Jorge Gómez Tejada: “The Mendoza Codex was used to legitimize the Spanish conquest of the Mexica”


He Mendoza Codex It embodies an overwhelming tragedy: the fall of a civilization. The manuscript, created sometime between 1542 and 1552, is one of the most celebrated collaborative projects between Mexica artists and Hispanic performers in history. The narrative of the 71 pages of the Mendoza It is a mixture of Nahua painting and writing with passages in the Spanish language; and covers the history of the Mexica world from the founding of Tenochtitlan, in 1325, until the death of Montezuma II, two centuries later. The idea of ​​Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, who had the manuscript made, was to have at hand an economic, political and social panorama of the newly conquered land. And also use it as propaganda, according to new research. “This codex was used to legitimize the Spanish conquest of the Mexica,” says Jorge Gómez Tejada, professor of art history at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and editor of a new facsimile edition of the Mendoza Codex, co-published by the University. San Francisco de Quito and the Bodleian Library of Oxford.

This volume is the first editorial project on the Mendoza Codex from an artistic perspective and the first to be published simultaneously in Spanish and English. In addition to the facsimile, it has a book of essays divided into 14 chapters, written by 13 researchers, which digresses about its history, interpretation and reception. The findings of this research were presented at the National College, where the director of the Templo Mayor Project, archaeologist Leonardo López Luján, received Gómez Tejada to talk about the document, essential to knowing the pre-Hispanic history of Mexico.

Codex Mendoza Aztecs
Detail of the new facsimile version of the Mendoza Codex.NATIONAL COLLEGE

“The Mendoza Codex is one of the most beautiful examples of the tlacuilolli: the art of painting and writing from the Nahua world,” says Jorge Gómez Tejada. Regarding his new research thesis, the academic highlights a paradox. “This document was created to be sent to Europe in the midst of a debate in Spain about the legitimacy of the conquest, an issue raised, for example, by Brother Bartolomé de las Casas. Which culminates in the question: does a nation have the right to dominate another nation just because it considers it inferior? The original narrative of the codex is to demonstrate that the Mexica were a sovereign nation with laws, a political system and that they possessed humanity, a theme that the conquerors did not welcome, justifying the taking of Tenochtitlan with the argument that the inhabitants were ungovernable,” he explains. the historian.

The juxtaposition between iconography and gloss in Spanish is not the only opposition between two systems of thought: the codex was painted by Mexican scribes on Spanish paper, instead of amate paper or some deer skin. Furthermore, it was bound like Spanish books. The Mendoza Codex is housed in the United Kingdom, in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It has remained protected for 363 years. Before being gifted to the library by John Selden’s executors, around 1659, the intellectual content of the manuscript was available for study through a series of woodcuts, printed in the third volume of Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625).

Does a nation have the right to dominate another nation solely because it considers it inferior? The narrative of the codex is to demonstrate that the Mexica were a sovereign nation with laws, a political system and that they possessed humanity.

The Mendoza Codex was, in 1831, the first manuscript reproduced entirely in color, in the first volume of Antiquities of Mexico, a lithographic facsimile produced by Lord Kingsborough. This publication, like that of successive photographic facsimiles of the 20th century, turned out to be too expensive to enjoy a wider circulation. On the other hand, in recent years, digital technology has made it possible to reproduce its pages online, in addition to enabling more precise studies of the colors used through non-destructive instrumental analysis and multispectral photography. The new facsimile has better quality photographs and a greater similarity to the color of the first codex, in addition to being closer to the actual size of the pages, which measure 31 by 21 centimeters.

“There is a part of the Codex that shows the way of education of Mexica children, it shows that this society has the capacity to create politics. The debate at that time was whether the people of Tenochtitlan had the quality of having humanity, of being able to love, of living in a society; This book shows us the defense of Mexica sovereignty, it is evident that it demonstrated that the Mexica were a civilized society,” explains Jorge Gómez Tejada. The most complete edition and study on him was published by the University of California in 1992. The authors, Frances Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, achieved a very extensive facsimile edition with translations and studies. In 1997, they published a synthetic edition titled Essential Codex Mendoza. Since 1997, until now, there has been no return to the original version at Oxford to make a physical facsimile with the new technology of today’s cameras, printing presses and digital media. “The approach we give to the manuscript is the one we would give to a work of art in the understanding of its materiality, its internal dynamics; the analysis of its narrative priorities and the way in which images function as a rhetorical tool to transmit an idea and persuade through images,” the art historian explains to this newspaper.

This volume is the first editorial project on the Mendoza codex from an artistic perspective and the first to be published simultaneously in Spanish and English.

The narrative, despite everything, contains the prejudices and misunderstandings of the colonial vision. “Allusion is made to the tributes of gold objects and in our offerings we found very little gold. To date, in 44 years of excavations, we have found less than a kilogram of gold objects in Mexico,” says López Luján, from the National College. In Mexico, there is no gold like in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia or Costa Rica. “In those countries there are large gold museums, associated with the Central Bank, not here. What we did find in our excavations, and which appear in the codex, are live eagles. Live eagles were donated, which, sources tell us, went to the Moctezuma vivarium, which was where the National Palace is today. They were put in cages and served for the entertainment of the king and his court, but also to obtain raw materials,” says the Mexican archaeologist. The vast majority of animals were used for rituals and sacrifices in the Great Temple.

Codex Mendoza
Copy of the new facsimile version of the Mendoza CodexNational College

The history of Mendoza Codex, as it has been known since the late 18th century, is copious and controversial. During the 16th century, this codex is cited among the documents of André Thevet, geographer of the French court, as well as in the writings of Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas, English geographers and authors of works that are essential sources of exploration, and which were reproduced during the 17th and 18th centuries in American history texts and treatises on ancient writing. In the 19th century, this codex served as a source for forging Mexican history and geography and as a basis for The Antiquities of Mexico, an extravagant work by Lord Kingsborough in which he recovers the hypothesis of a connection between the peoples of ancient America and the lost tribes of Israel. During the 20th century, the Mendoza Codex stood out as a fundamental resource for the study of Mexica society beyond its great lords. Finally, the possibility of focusing on the manuscript as a work of art whose materiality, iconography and narratives, explicit and implicit, have allowed us to appreciate the object and create new contexts and new lines of study.

From the moment of its creation, the Mendoza codex It has been a document of great international importance, as demonstrated by its first voyages. The European paper from which it was created must have crossed the Atlantic back and forth in rapid succession during the early years of the 1540s. On the last folio, the Spanish commentator’s text says that, once completed, the manuscript He remained in Mexico for less than ten days before the fleet that would transport him to Europe set sail. After a period in Renaissance France, he arrived at Oxford. Throughout almost five hundred years of history, this Codex has shown many faces, all complementary and from different expressions of the same object appreciated in different light. The codex, which crystallizes and celebrates collapsing culture through the recording and interpretation of not only its history, geography and daily life, but also its art, language and pictorial writing. Jorge Gómez Tejada, professor of art history at the San Francisco University of Quito, states: “The Mendoza It is a text whose properties are constantly changing; Thinking about it from an artistic and narrative perspective helps us understand it better.”

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