Created in the Valley of Mexico around 1519-1521, the Codex Borbonicus is a guidebook to understanding how time was perceived and described by pre-conquest Aztecs. This manuscript contains three parts: a divination calendar, the fifty-two-year cycle, and ritual ceremonies associated with these cycles. Each section is magnificently illustrated using the colors and distinctive pictographic style of Nahua manuscripts. Representations of ritual objects, costumes, deity impersonators, ceremonies, structures, and iconography appear in all sections. Codex Borbonicus is known for the illustration of the New Fire Ceremony on p. 34, associating it to an actual historical event. It is a remarkable example of post-conquest indigenous peoples’ dedication in using traditional methods to depict their worldview. Glosses are the only text in this document.
The format of Codex Borbonicus is screen-fold, or tira, a typical Mesoamerican layout. Made of amatl, fig leaf paper, and coated with a lime-based thin plaster, this manuscript is comprised of thirty-six accordion-folded panels each bearing an image. Read from left to right, it measures over fourteen meters in length when opened, with pictures only on one side of the codex. When folded, it is thirty-nine centimeters wide by forty centimeters tall, making it larger than other codices. It is housed in Paris in the Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée Nationale. The codex is named after the former Palais Bourbon where the library is located.
Pictographs in Local Pigments Describe Spiritual Practices
Artist-scribes, called tlacuilos, worked with a variety of mineral, insect, and plant colorants such as Maya blue and cochineal to create a full range of turquoise, green, red, yellow to create the representations of deities, their impersonators, ceremonies, and iconography. The white plaster background with black outlining make the richly pigmented pictographs of figures, plants, and animals stand out.
Tlacuilos that manufactured Nahua codices were either priests or lay people under the direction of a priest because it was essential for these artisans to have in-depth knowledge of iconography, divination, and religious rituals.
Codex Borbonicus contains only religious information that was used by spiritual leaders. It consists of two manuals that make up the first and third sections and a center section. Pigments used in the first part vary slightly from those of the second and third.
The first section covering pages one through twenty, the tonalamatl, is a divinatory calendar comprised of twenty trecenas or thirteen-day cycles. Each page is divided into a main section featuring an ornately costumed lord performing a ritual filling a large portion of the page. On the edges of the pages are rows of boxes representing the days of the cycle with a glyph, icon, and number for each day.
Pages twenty-one and twenty-two, the second part, highlight the deities Oxomoco, Cipactonal, Quetzalcoatl, and Tezcatlipoca. These deities are the creators of the Aztec divinatory and fifty-two-week year calendars.
The remaining section consists of eighteen twenty-day periods, veintanas, showing ceremonies related to the solar year. Each veintana is dedicated to a distinct deity that represents a social or agricultural concept or process. The deity is depicted with musicians, impersonators, or priests carrying out rituals.
Limited Textual Content for the European Audience
The textual content of Codex Borbonicus is minimal, consisting of Nahuatl to Spanish glossing in the trecena section of this manuscript. Each page of the tonalamatl is carefully designed to include rows of boxes containing the visual, number, and textural name of each day.
Space in each of these boxes was measured, marked, and left blank so that the scribe could add the text after the painting was completed. It is this extra space added to each page that produced a manuscript that is larger than the usual screen-fold codex.
Tracking the Provenance of the Codex
Scholars have differing interpretations of the location and date of fabrication, although there is agreement that Codex Borbonicus originated in a Valley of Mexico Aztec city-state. Long believed to be from Tenochtitlan or its sister city, Tlatelolco, there is evidence that it may have come from another city-state in the region such as Colhuacan, Iztapalapa*, or Xochimilco.
The veintana on p. 34 depicting the New Fire Ceremony includes the year 2.Acatl which is 1507 in the Julian calendar. The inclusion of this year has led scholars to believe the codex was a post-conquest copy of a pre-conquest manuscript. The combination of the two different religious manuals is one of the factors that led researchers to the conclusion that it was created post-conquest.
The first publication notice of the Codex Borbonicus is in the 1777 edition of The History of America by William Robertson, a Scottish historian and theologian, where the codex was chronicled as being in the collection of the Escorial, Madrid.
The manuscript description documented that it had forty pages. Scholars think the codex came into the hands of the French in 1808 when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Madrid or during a later intercession in 1823. The theory is that the front and back pages were removed at the time it was removed from the Escorial, leaving the extant thirty-six pages.
Further documentation dates from 1826 when the librarian of the Chamber of Deputies, now Assemblée Nationale Française, recorded that it was purchased at auction for the collection.
* This is the preferred term from the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names. Sources used for this description also use the alternative names Iztapalapan and Itztapallan for this site.