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Códice Maya de México: Getty Conversations

Around 900 years ago, a Maya scribe made Códice Maya de México, a sacred book that tracked and predicted the movements of the planet Venus. Today it is the oldest book of the Americas, one of only four surviving Maya manuscripts that predate the arrival of Europeans. A remarkable testament to the complexity of Indigenous astronomy, Códice Maya de México is on display in the US for the first time in 50 years.

Getty has joined forces with Smarthistory to bring you an in-depth look at select works within our collection, whether you’re looking to learn more at home or want to make art more accessible in your classroom. This video series illuminates art history concepts through fun, unscripted conversations between art historians, curators, archaeologists, and artists, committed to a fresh take on the history of visual arts.

A conversation between Dr. Andrew Turner, Senior Research Specialist, Getty Research Institute and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, Dean of Content and Strategy, Smarthistory, in front of the Códice Maya de México. Installation views courtesy of and © 2022 J. Paul Getty Trust.
Images: Códice Maya de México, Maya, about 1100. Mineral and organic pigments on bark paper prepared with gesso. Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-México. All rights reserved

View the Getty Conversations series: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLij2XTFgmBSQXPYGkw4zLRfiF96kfRSGN

Learn more about the exhibition online: https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/maya_codex/

Subscribe to the Getty Museum YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@gettymuseum.
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Video transcript

We're at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in front of the oldest book ever found in the Americas. This is the "Códice Maya de Mé xico" made between the 11th and 12th centuries. Given how few Mesoamerican books made prior to the Spanish invasions exist, whether due to environmental issues like rain and humidity, or even the targeted destruction by Spanish Friars and conquistadors in the wake of the invasions in the early 16th century, it is truly amazing to be in front of this Maya book today. This book has a controversial history. It was long considered to be a fake due to the strange circumstances in which it surfaced. It appeared in a private collection in Mexico City in the mid-1960s. The story is that it was found looted in a cave in the State of Chiapas, Tabasco, Mexico. When this book was finally shown to specialists, they quickly discounted it as a fake because it didn't look like other existing Maya books, of which there are only three others. This is the only Maya book made prior to the Spanish invasions that still remains in Mexico. In 2017 and 2018, independently working groups of specialists gathered together to analyze different aspects of this book to determine once and for all, whether or not it was an extremely sophisticated forgery, or if it was, in fact, one of the four surviving Maya books made before the arrival of the Spanish. This doesn't look like a bound book that we might find in a library or a bookstore today, and yet, this was a typical way of making a book in Mesoamerica. What is really striking to me is how thick the pages are. This book was made using long strips of the inner bark of a fig tree, and then those strips were stacked on top of each other in three layers, and then thin layers of plaster were put over it, leaving that little hinges in between the pages, so this book could fold up like a screen or almost like an accordion. If we look to some of the other surviving Maya codices, they are so detailed. Here, what I find so immediately captivating is how the artists or the scribe has provided the fundamentals. I can easily see all the forms because they've been so carefully articulated. One of the other important aspects of this Codex is that we can also still see some of the preparatory drawings that the artist laid down onto the page before placing the paint onto the page itself. If we look at page four, for instance, we can see these thin red lines and we can also see the artists felt liberty to alter what they had initially laid down on the page. The color palette is spare. The white background of the plaster shows through in reds and blacks. There's one instance in the book where you see a small patch of blue. The black made from charcoal, there's a brick red made from hematite, and then there's another red made from an insect called cochineal that's only found on cactus. That color of red was not local to the artists that made this book. The blue color that shows up on page 10 was an exotic rare material called Maya blue. It demonstrates that there was an interest in using some of these more precious materials that would have been costly and sourced from far away. Yet, they're used here as a way of further highlighting the importance of this particular Codex. Books were important repositories of knowledge. While this dates to the 11th or 12th centuries, we know that bookmaking practices extend farther back in time and this is a very important cultural tradition among peoples in Mesoamerica. Each page of this book follows a common design scheme. You can break down each page into four parts. On the left-hand side, there's a column of glyphs and those are calendrical dates, a 260-day calendar that the Maya used and continue to use today. In the upper center, there's a circular red object with a knot on top which contains a number. The way you read numbers for the Maya is bar is five, and a dot is one. You've add up the numbers. There's a deity that stands facing to the left-hand side of the page, and that deity is confronting, restraining, or killing a captive or an object. Why the scribe or artists would have followed these particular conventions is because this is a book that is relaying information about the cycle of the planet, Venus. Venus was extremely important in Mesoamerica because it was considered a dangerous planet. Venus is always close to the sun. It either rises before the sun does at dawn, once the Morning Star, or it follows the sun into the earth as it sinks into the western horizon when Venus is the Evening Star. Venus has four phases and it's got an extremely difficult pattern to observe and predict. Ancient Maya astronomers were really careful observers of this phenomenon and they were among the only ancient cultures that actually recognized Venus as the Morning Star and Venus as the Evening Star as being the same planetary body. This book follows the cycle of Venus and its 584-day cycle over a course of 140 years. Each page predicts when one of the four phases of Venus is going to start. This goes back to the logic of having these established conventions on each page is that it's following a particular cycle that is very consistent, that the Maya are observing and documenting, so having that consistency allows you to track that cycle of Venus very clearly. One of the important functions of this book would be to determine when to do or to not do certain things when Venus would appear in one of its phases. Other sources tell us that the first appearance of the light of Venus could be either favorable or unfavorable for things like warfare. It could cause droughts, it could cause famine and harm crops, and it could cause harm to people and to children. Let's look more closely at page four. Most of the page is devoted to the deity governing this part of the cycle along with a captive. This particular page deals with the Morning Star. On these particular dates of the first appearance of Morning Star, the deity in charge is this deity with this long curling nose. He's called K'awiil, and he's the God of lightning. He's also a God of rulership. He's associated with flint knives and axes because he's holding the spear that's got these wavy lines on the blade and that actually says that it's made out of flint. Showing him in the act of capturing and defeating an enemy is related to larger ideas about the cycle of Venus. The deities governing this cycle could be perceived as dangerous, or these could be times where bad things could happen. Showing a scene of captivity or showing a scene of defeat is pointing or signaling to how people felt about these different phases. It's not so much showing us what would happen, but what could happen during these phases. Page six, it's actually where we see a skeletal deity, overseeing a different moment in the cycle of Venus, and this is Evening Star. An Evening Star here is governed by a frightful skeletal deity that has a blunt knife sticking out of his nasal cavity. He's holding a giant jagged blade up with his left hand and he's holding the hair of a captive whose head he's freshly severed from its neck and there's large bouts of blood spilling out. You see also their fleshless mouth. We see the teeth that had been exposed. If we look at the lower portion, we even see these squiggly lines that terminate in a circle, which is a convention for bone, so we're getting the impression that we have a skeletal or a partially de- fleshed being that is terrifying. Formerly, it was believed that only the first appearance of Morning Star was a dangerous time, but this scene makes it clear that other phases were also dangerous. Used by a community priest or community elder or someone with the knowledge to use this as a tool of prognostication or a tool of planning for what's to come, this book would have been a powerful tool in a particular Maya community. While we don't know exactly which community this was used in because of that history of how it was found in the 1960s, the Códice Maya de Mé xico can still be so useful for us today to have a lens into what the Maya of the 11/12th century were thinking and how they were recording information and also just gives us a brilliant insight into what amazing astronomers they were.