The Madrid Codex

Page of the Madrid Codex. Artist Unknown

The Madrid Codex:

The Madrid Codex, also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex, is one of only four remaining books or “codices” attributed to the Ancient Maya culture. The codex consists of 112 pages of glyphs which were not translated until relatively recently. The Madrid Codex describes calendars, rituals and daily activities among the Maya. The original is located in Madrid.

The Maya Books:

The Ancient Maya were an advanced Mesoamerican civilization which peaked between 300 A.D.

and 900 A.D. in the steamy rainforests of present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Although their civilization went into steep decline around 900 A.D., the Maya culture survived in a more limited form until the time of the Spanish conquest, which reached the Maya lands in 1524. The Maya were literate and had hundreds of books. Unfortunately, most of these books were burned by zealous priests during the conquest and colonial era. The Madrid Codex is one of only four known Maya books to survive.

Maya Writing:

To the untrained eye, the writing in the codex looks like a series of doodles and pictures. There are animals that look like dragons and fierce people or gods. But the Maya language was much more sophisticated than it appears at first glance. Maya glyphs represented either a complete word or a syllable. They also had advanced mathematics and numbers appear frequently. By comparing the Maya codices and other surviving Maya writings - such as stonecarvings on temples or decorations on pottery - researchers have been able to mostly decipher the Maya language.

The Codex:

The largest of the four surviving Maya codices, the Madrid Codex is 112 pages long (56 double-sided pages). It was painted on a special bark used by the Maya especially for their books. It was once one long folio, which folded out accordion-style, but has since been broken in two. The codex is 23.2 cm high by 12.2 cm wide.

Many of the colors have faded over the centuries, but there are still some reds, blues and brownish yellows that remain fairly vibrant.

Origin of the Madrid Codex:

The Madrid Codex, like the other surviving Maya codices, likely dates from the late postclassic Period, or sometime around 1200-1400 A.D. It probably was created in the Yucatán peninsula. The language represented in the codex corresponds to that of Yucatecan Maya dialects. Previously, some thought it might have been created further south, near Tikal in Guatemala, but a comparison of the images in the codex with others found in the Yucatan seems to support the hypothesis that it was created in the northern part of the Maya lands.

History of the Madrid Codex:

The codex somehow miraculously survived the burnings of Maya books organized by priests during the conquest and colonial eras. It made its way to Europe but no one knows how or when. One of its owners believed that it was sent to Spain by Hernán Cortés: he thought so because he purchased it in Extremadura, birthplace of Cortés. At some point during its travels it was broken in two, and for a long time the two halves were believed to be separate codices. In 1880 it was proven that the two codicies, at that time called the Troano Codex and the Cortesian Codex, were in fact the same one.

The two halves have since been reunited and are located at the Museum of America in Madrid.

Content of the Codex:

The codex contains descriptions of the Maya calendars and the rituals associated with different dates and seasons. These are interspersed with images of scenes of daily life, such as weaving, hunting, beekeeping, war and even human sacrifice. There is a section on the rituals associated with the end of the 365 day solar year and the beginning of the following year. Other sections deal with the layout of the Cosmos, the gods associated with the different cardinal directions and offerings to be given to each of them. It also shows the movement of celestial bodies considered divine, such as the sun and moon. Like the Paris Codex and the Dresden Codex, the dates in the Madrid Codex are in the 260-day tzolkin calendar.

Importance of the Madrid Codex:

Because it is one of only a handful of surviving documents produced by the Ancient Maya, the Madrid Codex is a priceless document. Many aspects of Maya culture are still a mystery to modern historians, and the codices contain much information not found elsewhere. The codices in general shed light on the religious and spiritual life of the Maya and were of use to their priests and astronomers.


McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.

Paxton, Merideth (trans.Xavier Noguez). Códice Madrid. Arqueología Mexicana Edición Especial: Códices prehispánicas y coloniales tempranos. August, 2009.