Banned Books, Hispanic Heritage, and the Codex Cospi

A replica of the Codex Cospi from the Arnold Semeiology Collection.

In celebration of both Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept 15-Oct 15) and Banned Books Week (Sept 23-29), today we are highlighting a very special document that actually dates back to pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica: the Codex Cospi. This early religious document managed to survive Spanish efforts to not just ban, but also burn, all of what they saw as pagan religious texts during the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 1500s. The original Codex Cospi manuscript is painted with stucco on deerskin and is currently being held at the University of Bologna, but the Washington University Libraries’ Arnold Semeiology Collection has a 1968 replica of this remarkable manuscript.

Italian cover of the Codex Cospi.

About the Codex Cospi

The Codex Cospi is a rare sample of a mesoamerican religious document that escaped Spanish missionaries’ book-burning efforts. It, along with the four other similar manuscripts that make up what is known as the Borgia Group, was likely carried to Europe as a curiosity. Its cover, reproduced above, has an Italian inscription that translates to, “Book from Mexico given by Count Valerio Zani to Marquis Cospi on the 26th day of December 1665.”  The exact history of the Codex Cospi before it reached Italy is not known, but it is believed to date back to somewhere between 1200 and 1521 CE in the Late Post-classic period before the Spanish conquest of central America. Although scholars disagree over the document’s exact origin, many believe that it is from the Puebla-Tlaxcala region, based on the stylistic similarity with alter paintings that were found in that region.

Two pages of the Codex Cospi featuring the tonalpohualli calendar.

The Codex Cospi uses colorful illustrations to map out various divinatory and religious scenes. It is painted on both sides and folded in accordion-style into twenty pages. When unfolded, the entire document is almost twelve feet in length. The first eight pages of the Codex Cospi depict an almanac of the tonalpohualli, which is a 260-day calendar with a cycle of 13-day and 20-day periods. The days are each influenced by different deities and other sacred forces that convey either fortune or misfortune. The picture above shows two pages of this almanac. After the almanac, still on the front pages, are larger paintings of Venus god, Tlahuizcalpanteuhtli (featured on the left page of the image below) spearing different entities, and gods (or possibly priests dressed as gods) presenting offerings in front of temples (right page of the image below).

Two pages from the Codex Cospi.

The images on the back pages of the Codex Cospi are less detailed than those on the front and were likely painted by a different artist. Its pages feature images of rituals for obtaining good luck and protection, such as those featured below.

Two pages from the back side of the Codex Cospi.

Further Reading

The colorful illustrations of the Cospi and other codices continue to influence Mexican-American artists even today. Check back next week for our post on a modern book artist whose work is heavily influenced by the Codices!

 

Sources:

Nicholson, H. B. “Borgia Group of Pictorial Manuscripts.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. Oxford University Press, January 01, 2006

Lodewijk van der Loo, Peter. “Cospi, Codex.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. Oxford University Press, January 01, 2006.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.