Codex Dresdensis is one of four extant pre-conquest Maya manuscripts. The oldest of the known Mesoamerican manuscripts, it was produced in the Yucatán Peninsula in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. It is a book of time reckoning including calendars and almanacs for rituals, divination, ceremonial requirements, activities of everyday life, lunar eclipse tables, and Venus phases calculations. It also presents visual information on Maya's social structure.
This screen-folded work is made of amate covered in a thin coating of gesso and illustrated on both sides. Text comprised of pictographs, hieroglyphics, and numbers were created for learned religious leaders. Divided into two parts, it measures a total of 356 cm in length by nine cm tall and contains seventy-eight pages. The codex sustained damage during World War II.
Codex Dresdensis contains seventy-four well-composed illustrations rendered using vegetal and mineral pigments. Depictions feature a variety of Maya deities, including Itzamna, Ixchel, God E, Chac, and the Death God. Perhaps this work's best-known image is the full-page depiction of a great flood and the Rain God, Chac. The manuscript is in the collection of the Sächsische Landesbibliothek-Staats-und-Universitätsbibliothek in Dresden.
Styles Tell Story of Art Expansion
Evaluation of astronomical content and day signs indicates Codex Dresdensis was likely copied from an earlier manuscript. The styles of the copying artists combine with the styles of the earlier artists, provide insight into the evolution of later Postclassic manuscript character.
Varying visual properties may be regional. Venus pages reveal Aztec influences dating to the pre-Maya era of the Yucatán region; aesthetic features show properties also seen in Chichen Itza during the Early Postclassic period. Images of spear throwers using the atlatl, as on page sixty, are not typical of Maya art of this stage. Hieroglyphics bear little resemblance to sites below the Gulf of Mexico, implying highland Maya art had little impact on this work.
Many Scribes Craft Artistic Richness
Scholars identified the hands of eight scribes in the Codex Dresdensis based on analysis of drafting styles, glyph design, and topics. In some places errors occur, in others text appears crowded indicating that some scribes were more careful than others. Close examination of images indicates brush pens made of reed handles and animal hair, and chisel-edged quill pens were used by the scribes.
Art historians believe the composition of the codex may have been a team effort as certain design devices appear throughout the work. The colors of the main text are black and red. Black was used for borders, portraits, glyphs, and certain numbers. Red hematite was used for precise red gridlines, symbols, and day numbers. Portraits are surrounded by opaque reds, golden yellows, and blue-green. Compared with two other surviving Maya codices, Codex Peresianus and the Codex Tro-Cortesianus, the visual content of Codex Dresdensis is the most outstanding.
Construction and Re-construction
The foundation paper for the codex, amate (amatl in Nahuatl, hu'un in some Maya languages), is from the inner bark fibers of the fig tree. Thin strips of animal skin were used to piece the pages together. Slight color variations in the amate have been noted as well as differences in components of the gessoes used to create a paintable surface. Some sections were coated in calcium carbonate, others have a surface of ahar, an amalgam of starch, egg white, and milled quince seeds. Originally, the codex probably had wood covers painted in Maya blue.
At one time Codex Dresdensis was divided into two sections, and each section was numbered as it if was a single work. This accounts for the unusual sequence of pagination as reported in Antiquities in Mexico, 1831-1848 by Lord Kingsborough and engraved by Agostino Aglio in 1826. This division of the work broke up the Venus cycle table incorrectly. Once the cycle was corrected by scholars, pagination appears out of order. It now reads pages one through twenty-four, forty-six through seventy-four, and twenty-five through forty-five. Four pages are blank.
The bombing of Dresden by British and American forces during World War II caused deterioration in Codex Dresdensis, however, it is noted the codex experienced some water damage, pigment running, and fading before 1945. Scholars compare the 1810 work by Alexander von Humboldt, the 1826 engravings by Aglio, and 1880 and 1892 facsimiles using chromolithographic copies of photographs by Ernst Förstemann to the actual manuscript to discern when wear occurred. Water and light damages have diminished many of the red grid lines and faded some black borders as well as eroded some colored areas in the extant codex.
From Conquest Treasure to Dresden
Hernán Cortés may have obtained Codex Dresdensis on the island of Cozumel, a religious pilgrimage center off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, in 1517. It may have been part of "the royal fifth", twenty percent of acquired valuables required to be given to the royal treasury in Madrid. It was then moved to Vienna where the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V was located.
In 1739 Johann Christian Götze, director of Royal Library, Dresden, and chaplain to the King of Poland, obtained the codex. The location of the transaction is unknown, but it may have been in a Viennese private collection and acquired as Götze traveled to Italy. He gave it to the Royal Library, now the Säshsische Landesbibliothek, in 1774. By 1828 naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz recognized it as Maya based on comparing the manuscript's glyphic text to glyphs seen at the Maya site of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.
Images courtesy of Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, SLUB