A cypher in the Florentine Codex

Alberto Diaz-Cayeros
11 min readMar 17, 2022


In my recent post reflecting on pandemics in prehispanic Mexico I mentioned the following idea regarding the nature of the indigenous historical sources:

We have only started to understand that the pictorial narratives in the Florentine Codex are arguably more important than the Spanish language texts. Those “pinturas” are not simply illustrations added for the pleasure of the reader. From the indigenous perspective, they are, together with their orally transmitted memories, the primary source that would be transcribed to Nahuatl and then translated into Spanish. The difficulty with reading the Codex in this way lies in that we are missing a substantial amount of the scholarly knowledge of these indigenous intellectuals who painted the images. The handicap we have in reading these images is probably something we share with the majority of the Spanish friars and contemporary colonial bureaucrats who ever had access to this manuscript.

Specific sections of the Florentine Codex reflect a European perspective. These were the texts written by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún himself, who, while overseeing the Spanish translation of the original Nahuatl texts in which the Encyclopedia was written, prepared prologues to each of the books, some appendixes and a refutation. At two points in the Nahuatl narrative, however, he interrupts the translation to write long essays about topics that do not exist at all in the parallel column of the Nahuatl original. In these two instances written in 1576 Sahagún interrupts, in something akin to a news flash, because he has the urgency to recount the current events of the Huey Cocoliztli epidemic of that year, and their potential lasting consequences.

Sahagún’s handwritten title to “Relación del autor digna de ser notada”; kneeling man, under the phrase “and therefore the indians die with no remedy or help”. Book X of the Florentine Codex, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Med. Palat. 218–220. World Digital Library https://lccn.loc.gov/2021667855 images 144 and 171.

One of these interruptions is the “Relación del Autor Digna de Ser Notada”, which is highlighted with three red crosses in Book X, folio 70v. The heading of that section is not penned by a scribe collaborator, but actually contains Sahagún’s own handwritting, which must reflect the importance he gave to those sections. This interruption, or rather the images that the indigenous tlacuilos produced for that section, has been thoughtfully analyzed by Ellen Baird, suggesting that the painters creatively connected the contents on the right column in Nahuatl, which were devoted to descriptions and nomenclature of body parts, with the contents of the left column in Spanish, where Sahagún lamented the failed efforts in Catholic conversion of the indians, in light of the decimation brought about by the plague of 1576 on the indigenous populations. She notes in particular how the image of a kneeling man in folio 84r is a poignant representation of the despair Sahagún and his collaborators must have surely felt:

The (mostly) empty, rolling green landscapes with body parts and the tragic figure of the kneeling man reflect the desolation and indigenous depopulation caused by disease and disorder even as trenches were being dug for the victims in the plaza outside the scriptorium of the Colegio de Santa Cruz, Tlatelolco. As Sahagún and his collaborators worked, despair and the smell of death hung in the air. (Baird, 2019: p.213)

Baird tells us that this man is depicted with the characteristic petechial eruptions of hemorrhaging, described in contemporary sources as the final stage of Huey Cocoliztli, before death. And she astutely notes that this is the only image in the codex where a man is shown sitting in a collapsed pose, as though resigned to his mortal fate. She also tells us that, after this image, in the Spanish column of the Codex there are 25 pages of empty text. Sahagún seems to have nothing more left to say.

The other interruption is the “Nota” of book XI, where Sahagún describes in more detail the three major epidemics, in 1520 of smallpox, and the1545 and 1576 Huey Cocoliztli pandemics. These were the three instances of a universal pestilence in the land. The Nahuatl text in the running column on the right of each folio in the original, as well as the pictorial narrative, are describing mountains, roads, soil types, caves and different types of buildings, concluding with a detailed depiction of all the staple foods: types of maize, beans, amaranth and squash. The Teocalli or temple at the start of the section on indigenous architecture shows devils dwelling inside. But in the Spanish column, none of this is reported, except for the title of each section.

It has been noted by many scholars that Books VI (on rhetoric) and XII (on the indigenous version of the conquest) in the Florentine Codex are peculiar, in that they are, in many ways, independent, separate works. So this interruption of the Nahuatl original is, in fact, occurring at the point which should be properly considered the final section of this Magnus Opus, the work of a lifetime. The narrative stops translating everything that is going on, with the column in Spanish describing the impact of the 1576 epidemic on Central Mexico, unfolding at exactly the moment when the last part of the Encyclopedia is being copied to its final form (Books VI and XII were copied afterwards). Sahagún recounts his own personal role and experience with the devastating epidemic of 1545, where he tells us that he personally buried 10,000 dead and became gravely ill himself. Sahagún also provides a rather pessimistic take on the possibilities and the prospects for indigenous survival. At the end of the Florentine Codex he tells us that indigenous populations will completely disappear. This note was not written by the indigenous authors of the work.

