JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 1 (pp. 240 to 270)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 1 (pp. 240 to 270)




For thousands of years, sophisticated civilizations prospered in what is now present-day Mexico and Central America. Large cities and ceremonial centers were built by various civilizations, notably by the Olmecs (1500–900 B.C.) along the Gulf Coast region of Mexico; the Maya (300 B.C.–A.D. 900) in Yucatán; and the Toltecs (A.D. ca. 1000–1150) and later the Mexica, or Aztecs (A.D. 1325–1521), in the Valley of Mexico (Schele and Freidel 1990; Gruzinski 1992). With the rise of various civilizations came the establishment of complex political systems, religions, and social hierarchies.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous Mexican cultures enjoyed a rich technological history. Among other achievements, these various cultures made paper, books, and pigments; painted murals, ceramics, and manuscripts; erected elaborate sculpture and architecture; cultivated crops and botanical gardens; and engaged in medical practice. In addition, written languages culminated in a strong tradition of written and pictorial texts, or codices. Particularly adept at creating pictorial manuscripts were the Mixtecs of southern Mexico, the Aztecs of central Mexico, and the Maya of the Yucatán peninsula. Under the auspices of the priesthood, preconquest manuscripts and codices were produced by professional scribes from the Native elite (Peterson 1959; Robertson 1994).

In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed in the Gulf of Mexico near the present-day port of Veracruz. While traveling along the Gulf Coast, Cortés learned from various coastal peoples that much of the territory was dominated by an immense empire of the Aztecs. Upon arrival on the Gulf shores, representatives of this empire who were bearing food and precious gifts of gold, jewelry, fine cloths, and other luxuries, greeted Cortés and his men. Cortés, impressed by the wealth of these gifts, became eager to obtain riches in the New World. The Spaniards continued on to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, present-day Mexico City. A war ensued between the Aztecs, led by Moctezuma, and Cortés's Spaniards. Tenochtitlán fell to the Spaniards in 1521, and with it the rest of the territory that became known as New Spain (Mexico) (Gruzinski 1992; Boone 1994).

Native architecture and artifacts (sculpture, pottery, and murals) were rapidly and systematically destroyed by the Spanish in an attempt to eliminate any connection with Mexico's “pagan past” (Robertson 1994, 1). Pre-Columbian codices and manuscripts also perished in the hands of the Spanish. Many books burned inside their libraries when the conquering Spanish set entire towns aflame. Most, however, were destroyed by members of the Catholic Church, “particularly officers of the Inquisition, who saw in the books a challenge to the establishment of Christianity” (Peterson 1959, 240). Only a few pre-Columbian codices and manuscripts have survived and are scattered worldwide.

The early colonial period of New Spain (ca. 1521–1600) immediately followed the Spanish invasion. It was a time of rapid change during which “the outward signs and formal apparatus of Mexican Native societies disappeared before the proselytizing energy of Catholicism and the superior technology of Renaissance Europe” (Robertson 1994, 1). Christianity quickly replaced the various indigenous Mexican religions, and within a short time most Native technologies either assimilated European technologies or were supplanted by them. Artifacts created during this transitional period blend indigenous and European artistic elements. This article is primarily concerned with manuscripts from early colonial New Spain that reflect a blending of artistic styles and artists' materials.

Copyright © 1998 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works