Mayan Codex, Americas’ Oldest Surviving Book, Goes on View in LA

Page 9 and Page 8 of Códice Maya de México (c. 1100) (all images courtesy Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-México; all rights reserved)

Beginning last week and through January 15, Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum is displaying ten of the remaining pages from Códice Maya de México, the oldest surviving book of the Americas. Dating to circa 1100 CE, the Mayan Codex is said to have been painted by a single artist, recording the movements of the planet Venus over the course of 584 days.

The Mayan Codex, on special loan from Mexico City’s National Library of Anthropology and History, has rarely been displayed to the public: It’s been over 50 years since the book was exhibited in the United States. In a news post from the Getty’s website, Timothy Potts, the museum’s director, emphasizes that the Getty is “extremely fortunate and grateful” for the privilege of exhibiting the remaining pages.

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“Home to the largest Mexican diaspora outside of Mexico, this loan is a gift not only to our Getty visitors but to the city of Los Angeles,” Potts said. The Getty Museum’s intent for the exhibition of the codex is to highlight the sophisticated chronological manner in which the Mayan civilization translated and transcribed the cosmos over 900 years ago.

Page 5 of Códice Maya de México (c. 1100)

The four Mayan Codices, including the Codex on display at the Getty, are the only known remaining books that survived Spanish Franciscan Bishop Diego De Landa’s order to burn and destroy all Maya manuscripts and cult images during the Spanish Inquisition of Yucatán in July of 1562. De Landa was determined to eradicate any roots of Maya spirituality, specifically ritualistic human sacrifice, that conflicted with Spain’s goals of mass Indigenous conversion to Roman Catholicism.

“We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction,” Bishop De Landa wrote in his book Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán (c. 1566), documenting Maya culture and religion.

The exhibition will also spotlight the process of authenticating the book, as it was long believed to be a replica due to its mysterious unearthing by cave looters, its unique appearance and content, and its lack of hieroglyphic text that is otherwise present in the three other surviving Mayan codices archived in Germany, France, and Spain.

A group of Pre-Columbian historical researchers authenticated this particular codex in 2016 after analyzing the employed mineral pigments and radiocarbon dating the bark paper. Mary Miller, a participating researcher who became the director of the Getty Research Institute, said that the display of the codex “critiques and de-centers” notions that science and mathematics were under the strict purview of European cultures.

Page 10 of Códice Maya de México (c. 1100)

It’s remarkable that this piece of history has not only survived the Spanish Inquisition, but is now available to be viewed and processed by the general public. Álvaro D. Márquez, an education specialist for school communities at the Getty Museum, looks forward to welcoming students from across the county to view the remaining pages of the codex.

“Something that has been noteworthy is the fact that we’re getting schools making specific requests to come visit the exhibit as part of their field trip experience,” Márquez told Hyperallergic. “I know we have one school whose students are of Mayan descent who are going to visit specifically to see the codex. I think it’s important to provide access to this cultural and spiritual artifact to everyone, particularly the communities for whom it has such significance.”


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