Bodleian displays rare codices revealing vibrant painted histories of early Mexico

20 May 2015

Image of MS. Arch. Selden. A. 1, Bodleian Libraries

Ancient Mexican codices are some of the most important artefacts of early Mexican culture and are particularly rare: less than 20 of them survived the colonisation of America. The Bodleian Libraries holds five of these unique treasures and is inviting members of the public to view these painted histories in a new display in the Weston Library, which runs from 13 May-3 July.

Image of MS. Laud Misc 678, Bodleian LibrariesThe free display, Mexico's Painted Histories, features four codices, or books, and one roll that records the cultures of ancient Mexico in pictorial language that uses incredibly bright colours and is remarkably beautiful and complex. These early manuscripts use symbols to narrate centuries of conquering dynasties as well as genealogies, concepts of time and religion, and predictions of the future. However, to the European conquerors of the early 16th century, these books seemed threatening. Most were destroyed, but a few were sent to Europe and later saved for study by men such as Thomas Bodley, the founder of the Bodleian Library, and scholar-collectors William Laud and John Selden, who gave their codices to Bodleian Library in the 17th century. The Bodleian's five early Mexican manuscripts are the largest single group to survive together in one place.

Virginia Llado-Buisan, Head of Conservation and Collection Care

'This is the first time that all five of our pre-Hispanic and early colonial Mesoamerican manuscripts have been displayed together for the public to admire,' said Virginia Llado-Buisan, Head of Conservation & Collection Care at the Bodleian Libraries. 'Seeing them displayed side by side will allow visitors to compare their pictorial styles and the physicality of these manuscripts which ranges from folding books made from deerskin to a 5-metre long roll painted on bark paper.'

The manuscripts on display include three screenfolds, which are books folded in a concertina format and painted on both sides. These include Codex Laud or 'the book of death' which is bound in jaguar skin, and Codex Bodley, both of which have not been on public display for some years, and a third screenfold called Codex Selden. The display also features the Selden Roll, recently renamed The Roll of the New Fire, and the well-known Codex Mendoza. The Codex Mendoza dates from the cusp of colonial rule around 1541 and was designed as a handbook for Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, providing him with the details of his new province.

Image of MS. Arch. Selden. A. 2, Bodleian LibrariesIn addition to the Mexico's Painted Histories display, those interested in learning more about these ancient codices can join two special events at the Weston Library this summer. The first is an international conference titled Mesoamerican manuscripts: new scientific approaches and interpretations taking place from 31 May-2 June, which is open to members of the public as well as scholars.

During the conference, scholars and experts from the Bodleian and from institutions around the world will share their knowledge and recent findings on the making and historical significance of the Bodleian's and other early, pictorial Mesoamerican manuscripts. The results being shared include findings from a special week of research that took place at the Bodleian in 2014 when the Libraries hosted a mobile laboratory for instrumental analysis (MOLAB) to study the colours and pigments present in these manuscripts using high-tech, non-invasive techniques. This new scientific evidence will inform the Bodleian's conservation efforts to preserve these rare and fragile manuscripts. All of the conference sessions will be filmed and live streamed online at:

A second public event takes place on 6 June when Virginia Llado-Buisan will give a free, lunchtime talk about the making of ancient Mexican pictorial codices.

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