Codex Laud dates from the sixteenth century and was most likely created in the coastal regions of Veracruz, Mexico. This work is a tonalamatl, a handbook and calendar for time-based prognostication and related rituals like the other codices in the Borgia Group. There is no alphabetical language text in this work, the content is presented as tlacuilolli, picture writing, a Pan-Mesoamerican method of disseminating information. It was written for an indigenous audience with training in sacred practices. Known for brilliant colors, expert draftsmanship, and well-planned composition, it bears resemblance to Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, sometimes referred to as its stylistic twin. Crafted of four strips of leather coated with a thin layer of stucco, the illustrations are painted using typical Mesoamerican pigments.
The twenty-four pages of Codex Laud contain forty-six images on both sides of the manuscript. Illustrations are characterized by the skillful and distinctive use of the black outline. Distinctive images include the rain deity, Tlaloc, on page twenty-three, several pictures featuring the god of death, and four manifestations of the goddess of purity, Tlazolteotl. It measures 155mm by 175mm. When opened, it measures four meters in length. The codex is part of the manuscript collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, England.
Masterful Indigenous Artists and a Mesoamerican Palette
The artists’ hands that embellished this codex have yet to be identified, but they were schooled in indigenous techniques, composition, and pigment use. Pages were divided into sections using red lines. Known for geometric forms and precise line, it is possible that straight edge instruments and compasses were used to plan page composition and shapes of figures.
Scientific examination revealed preparatory drawings used for figures. The black lines were skillfully drawn with a technical pen, not a brush, in uniform thickness. After the application of the black pigment, color was brushed onto the stucco surface. Textural details such as feathers, skin, and textiles are rendered in a geometric and graphic manner throughout.
Thorough analysis of the pigments demonstrates that the artists had expertise in the chemical and physical properties of pigment preparation and use. Color choice appears to be intentional and symbolic as indicated by the wide range of hues and tonalities, especially in the green and blue colorways.
Vegetal-based greens span from brownish to bright tones. Maya blue, a pigment created with inorganic clay and organic indigo, is used throughout in varying intensities. Cochineal was used for the reds and pink. Grays and blacks have remained stable throughout the codex.
Good State of Preservation and Leather Support
Codex Laud is in a very good state of preservation like Codex Fejéváry-Mayer. Human figures and religious iconography has not been defaced. Colors, except for some yellow areas where the pigment seems to have worn away from the stucco coating due to the use of a poor-quality binder, are vivid.
The stucco surface, at one time glossy, has become slightly crystalline but is intact and otherwise excellent condition. Page numbers have been penciled in on the obverse of each page, as was the practice of the Bodleian Library with ancient manuscripts.
The four strips of leather that comprise the support for this codex average one and a half millimeters in thickness. The strips overlap each other by three to four centimeters and cemented to form the joints. Furrows made by parallel scores at the joints allow the screen fold manuscript to fold easily.
A reading of the calendar has led some scholars to speculate that there may have been other strips of leather used in this book, however, there is no physical evidence of this.
From Coastal Mexico to Oxford
The exact place of manufacture of Codex Laud has yet to be determined. Once believed to be of Mixtec origin, scholars now credit it to the Nahua ethnic groups that inhabited many locals in Mexico during the Postclassic (1250–1521) period.
Codex Laud’s illustrations exhibit formal similarity to murals found at Tehuacan in the state of Puebla. Other stylistic features such as the iconography of birds, shells, bare-breasted women, and scrolling lines of smoke and clouds link it to the gulf coast region.
In 1636 the codex became the property of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the University of Oxford, England. The path it traveled to Europe is unknown, but there are several theories on how it arrived in England.
These theories include: offered by Emperor Charles V to Pope Clement VIII in 1533 along; brought to Europe by the Habsburgs of Central Europe and given to Dr. John Dee, alchemist and advisor to Elizabeth I, between 1583-1589; presented as a gift to Charles, Prince of Wales, and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, in 1623 on traveling to Spain to secure a marriage for the Prince; and acquired by Thomas Howard, Count of Arundel, while on a diplomatic assignment to Germany after the 30 Years’ War ca. 1650. Laud probably obtained this manuscript with the acquisition of a larger collection.
The front and back covers of Codex Laud are made from leather slightly larger, thinner, and firmer than the body of the manuscript. The covers, added in 1636, are cemented to pages one and twenty-four on the reverse sides.
It has a binding case inscribed with Liber Hieroglyphicorum Aegyptorum Ms., indicating that at one time it was misidentified as an artifact of Egypt.