The Codex Quetzalecatzin, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec, the Codex Ehecatepec and Huitziltepec, or the Charles Ratton Codex, is an extremely rare colored Mesoamerican manuscript and one of the most important indigenous manuscripts from the earliest history of the Americas to become available in recent years. Several months ago the Library Congress acquired this world treasure from a private collector in France, and has now made it available to the public digitally, allowing it to be seen and studied by scholars across the world, for the first time in more than a century.
As is typical for an Aztec, or Nahuatl, codex of this early date, it relates the extent of land ownership and properties of a family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are depicted on the manuscript. With Nahuatl stylized graphics and hieroglyphs, it illustrates the family’s genealogy and their descent from Lord-11 Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480, was the major political leader of the region. It is from him the Codex derives one of its many names.
The manuscript dates from between 1570 and 1595, making it an extremely rare example of a pre-1600 indigenous American codex. It was created at a time when many cartographic histories were being produced both as a part of a Spanish royal investigation into the human and community resources in the Spanish colonies, and when indigenous families were trying to reassert their ancient land claims. These maps were largely made by indigenous painters and scribes, and that is reflected in the structure and make-up of the Codex Quetzalecatzin. Particular features that point to indigenous authorship include pre-Hispanic illustrative conventions, such as the symbols for rivers, roads and pathways, and of course hieroglyphic writing. The glosses on the manuscript, which utilize the Latin alphabet, are clues to its colonial-era composition, as are the names of some of the indigenous leaders such as “don Alonso” and “don Matheo.” Naming conventions such as these provide evidence that at least some indigenous elites were granted the Spanish title of nobility (“don”) and had been baptized with Christian names.
Like many Nahuatl codices and manuscript maps of the period it depicts a local community at an important point in their history. On the one hand, the map is a traditional Aztec cartographic history with its composition and design showing Nahuatl hieroglyphics, and typical illustrations. On the other hand, it also shows churches, some Spanish place names, and other images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish rule. Maps and manuscripts of this kind would typically chart the community’s territory using hieroglyphic toponyms, with the community’s own place-name lying at or near the center. The present codex shows the de Leon family presiding over a large region of territory that extends from slightly north of Mexico City, to just south of Puebla. Codices such as these are critical primary source documents, and for scholars looking into history and ethnography during the earliest periods of contact between Europe and the peoples of the Americas, they give important clues into how these very different cultures became integrated and adapted to each others presence.
The form and color of the codex reflects many of the deep artistic stylizations found in indigenous books made throughout Mesoamerica and uses naturally extracted pigments and dyes, like Maya Blue, and cochineal, to create the bold coloring that strikes anyone who looks at the Codex. Color was an important element in all Nahuatl and Maya books and many early sources survive that narrate how they were prepared and used. Perhaps the most important source for our knowledge of the materials and plants used by ancient Americans in the design and construction of the codices comes from the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana, compiled by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun around 1575-1577. His manuscript gives us deep clues on how the Codex Quetzalecatzin was made and painted and is now commonly known as the Florentine Codex.
The Codex Quetzalecatzin, because of its extreme rarity, and because of its relevance to the early history of European contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, is an important addition to the early American treasures at the Library of Congress. To get a sense of the manuscripts rarity, it should noted that only around 450 Mesoamerican pictorial manuscripts survive to the present day, and less than 100 pre-date 1600. The acquisition of this world treasure by the Library of Congress adds to the rare and world class indigenous manuscripts already in its collections, including the Oztoticpac Lands Map and the Huexotzinco Codex, and we look forward to its study by scholars everywhere.
Me gustaría tener acceso para su consulta
I can hardly wait for more time, within a few days, I hope. To take a very close look at these marvels! I am appreciative that they are viewable and so widely so.
Thanks for giving information about Library Congress. With regard.
A fascinating document that begs more expansive elucidation!
Could not a small group of scholars be found to identify and comment on each individual (where possible), each type of plant, each type of animal, each lake, each mountain, each structure, each symbol, etc. shown?
Then put this info into little “pop up” labels that appear as a cursor is moved over the piece.
Or one could simply create a pictorial legend, with the info beside a copy of each item.
Then also provide translations into both Spanish and English for all the individual items of text.
All the above would make this an exceptional educational resource.
Would especially like to know who those upside-down folks are with their hair on fire in the lower right hand corner of the codex.
Bad guys in Dante’s 7th circle perhaps? The Catholic Church of the day and the Aztecs may have had similar views as to what to do with “bad guys.”
Modern day parallel could be how, 50 miles south of where I live, Mexican narcotraffickers occasionally cut off the entire faces of their enemies and hang the faces on parking meters. The beauty of some cultural fusions!
Amazing acquisition and great blog post. Thank you LOC.
Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing this incredible find with all of us.
I completely understand and see the artist and conceptual work this piece! I wish there were more like these. It would tell us a lot about our people, culture, ideas and life before the Spanish invasion and point of contact!!
Absolutely incredible, as a Mexicanx-American scholar who hails from a deep De Leon lineage of Mexico, this is pure magic and like looking at an old family album of another era. I wish it were easier to decipher the codices’ symbolism, would love to learn more about it to see if it can be further traced.
I KNOW where this map is of