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Mixtec animal and human designs illustrated by Miguel Covarrubias

Mixtec ideographic designs

We have decided to upload here an excerpt from the classic book Indian Art of Mexico & Central America, written and beautifully illustrated by Miguel Covarrubias (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957), as he provides a fine introduction to the wonders of Mixtec art, particularly when it comes to manuscript design...(Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

‘Mixtec art is essentially pictorial, a graphic art, decorative in spirit, with a strong emphasis on precious craftsmanship. No one in their time surpassed the technology of the Mixtecs in the applied arts. They were masters in metallurgy, in lapidary work, in the making of fine decorative ceramics, in fine carving in wood and bone, and in the making of pictorial manuscripts. It is greatly to be regretted that such perishable examples of art as textiles, shown in sculptures and paintings, were not preserved, and that of wood-carving and the fine art of feather mosaic only a few examples remain, mostly in European museums.

Mixtec designs
Mixtec designs (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Ideographic painting, in codices, in frescoes, and on pottery, seems to have been one of the principal Mixtec arts. It is endowed with a rich and very definite style and a certain uniformity of spirit. The Mixtec artists told stories of the most complex nature with stylisations of human beings, gods, animals, plants, mountains, pools, clouds, and all sorts of accessory objects and symbols, very much like our own comic strips, with standard postures and conventions, such as the scroll (like the balloons of the comic strips) which emerges from the mouth to indicate speech. These elements, though always highly stylised, are always endowed with a realistic touch that permits recognition of whatever is represented [see main picture, above].

Mixtec designs...
Mixtec designs... (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The known Mixtec pictorial manuscripts are each painted on a long strip of tanned deerskin folded into regular squares like a screen; each end is glued to a wooden cover that protects it. A sign of refinement in some, like the Codex Vaticanus 3773, is the little disk of jade inlaid in a corner of the wooden cover to indicate where the book begins. The screen-like strip of leather is covered with a white gesso coating, and the various scenes and motifs are painted in flat colours, outlined with a remarkably precise and even black or red line. The colours are invariably the same: gold ochre, burned sienna, carmine red, turquoise blue, olive green, grey and black. The same colours were used in the frescoes at Tizatlán, Tlaxcala, the only Mixtec-style polychrome frescoes known, while the remnants of the frescoes at Mitla, in fine Mixtec style, are painted only in red. For pottery they used the same colours and also a brilliant orange, while the blues and greens were replaced by grey, which could stand the firing. The only antecedent for this formalistic style of frescoes is the compositions of small, dynamic figures in anecdotal postures in the frescoes at Tepantitla, in Teotihuacán.’

The original Codex Laud, with box, on display at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2016
The original Codex Laud, with box, on display at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2016 (Click on image to enlarge)

NOTE on the main picture: the human and animal motifs are taken from the following codices: Borgia, Zouche-Nuttall, Vindobonensis and Laud

Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 30th 2018

An Introduction to pre-Hispanic Mixtec Codices

The Codex Cospi

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