Replica of Aztec manuscript at UT provides a window to ancient world

What would an ancient manuscript of the Aztecs look like after it was freshly painted?

You can see for yourself at the exhibition of a painstakingly accurate replica of the Codex Borgia, one of the few surviving books of the Aztecs, at the Visual Arts Center of the University of Texas at Austin.

The Codex Borgia is a series of painted panels on bark from the Puebla-Tlaxcala region in the central highlands of Mexico, painted in a style that developed from the early 13th to the early 15th centuries, said Astrid Runggaldier, assistant director of the Mesoamerican Center at the Art and Art History Department at UT and main organizer of the Codex Borgia exhibit.

Richard Lee Gutherie, an artist who was fascinated by Aztec culture, set about to reproduce this famous manuscript on the bark of the amate tree. Gutherie worked on the project full-time for more than a decade while living in Oaxaca, Mexico, with some financial support from his friend Alan Rodgers, a Marble Falls resident who retired from the oil industry. Gutherie is now deceased.

Last spring, Rodgers came to UT with a custom-made box with all 76 folios of the Codex, each one painted to the size of 24 by 24 inches, which is pretty large.

“We were blown away with the quality of the colors and the detail. This is the first time they’ll be on view for anyone,” Runggaldier said.

These vibrant paintings are laid out on a large table, which gives the idea of the document as a book, part of a broad literary tradition, she said. And there is no glass or anything between the panels and the viewer, “because we wanted to retain the texture of the paper and the colors themselves.”

The exhibition opened at UT as part of the Mesoamerican Meetings, formerly the Maya Meetings, a conference that ran Jan. 9-13. The Codex remains on view through Feb. 23.

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The manuscript contains examples of the relationships between people, the environment and religion in the period before and during the Spanish Conquest, said Elliot López-Finn, a fourth-year doctoral student at the Department of Art and Art History at UT.

One panel shows images of the four cardinal directions — north, south, east and west — and shows “how they conceived of the north to be, (which to them was) this desert area, so they actually recreated some imagery of the desert, including a cactus with an eagle on it,” she said.

Another example includes pictures of the sun god Tonatiuh, who is seen as the animate embodiment of the sun, López-Finn said. It shows sacrifice of people, food or animals as a way of giving back to the environment, she said.

“It’s actually an image of a blood sacrifice to the sun, but I think the important part to take away from it is this kind of reciprocal relationship that people had to the environment at the time,” she said.

Attendees can also compare Gutherie’s reproduction with the original Codex Borgia, which is housed in the Vatican, using an iPad at the museum. David Stuart, director of the Mesoamerican Center and organizer of the Mesoamerican Meetings, said the reproductions look like when they were first painted in the 1500s.

“(Gutherie) didn’t make up anything. What he did was he cleaned it up in his copy, he painted between all the lines, he made it pop out again, (and) he brought it new life,” he said.

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Austin and UT have played a role in “the revolution in the understanding of ancient Maya history, deciphering their hieroglyphs,” Stuart said.

The Maya Meetings were started 40 years ago by the late Linda Schele, a UT professor and expert in Mayan hieroglyphics. This year, the annual conference broadened its focus to include Mesoamerica, which extends from Central Mexico to Central America and was a single cultural unit in pre-Columbian times. The renaming of the event to Mesoamerican Meetings reflects that broader scope.

“So, it’s not just about the Maya anymore, we’re looking at the Aztecs, Zapotecs and the Olmecs and how they all related to each other. We have a lot of new angles to pursue in the conference in the future, so that’s very exciting,” he said.

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