Bernardino de Sahagun’s “Note”, the concluding essay of the Florentine Codex, on the fate of the conversion enterprise by the religious orders, starting in folio 233r of Book XI. Note the sparse images after a page with the Popocatepetl, and before pages showing the various forms of buildings and constructions.

During the cocoliztli epidemic of 1576 there is a massive disruption of indigenous society. Diana Magaloni has suggested that the disruption to trade and economic activity was so profound that inks colors were no longer available. The trade for pigments virtually disappeared. Henceforth, the “pinturas” transcribed after 1576 have no color, they are black and white drawings with no illumination. The last color plate in book XI is on the 143th medicinal item being described, a rock called Quiauh Teucuitlatl (described as being dug out of the ground after strong rainfalls in the region of Tlatlahuitepec, today in the state of Puebla and Jalapa). Hereafter, no color plate is found in the remainder of book XI. Book VI was probably meant to be a stand alone treatise, since it was completed in 1547 but translated into Spanish in 1577, after the pandemic. None of its images are colored. And in the famous book XII color is used only in three plates: one where Moctezuma sends his emissaries to the coast to inform him about the newcomers, in a couple of green landscapes, and in the critically important scene showing the disposal of Moctezuma´s dead body into the waters of the lake.

Returning to book XI, which contains the “Nota” written by Sahagún, I should highlight that theres is no question that the Franciscan Friar was well aware of the content in the Nahuatl column. In folio 237 he states, for example, that what follows in the Nahuatl text is a description of the qualities of roads, and he says that “after having gone through hills and valleys and marshes and cliffs and roads”, it only seems appropriate for him “to address the roads through which the church is leading is missionary path”. In the Nota, as previously mentioned, he describes the unprecedented mortality of the cocolitzli epidemic, and notes that there will be no indians left. His final paragraph is a reflection on China, noting that perhaps the Americas will not have any Christendom after all, but that they were only a stepping stone, on the path to the conversion of people in Asia.

Sahagún, despite his impeccable logic in most of his work, writes in a rather muddled way in this section. He starts by saying that the pestilence is wiping out whole towns, and that if it continues for three or four months, there will be nobody left. He then says that the territory will become a wasteland, since the few Spaniards will also die, and the land will be left with fierce beasts and wild trees, rendering it uninhabitable. But then he has an additional paragraph where he says that he believes the plague will end soon, and that there will be a replacement of peoples by what he calls a “Spanish” generation. But then he adds that, nonetheless, he believes the land will always have a great quantity of indians. Which is it? Will the original peoples be wiped out as it occurred in the Antilles? Is he thinking the original peoples will be replaced by mestizos? Will indigenous peoples survive?

The pictographs in the same section provide perhaps an answer, but they are not based on what Sahagún thought, but perhaps they show the hopes and expectations of the indigenous scholars collaborating with him. The four images are quite different, as far as mountains go, to the preceding images showing the rather characteristic image of the Popocatépetl or the Malinche (Matlalcueie) mountains that precede it. They are also quite unrelated to the drawings of roads that follow afterwards, probably even drawn by a different Tlacuilo. In fact, I would argue that they do not represent an existing place in the geography of the land or any topographic feature. The indigenous scholars have inserted a pictorial commentary, with their own viewpoint, a contrast to the Nota by Sahagún.

Book XI. folio 236v. An allegory of the fate of indigenous peoples?

The images that accompany the Nota have, to my knowledge, not been interpreted. An initial scene in folio 236v shows a mountain (I would argue it is in fact an Altépetl, a political city state, rather than just a natural mountain) inhabited by a rabbit, a deer and a snake. It feels like a space of harmony. This image appears after seven pages of text with no images, that have been describing the various mountains and the Nahuatl terms used to describe topographic features. Indigenous tlacuilos continued writing their descriptions of the land in the corresponding Nahuatl column, even as Sahagún was presumably dictating to another scribe a completely different text.

