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ART HISTORY: The Colonization of Time in the Codex Mexicanus: 16th Century Indigenous Negotiation and Resistance in Colonial Mexico


ART HISTORY: The Colonization of Time in the Codex Mexicanus: 16th Century Indigenous Negotiation and Resistance in Colonial Mexico


A rapid epistemic shift took place between the time Cortés kidnapped Moctezuma in 1519, leading to the eventual collapse of the Aztec empire, and the completion of the Codex Mexicanus in 1590. Both European and Mesoamerican cultures were forced to conceptualize and collaborate with one another (Lockhart 5); though it should be noted that, under the colonial hegemony instated after the war, the occupying Spanish were able to decide the conditions under which society would run, determining not only the acceptable methods of communication, but also education, religion, and written representation.[1] As such, there is no way of disconnecting any of the annals codices from the hegemonic power of the New Spanish viceroyalty; for one, all extant annals postdate the New World conquest (Boone 199), and in many cases it was the Spanish officials themselves commissioning the projects in order to send them back to Spain as tribute (“Colonial and Aztec Codices”). However, during the epoch of New Spain, the Mexica found ways of negotiating their cultural history, both utilizing and subverting the rhetorical techniques the Spaniards imposed upon them.[2] In the Codex Mexicanus, the unnamed tlacuilo manages to simultaneously accommodate and destabilize western conceptions of the annals genre while exploring greater Mesoamerican concepts of time and place. In doing so, the Codex Mexicanus relays a visual narrative at once recognizable to the Spanish and incorporating key themes of Mexica spirituality.

Before delving into visual analysis, it is important to note the ways in which time and chronology—Mexica conceptions of time as well as the western model—have been defined, because it helps to better understand the placement of annals in both cultures and the slippage of denotations between the two. In his book, Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico, author Ross Hassig asserts that western ideas of time rely on the religious concept of a beginning and an end, and as such can extend linearly from any given beginning point, i.e. “dating from the birth of Jesus and continuing until His return, in a straightforward linear progression” (2). In other words, the linear system is inseparable from its beginning point, can flow endlessly from that point onward in an undeviating progression as an outgrowth of the past, but it pays no attention to specific future dates. Not even the book of Revelations in the Bible gives a time frame for when the four horsemen are to be expected.[3]

Obversely, the Aztecs according to Kay Reed’s Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos saw time as both repeating itself and moving forward; similar to the “spinning of a rope,” time’s numerous threads spun around and around and grew longer each time (107). As a result, it was not uncommon for the past and the future to be seen or represented in the present (108). This idea of spiraling time, in part, goes against what western ideas of the annals genre is. Simply put, the annals are a way of recording a timeline, their function being to link events to the ongoing measure of time (Boone 65). The difference between the annals and narrative history according to Boone is that, “Whereas annals and chronicles simply end [the] narrative history structures the past in a way that has a beginning and a story that ‘concludes with a moralizing ending’” (Boone 15), and although she acknowledges the existence of a blurring of myth and history (mythistory) in Mesoamerican codices (Boone Red & Black 35), she does not explicitly state whether or not this affects or denotes a need to separate the western annals genre from Mixteca timeline histories. It may be useful to read codices such as the Codex Mexicanus as an objective historical document, apolitical, to a degree, in scale and scope; but in the case of the Codex Mexicanus, events culminate and are organized into a coherent story of migration from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan (Navarrete 42), and could be more easily interpreted as a sort of blend between the cartographic genre, narrative history, and the annals.

To properly analyze the Codex Mexicanus, one should start by reading page 27 (Figure 1) where the timeline begins. The story reads from left to right, where a crowd of men and women stand and look up toward the timeline itself. The figures in this codex are different from other indigenous artworks because the bodily proportions of its subjects more readily represent ideals of European Renaissance artwork. It is important to keep in mind the function of the codex; as previously stated, the annals of the colonial period were usually commissioned. Amid colonialism, indigenous artists were not communicating ideas between brethren; rather, they were explaining a history and genealogy to a foreign occupier. The figures are wearing animal pelts as a way of indicating to the reader the genealogy of the Mexica; that is, before blending their blood with people descended from the Toltec, they saw themselves as primarily Chichimec, essentially the Mesoamerican iteration of the warrior barbarian. The dichotomy between Toltec and Chichimec ancestry is well documented, and important for this essay for two reasons: First, it explains Mexica identity and who the tlacuilo thought himself to come from; and second, this was information the artist felt was important to convey to the commissioner of the project, which is a particularly significant point, because tlacuilos didn’t always give the entirety of the information with regards to their cultural history and practices. [4]

