Codex Fejérváry-Mayer originated in the eastern coastal region of Mexico between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is a screen fold manuscript employing picture writing, or tlacuilolli, to guide the reader through divinatory and religious events. Pictographs allow artists to impart information without words. Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is one of the Borgia Group manuscripts, sharing many features with the other works in this group like the type of manuscript, lack of alphabetical text, and tira format. Written as a handbook for indigenous religious practitioners, the images are entrenched with deities, iconography, and objects that could be read by Mesoamerican cultures. Yet two features of the codex distinguish it from the rest of the Borgia manuscripts: its excellent state of preservation and the skillfully rendered diagram on page one representing the time and space of the Late Postclassic Mesoamerican world.
The support of this work is deer leather treated with a thin stucco layer forming a firm surface for pigments. It measures seventeen and a half cm wide by seventeen and a half cm high. When unfolded, it measures 400 cm. Read right to left, the forty-six-page codex contains forty-four illustrations divided equally on the obverse and reverse sides. Codex Fejéryváry-Mayer is owned by the World Museum in Liverpool, England.
Beautifully Drafted Images, Eclectic Art Traditions
The number of artistic hands involved in the creation of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer has not been determined. However, its well-preserved condition, beauty of workmanship used in the application of the black lines, and richness of illustrations have led to scientific exploration of the artistic technologies used in making the colorants.
The number and kind of pigments used throughout various sections of the codex indicate that multiple artists and traditions exist in this work. The application of the stucco layer of gypsum and anhydrate over the leather base is uneven throughout the manuscript with some areas containing small amounts of calcium carbonate, suggesting more than one artisan worked on this layer.
Pigments are derived from vegetal, insect, and mineral sources. There is little deviation in the quality and properties of the black, gray, red, and blue colored areas. Yellow, orange, and brown tones show variation throughout the images.
Examples of this can be seen on page twenty-two obverse and pages twenty-six and twenty-nine reverse. These hues are comprised of orpients and organic material. The mustard-colored areas may be degraded green pigment.
Iconography of the Mesoamerican Cosmos
The first image encountered when opening the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is a full-page cosmogram on page one visually describing the indigenous Mesoamerican realm. A blossom or formée cross representing the four cardinal directions centers the viewer’s eye on the diagram.
Each arm of the motif is painted the color representing that direction: red is east, yellow is north, blue is west, and green is south. Narrower arms of the cross radiate from the center signifying the intercardinal points.
In the center of the motif is an image of the god of fire and a lord of the night, Xiuhtecuhtli. Read counterclockwise starting with the depiction of the crocodile, the diagram takes the diviner or day keeper through the 260 days of the calendar, with the twenty (veitanas) each of thirteen days (trecenas) symbolized by animals and objects. Images of deities always face left.
Nine lords of the night participating in rituals and prognostications using bundles of counted objects are shown on the obverse side. The reverse of the codex is comprised of fifteen almanacs featuring deities collaborating with each other, seated in temples, or making offerings.
Among these many images is the pochteca, a traveler or merchant, identifiable by a basket or burden on his back and a walking stick. Page thirty-one contains two examples.
Codex Fejérváry-Mayer ends with an ornate, full-page portrait of Tezcatlipoca, the god of divination and rulership. He is encircled by twenty trecenas that are positioned around the forms of the deity’s body thus denoting the fusion of the temporal with religion.
History of the Codex
The physical attributes of the manuscript provide clues to the provenance of Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. Some scholars believe that it may have been created before the arrival of the Spanish in the east coast Veracruz-Tabasco region.
Originally thought it be of Mixtec origin, a study of the costumed figures does not uphold this theory. The art style and technique do not display any traits of European line, color usage, or figural characteristics that started to appear in Mexican manuscripts post Cortes.
Aesthetically, it is most like the Codex Laud also of the Borgia Group, referred to as its stylistic twin. Both codices use the bar and dot numbering system, seen on pages five through twenty-two in Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, following a pattern seen in southeastern Mesoamerica and not typical of central Mexico. Peoples living in the eastern areas of the region may have been influenced by other indigenous traders that traveled the gulf coast.
The background of the codex between the conquest and the first quarter of the nineteenth century is unknown. Published evidence of the codex appears in 1831 when Lord Kingsborough, an Irish antiquarian, notes in his Antiquities of Mexico (London) that it was in the collection of Gabriel Fejérváry, a Hungarian book and antiquities collector.
Sometime after his death in 1851, it was sold to English antiquities collector Joseph Mayer of Liverpool. In 1897 Mayer’s collection was donated to the Free Public Museum of Liverpool, now the World Museum.
The leather Codex Fejérváry-Mayer contains forty-six pages with the front and end pages supported by European cloth.