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Ancient Mexican scribe using natural colour dyes

‘Codex Corner’: colours

The Mexica (Aztec) world was full of colours. Scribes were adept at using colour pigments derived from natural sources such as flowers, rocks, soils, pine charcoal, tree sap and cactus beetles. Those of mineral origin were generally easier to obtain but less vibrant, whereas organic colours gave life and luminosity to manuscripts, considered living objects full of tonalli or spirit. Aztec women beautified their faces with a yellow ochre varnish that formed part of a regular twice-yearly flow of tribute from the province of Tlalcoçauhtitlan - ‘Among the Yellow Lands’... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Aztec mother showing her yellow body paint; annual tribute of 20 pans of yellow varnish. Codex Mendoza, fols. 57r & 40r (detail)
Pic 1: Aztec mother showing her yellow body paint; annual tribute of 20 pans of yellow varnish. Codex Mendoza, fols. 57r & 40r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst the only colour common to all pre-Hispanic codices is ‘lamp black’, yellow, only rarely found in Maya codices, was, alongside red, blue and green, common in books from central and southern Mexico, and could be obtained both from flowers and plants such as cempasuchitl, xochipalli and palo amarillo, as well as from inorganic materials such as stones. The Codex Mendoza shows several examples (see picture 1) of Mexica women whose faces (and bodies) bear a yellow tint - which apparently the Spanish found particularly attractive - made from a ground up yellow stone called tecoçahuitl. The word consists of tetl (stone) and coçauhqui (yellow). Notice the little stone glyph on the right-hand side of the bowl (picture 1).

Pic 2: An Aztec scribe paints with ‘xochipalli’, a fine yellow colour. Florentine Codex Book 11
Pic 2: An Aztec scribe paints with ‘xochipalli’, a fine yellow colour. Florentine Codex Book 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

A particularly good source of information on the colours Aztec scribes used is found in Book 11 of the Florentine Codex. It mentions both a ‘fine yellow’ and a ‘light yellow’, both obtained from plants or flowers that grow in the Hot Lands (south east of Tenochtitlan). Picture 2 shows a scribe working with xochipalli (‘flower that dyes’). The Codex describes it as ‘a medium for colouring, for beautifying, for making things radiant, for giving lustre’. It’s heavily ironic that the painters of the Codex - which runs to 12 Books - appear to have run out of colour dyes shortly before the section on colours, so we’re left with a series of plain line drawings...!

Pic 3: Centuries after it was painted, the original Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (on display at the World Museum Liverpool in 2015) has lost little of its vibrancy and lustre
Pic 3: Centuries after it was painted, the original Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (on display at the World Museum Liverpool in 2015) has lost little of its vibrancy and lustre (Click on image to enlarge)

The Florentine Codex devotes an entire chapter to the making not only of the four key colours mentioned above - with individual paragraphs on cochineal (squashed cactus beetle) with its three shades of red, a blue obtained from herb blossom, chilli-red and dark green dyes from trees, black from pine pitchwood smoke - but also on additives used in the mixing and preparation of secondary and ‘manufactured’ colours: rock ochres, chalk, sour fruit, vegetable oil, dark brown soaked tree moss, and more...

Pic 4: A Maya scribe at work. Detail from a mural by Rina Lazo, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 4: A Maya scribe at work. Detail from a mural by Rina Lazo, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Producing colour dyes from flowers has an unforeseen practical advantage: since many of the flowers used in this way are edible, Mexica scribes had no need to rinse their paintbrushes in solvents or in water - they used mouthwash! The Franciscan missionary Fray Toribio de Benavente Motolinía, in his Memoriales, written in the middle of the 16th century, confirms this most clearly:-
’The Indians make many colours from flowers, and when the painters want to pass the brush from one colour to another, they clean the brush in their mouths, since the colours are made of flowers.’ Tasty!

Info sources:-
The Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, 4 volumes, University of California Press, 1992
Florentine Codex translated from the Aztec into English, with notes and illustrations, by Charles £. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson, in 13 parts, School of American Research and University of Utah, 1963
With special thanks to Élodie Dupay García for the Motolinía quote

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: photo of a mural by Diego Rivera (detail), National Palace, Mexico City by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Pic 2: Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 3 & 4: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 01st 2016

emoticon An excerpt from 400 Shades of Grey -
As part of his oral exam, a senior Aztec scribe (Chalkface) was seen telling a hopeless student (Hue-and-cry) to change colour till he was blue in the face. Wilting, green with envy of his blossoming fellow students, the poor youth went bright red. Browned off, ground down, white-lipped, his head a rainbow of emotions, his mouth awash with colours, he nearly blacked out. Bristling with rage, the examiner dismissed him in the most colourful language... Golded and tinted by cries of ‘You’re just yellow!’ and ‘You’re a sap!’ from the others in the face of this brush with failure and about to stalk out, yet dye-ing to sucseed, he ended up agreen to give it another go...

‘A colourful language’

‘Colour and Culture Among the Aztecs’ - an in-depth study

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