As writers and scribes, the tlacuilo held a certain amount of agency, though someone with more social power under the viceroyalty may have commissioned their subject matter. They dictated the narrative. They were able to guide and explain what they wanted, leaving the rest to be interpreted or discovered later on. Since the Codex Mexicanus tells the story of migration from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan, it is inherently different from the typical annals genre, as it has a fully shaped story, a beginning and an end, and the tlacuilo gets to choose which events through the years they wish to impart meaning to.

The timeline at the center of the page is interacted with as if physically present, as you can see one of the men is standing on top of it, looking back at the crowd beneath the timeline.[5] Boone has asserted this stepping onto the timeline is a metaphor for the beginning of time itself, that the Mexica are stepping out of timelessness and beginning their journey to Tenochtitlan (Boone 42). One should be mindful of distinguishing the difference between timelessness in Aztlan and a universal timelessness. The Mexica developed conceptions of time that involved the birth and destruction of four other worlds before their world began (Read 105); they were aware this wasn’t the first beginning of time, and that it would not be the last beginning, either. Boone notes that in the Codex Mexicanus, history is structured around time (Boone 68). This implies history and time are not necessarily intrinsically connected. Instead, narrative works around time—that narrative can be time itself—but time can also be discarded or frozen for a numbered duration of days.

Boone’s statement also lends perspective to the idea that the narrative of the Codex Mexicanus works spatially around time. Above the crowd of onlookers are two representational images. The bird on the tree represents Huitzilopochtli, who is singing or speaking his promise and call to action to leave Aztlan for a land he has in mind for them where they will prosper; the place sign to the right of Huitzilopochtli is Colhuacan, whose name can mean either the place of the Colhua people, or the liminal space between one and another, reinforcing yet again the idea that the Mexica are moving into time itself. Interestingly, however, is Colhuacan’s geographically proximity to Aztlan, the original home of the Mexica, meaning the place sign for Colhuacan works both as a sign explaining how they are outside of or between time, but also geographically referring to the nearby township. Neverrete opined the best way to understand the Codex Mexicanus is with Bakhtin’s idea of the chronotope in mind; that is, how configurations of time and space are represented in language and discourse (Neverrete 38).[6] The three separate registers created by the border of the timeline itself act not only to structure the timeline and events portrayed, but also to create horizons where characters move and interact with their geographically represented environment (Neverrete 32-33). There is a tree and a body of water separating the Mexica from the timeline; that space is (as previously established) timeless, but it also geographically imposes place and space upon the amoxtli itself. Later on in the codex, on page 29 (figure 2), Chicomotzoc is shown half above the timeline, and half below it. The red movement lines indicate that the progression of the narrative takes Huitzilopochtli (represented again as a bird) and the Mexica pilgrims below the surface, into the underworld. This implies either that delving beneath the timeline-horizon is similar to delving underground; it could also mean, however, that the underworld is behind time, moving away from linear ideas of temporal being, and toward more complex structures. If this were simply an annals accounting of movement and spacing, pictorial representations of objects and places would not be interacting with each other or divided by the timeline. It is clear, though the tlacuilo is skilled in Renaissance styles of painting and partly expresses his narrative through a timeline, that a certain degree of ambivalence was brought to representing history from an entirely Spanish perspective.

The intentional slippage within the codex—ebbing and flowing from a kind of res gestae narrative history, to an iteration of the annals system—speaks directly to the inherent divide between Mesoamerican and Western ideas of history and “proper” recording techniques. In creating what the Spaniards would have assumed to be solely an annals document, the colonizers are further misunderstanding the indigenous relationships with the world around them. Ideas of time, space, geography, and place intermingle to give flesh to a disfigured mixture between the culturally imposed Spanish ideals of knowledge. Every Nahuatl word has an approximate translation to explain concepts the indigenous word is driving at; Boone translates xiuhpolhualli to “year count” or “year relation,” xiuhtlacuilolli to “year writing” or “year book,” xiuhtonalamatl to “year day book” (Boone 197). However, Navarrete refutes claims to meaning based translated etymologies (Navarrete 42). Even though each of these words combines the Nahuatl word for year (xihuitl) with something else, that doesn’t mean the work is dependent on a particular order or structure of years. Events, even for the indigenous annals, were chosen, curated, and established to purvey a certain perspective. Although the Codex Mexicanus is implied to work under rigid structure of the annals genre, it is much more closely related to a blend of styles and cultural understandings, a historical story with events culminating toward a known and intentional end.



