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Aztec scribes preparing the colour green Florentine Codex Book 11

Maya blue - Mexica green

Years ago we answered a question from a reader ‘How did they make colourful costumes?’ with a helpful reply by Julia Flood (link below) - but it focused on primary colours such as red, blue, yellow and black. We were recently asked if the Mexica used any green dyes at all. Thanks to the Florentine Codex and to detailed research by Diana Magaloni Kerpel and her team in collaboration with the University of Florence, we can now answer this in some detail... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Precious quetzal feathers painted with Maya green; Florentine Codex Book 9
Precious quetzal feathers painted with Maya green; Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

This page (folio 372v from Book XI of the Florentine Codex - main picture) beautifully illustrates (albeit sadly in monochrome...) the preparation by Mexica scribes of the light green colour quiltic (literally ‘tender herb’ or ‘herb green’) - an example of what the Codex writers call ‘colours which are only manufactured’. They simply write: ‘To make this, blue [and] yellow are brought together’. Nothing revolutionary there. But Magaloni explains the procedure in detail:-
Light blue (texotli) is mixed with yellow (zacatlaxcalli) and the sticky orchid root gum tzacutli (learn more about ‘Aztec Super Glues’ by following the link below). We can clearly see a painter’s assistant (see enlarged picture, below) grinding on a smooth stone the raw materials laid out beside him: the indigo plant (that produces Maya blue) is indicated by the square slab and the ‘tortilla yellow’ by the crossed circle. Also depicted is the bowl in which the two ingredients will be diluted with water and mixed with the orchid gum. The scribe above him in the corner is already beavering away with the finished dye.

Detail from main picture
Detail from main picture (Click on image to enlarge)

Scientific analysis has shown that the brilliant turquoise and green colours used to paint the precious quetzal feathers (see second picture) contain a mineral called palygorskite, found only in white clay soil in the Yucatán region of Mexico, and used for centuries to produce the pigment known as Maya blue. Because these colours are formed partly from a mineral buried in the earth below - and brought from distant lands - and an organic colourant nourished by the sun above, they were especially valued, and used in the codices to represent all that was precious in the world of the Aztecs...

• Magaloni Kerpel, Diana ‘El Códice Florentino y la creación del Nuevo Mundo’, Arqueología Mexicana special edition no. 90, Feb. 2020
• Dibble, Charles E. and Anderson, Arthur J.O., Florentine Codex (Sahagún), Book 11 - Earthly Things, School of American Research and University of Utah, Santa Fe, 1963.

Source of images:-
• Images from the Florentine Codex scanned from our copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition (Madrid, 1994).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 11th 2020

‘How did they make colourful costumes?’

‘Reconstructing Aztec Super Glues’

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