Given the way the clean copy of the Florentine Codex required careful planning, in order to determine the lengths of each paragraph and the placing of images in the running columns in Spanish and Nahuatl, it is impossible to believe that Sahagún did not know these images were planned. The images have no relationship, however, to the Nahuatl description of the different types of rocks that are detailed in the right column. The Spanish translator actually adds specific notes, translating the names of all the rocks being described. But Sahagún is instead describing the idolatries of the indians, including the cult to the Virgin of Tepeyac, Guadalupe, which he notes is really the indigenous goddess Tonantzin. He describes the main idolatries and ancient rites that are still being performed, including his passionate indictment against the devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe. He argues that Christianization in the New Spain will largely fail, and that this outcome should perhaps be understood as a divine plan, where the Americas were only a way station towards the greater goal of conversion of “the more industrious, political and numerous” peoples of China.

The coyote threatens Mexico Tenochtitlan. Book XI. folio 236v.

The next scene immediately below shows an eagle eating a serpent, and a coyote stalking the eagle. The eagle with the serpent is inextricably linked to the identity of Mexico Tenochtitlán. I believe the coyote should be associated with Hernán Cortez and the invading European conquistadores who have upset the natural harmony of the polity, of the Altépetl. Such interpretation of the coyote is further reinforced by the next picture.

Desolate land. Book XI. folio 236v.

In the third scene the mountain is now occupied only by coyotes, no other animals are left. Is this perhaps a ciphered allegory of the fate of indigenous peoples? The hunched animal on the left is identical to the iconography of coyotes in Coyoacán, the initial seat of the Cortes government after the fall of Tenochtitlán. The landscape is wild and dangerous. And one cannot help but feel that the huddled coyote is a mean creature.

A Cypher. Book XI. folio 236v.

The final scene is the most intriguing: the snake returns, laying calmly on the grass. A jaguar now occupies the left side of the mountain. The jaguar is sitting in the royal pose of governors. It is now a Tlatoani, with a scroll or tongue denoting speech. The posture is the conventional way in which lords are depicted issuing judgement and commands, usually on an indigenous throne (icqpal). The coyote is apparently abandoning the scene, leaving the Altépetl, almost smiling, threatening no more.

It is hard for me not to evoke in this iconography that the snake could denote Quetzalcoatl and the jaguar could correspond to Tezcaltlipoca. The most remarkable thing in the scene, from my perspective, is its relative calm, compared to what will be on display in the fierce battles of book XII. In this indigenous commentary to Sahagún, the land has been recovered after becoming desolate, perhaps a return to the cosmic order is possible after all.

Ixmiquilpan convent Southern wall, the starting point of the mural paintings. Wikimedia commons

My interpretation of this image of the sitting jaguar is perhaps not as far fetched as it might seem, if we compare the Florentine Codex drawing with a painting made at around the same time, in the murals of the church of San Miguel Arcángel in Ixmiquilpan, during the Chichimec war. That mural can best be understood as a product of Ñhañhu painters, who were well versed in the imagery and symbolism of the warriors that accompanied the Spanish conquistadores, in their efforts to control the rich mining regions to the North. The nomadic peoples, Caxcanes, Zacatecas, Guamares, and Guachichiles -the Chichimeca-, had valiantly resisted the Europeans. But the colonial rulers from Spain had formed a powerful alliance with some of the Nahua and Otomi groups of Central Mexico. By the end of the 16th century they succeeded in their advances in the Camino de Tierra Adentro shifting the colonial economy towards the extraction of silver from these arid regions.

In the Ixmiquilpan image two speaking jaguars surround an eagle. The mountain between the jaguar on the left and the eagle in the middle is the Altepetl, the city state of Ixmiquilpan. Notice the royal pose of the jaguar on the right, and the speaking tongue over its head. This is not a warrior donning a jaguar hide or armor dress, but the ruler of a sovereign political unit, transfigured. From the perspective of indigenous peoples in the late 16th century, they probably thought that a return to their own autonomous political order, an escape from European rule, was still a possibility. The long colonial period and the subsequent two centuries of indigenous subjection after independence suggest they were wrong. But perhaps the recent mobilizations and affirmations of indigenous identity, expressed not just in Mexico but all over Latin America, suggest there might still be some hope.



Alberto Diaz-Cayeros

Mexicano orgulloso, migrante renuente. Economista ITAM y Politólogo Duke. Senior Fellow en CDDRL y Director Centro Estudios Latinoamericanos Stanford University