[1] For instance, Diego De Landa’s attempt, first, to approximate Mayan hieroglyphs into Roman letters, and then the subsequent burning of the Mayan vuh (Mignolo 312); the encomienda system (Lockhart 4); Motolinía’s engendering of Western rhetorical genres onto the existing collection of Mexica amoxtlis (Boone & Mignolo 225); the destruction of religious architecture (Lockhart 421); and the eventual transition from recto and verso codices to the European-style vellum-bound book (Boone & Mignolo 261-2)

[2] As Mignolo states, the indigenous peoples had to “negotiate the conflict between the forces of their own traditions with the rhetorical education they received in Castilian institutions” (Mignolo 324), meaning they were made to juggle the ideology informing their particular cultural identities, plus the Western linguistic and generic infrastructure under which society was being managed. The Codex Mexicanus was both painted on amate paper by a tlacuilo just as it had been in the pre-Columbian era, and bound in the European style (Boone 24), to be consumed primarily by European patrons, and presented bodily proportions more easily associated with the Renaissance tradition (Navarrete 37).

[3] Contrast this with the Mexica legend of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, who said all the Mexica would be destroyed because they were inextricably tied to the foods of an age that must end (Read 108).

[4] The Codex Mendoza only had one overt depiction of the sacrificial practices in precolonial Tenochtitlan, the skull rack on the right-hand triangle next to the place sign for the city itself (Anawalt 72)

[5] The past and future weren’t always separated from the reality of the present. One legend goes that Moctezuma Ilhuicamina sent “wizards, sorcerers, and magicians” to return to Aztlan, where they found the island was just as lush and verdant as before, and the people there were the same people who had decided not to leave Aztlan back when Huitzilopochtli told them to (Boone Red & Black 19). In essence, they were frozen in time. Boone also notes those who were able to manipulate, go back, and see forward in time were lords, wizards, the elites, not commoners (Boone Red & Black 19). There were also several days out of the year that were unnamed and said to be without time; called nemontemi, it was bad luck to do anything on these days (Hassig 106). This implies the chronology of days can continue without time; day and night still occur, and eventually the calendar returns and people can go about their business, but time, like a bad storm, had a tendency to stop and hover over an area, disallowing movement or action.

[6] Bakhtin explained chronotopes by saying, “Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history” (Neverrete 38; italics my own).


Selections from the Codex Mexicanus

Figure 1. Codex Mexicanus, page 27. https://www.wdl.org/en/item/15284/. Accessed 25 September 2018.

Figure 2. Codex Mexicanus, page 29. https://www.wdl.org/en/item/15284/view/1/29/. Accessed 25 September 2018.


Works Cited

Anawalt, Patricia Rieff, and Frances F. Berdan. “The Codex Mendoza.” Scientific American, vol. 266, no. 6, 1992, pp. 70–79. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24939101.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill. Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs.

Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill, and Walter Mignolo. 1994. Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham: Duke University Press. 497 W939

“Codex Mexicanus.” WDL RSS, Detroit Publishing Company, 8 Jan. 2018, www.wdl.org/en/item/15284/.

“Colonial and Aztec Codices.” University of Arizona Library Special Collections, 1999, www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/mexcodex/aztec.htm.

Greenleaf, Richard E. “The Mexican Inquisition and the Indians: Sources for the Ethnohistorian.” The Americas, vol. 34, no. 3, 1978, pp. 315–344. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/981310.

Hassig, Ross. Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Lockhart, James. The Nahuas After the Conquest: a Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Mignolo, Walter D. “On the Colonization of Amerindian Languages and Memories: Renaissance Theories of Writing and the Discontinuity of the Classical Tradition.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 34, no. 2, 1992, pp. 301–330. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/178948.

Navarrete, Federico. “The Path from Aztlan to Mexico: On Visual Narration in Mesoamerican Codices.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 37, 2000, pp. 31–48. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20167492.

Read, Almere Kay. Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998.


Professor Hajovsky: A.


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