of six chapters address the specific contents of the codex in its general order and with accessible detail. Diel begins by situating the manuscript in its “World of Production” (from the title of her first chapter), including the Nahua intellectual tradition to which she assigns it. Although we cannot name those originally associated with the Mexicanus, Diel identifies them generally as tlamatinime, Nahuatl for “wise men,” or guides whose wisdom was traditionally contained in Aztec books. Diel joins others now using the Western concept of the “intellectual” as a label for native authors, writing in either alphabetic or pictorial scripts (or both), who had the capacity to assert their autonomy from the colonizers through the powerful expression of their own pressing concerns. (See, for example, the range of essays in Indigenous Intellectuals: Knowledge, Power, and Colonial Culture in Mexico and the Andes, ed. Gabriela Ramos and Yanna Yannakakis [Duke University Press, 2014].) By introducing this critical framework for the Mexicanus, Diel shows how its educated creators, as well as its users, sought the presentation and preservation of a new hybrid cultural identity to help negotiate their own survival.

Chapter 2 assesses the first section of the Mexicanus, which is concerned with time and its relationship to religious tradition, a subject treated in the reportorio genre. Both Aztecs and Spaniards saw the calendar in terms of its links to the sacred world and practices—and to power. Those affinities are clear in the perpetual calendar that begins the codex, where Christian holy and saints’ days correlate with Aztec sacred festivals. Diel sees a purposeful native embrace of Christianity and the balanced visual equivalency of Aztec and Spanish systems making sense of the march of days, here presented as operating in harmony. Particularly striking are the inventive pictorial strategies used to render names, dates, and events, reminding us that these ambitious authors literally gave Catholic time a distinctive New Spanish form of expression. For instance, an artist represented Mary’s principal feast day, August 15, with a delightful narrative cartouche of her Assumption: the Virgin’s skirt hem and bare feet dangle beneath a starry cloud as she awaits final elevation into heaven. Relatedly, Diel notes that while Spaniards were obligated to worship a full roster of saints’ and holy days, a papal bull of 1537 gave native converts dispensation to recognize an abbreviated list. Nevertheless, the Mexicanus authors exceeded expectations with a complete roster of special days, thereby emphasizing their own desire to parallel the practices of Spanish Christians while also visualizing a uniquely Mexican cult of saints.

The two subsequent chapters suggest specific motivations behind the codex’s creation. Chapter 3, “Astrology, Health, and Medicine in New Spain,” addresses the contents of three pages drawn from the reportorio genre that show heavy wear relative to other parts of the book. Diel associates their creation and consultation with anxieties surrounding the devastating epidemics that ravaged native populations in 1576 and 1577. European practices of medical astrology mirrored and eventually replaced the “false astrology” of Aztec beliefs, which drew connections between the body and the stars. In chapter 4, titled “Divine Lineage,” Diel assesses two pages across which an unusual circular genealogy boasts the sacred and pure origins of the bloodline of the ruling dynasty of Tenochtitlan. In a parallel to the reportorio link between Spanish kings and a pagan Roman past, the Tenochca rulers (the Mexica) are linked to the Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli and his sister Malinalxochitl. The inclusion of this deep genealogy suggests the desire of their colonial-era descendants to lay unique claim to special privileges in the Christian present, based on their primordial pedigree.

Diel’s most extended analysis comes in chapter 5, with a close examination of the year-count annals that dominate nearly seventy pages of the codex and correspond with a concern for the past also seen in reportorios. Structured like a ribbon of time made up of Aztec year signs joined side by side, this history records the original Mexica migration, the foundation and growth of the capital city, and dramatic events surrounding the European invasion. The overarching trajectory of this longue durée, Diel suggests, is shaped to exalt Mexica dominance, a message that is corroborated by the preceding royal genealogy; in both cases, that exaltation extends through the Spanish invasion. In this way, the annals suggest first a primordial legitimacy and then the inevitability of Mexico’s Christian transformation—with the Mexica as the key agents in that process. This messianic idea wove neatly into the Spanish narrative, since “from the native perspective, if the conquest of Tenochtitlan were a part of God’s plan intended to bring the native people to Christianity, then Mexica history must have been a part of this plan as well” (158). Diel convincingly shows how a Nahua understanding of the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, including his fifth-century City of God emphasizing the eternal triumph of the church, would have conditioned such views. The point is punctuated by her insightful assessment of an anomalous depiction toward the end of the book, wherein a native convert is granted a miraculous vision for obtaining the spiritual sight of a true Christian.

This publication includes the first-ever full facsimile of the Codex Mexicanus, a contribution on its own, and one captivating enough to draw a broad audience to its extraordinary visual contents. Because Diel extends her analysis of a single small codex into a wider transatlantic context of spiritual, social, and political pressures, her monograph will interest any scholar concerned with colonial power or global manuscript cultures. Appendixes on its pictorial catechism and a transcription of the zodiac text in Nahuatl join the raft of information and ideas that distinguish Diel’s innovative study and make it a critical read for all specialists of Mexico as well.

Delia Cosentino
Associate Professor, History of Art and Architecture, DePaul University

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