Art Through Time: A Global View
Writing Art: Venus Table from the Dresden Codex
The height of Maya civilization in what are now parts of Central America and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula lasted for most of the first millennium CE, and elements of Maya culture survived until the arrival of Europeans in the early sixteenth century.
Among the greatest accomplishments of the Maya was the development of highly sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems, both of which played an important role in their religious beliefs and practices.
This page from the Dresden Codex serves as a combination of calendar and almanac. It charts the significance of specific dates related to the movements of Venus. The Maya linked their most important god to the sun, but they also tracked the cycles of the planets Venus and Mars in relation to the sun and incorporated these planets into their mythology associated with other gods. The movements of Venus, in particular, signaled to the Mayans important cultural events, such as the timing for certain rituals and even appropriate times to go to war.
Produced sometime between the thirteenth century and the arrival of the European conquistadors, the Dresden Codex is believed to be based on much older astronomical tables, possibly from the mid-eighth century CE. The three images on the right side of this page represent aspects of gods associated with Venus. For example, the center image is a warrior god, crouched in an aggressive stance and carrying weapons and a shield. These pictures illustrate the elaborate pictogram texts immediately above and below them. The symbols composed of horizontal lines and thick black dots, just to the left of the warrior image, are examples of the Mayan numerical system. The Dresden Codexdiffers from typical European books not only in its irregular integration of text and image, but also in terms of the value it places on the visual as a source of information and a carrier of meaning.
In the sixteenth century, Spanish missionaries led by Bishop Diego de Landa attempted to wipe out native cultural traditions and religious systems by destroying books and other records of Maya history. As a result, only a handful of ancient Maya codices are known today. The Dresden Codex is one of these. The Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés gave this codex to the Emperor Charles V after a 1519 voyage to America. It has been housed in the Royal Library in the German city of Dresden since 1744.
Barnhart, Edwin. The First Twenty-Three Pages of the Dresden Codex: The Divination Pages. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. Austin: University of Texas, May 1996, rev. August 2005. http://www.mayaexploration.org/pdf/DresdenCodex1-23.pdf.
Coe, Michael D., and Mark van Stone. Reading the Maya Glyphs, 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.
“Exploring the Early Americas.” Library of Congress Web site. http://www.myloc.gov/Exhibitions/EarlyAmericas/Pages/Default.aspx.
Förstemann, Ernst. Commentary on the Maya Manuscript in the Royal Public Library of Dresden. Translated by Selma Wesselhoeft and A.M. Parker. Cambridge, MA: Adamant Media, 2001.
Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.
Vail, Gabrielle, and Anthony Aveni, eds. The Madrid Codex: New Approaches to Understanding an Ancient Maya Manuscript. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2009.