Seeing the Sacred Song
FIGURE 1. Singing priest, from page 25 of the Codex Nuttall.
FIGURE 2. Pages 25 to 28 of the Codex Nuttall.
FIGURE 3. Pages 25 to 35 of the Codex Nuttall.
FIGURE 4. Scrolling song, scrolling images from the Codex Nuttall.
The Ñudzavui screenfolds are documents of vision and voice, combining in their use the visual poetry of pictures with the verbal artistry of a performer. Indeed, the very visual structure of a screenfold creates a vision of voice.3 Figure 1 depicts a singing Ñudzavui man from page 25 of the Codex Nuttall. In front of his mouth are two scrolls, colored gold, red, and blue. This is a Ñudzavui pictorial convention for representing song—a visualization of voice. But beyond a mere “convention” for indicating song, this image of multicolored scrolls reflects the Ñudzavui conceptualization of song—as something colorful, sacred, heated, alive, like bird feathers or flames.4 In turn, this conceptualization of “scrolling song” influenced the way the Ñudzavui scribe composed the pictures on the surface of a screenfold.
Viewed up close, you can see that the pages of a screenfold are unified by red vertical lines (Figure 2). These “boustrophedon” lines (boustrophedon is a Greek word meaning “as the ox plows,” i.e. back and forth) organize the rectangular white surface of the screenfold into a serpentine river of space that winds its way up and down the page. It is within this divided, maze-like space that Ñudzavui scribes painted pictorial narratives. These red boustrophedon lines help the reader/performer follow the flow of the text more clearly.
The pictures in the screenfolds were not only viewed up close, however. As was noted in the seventeenth century by the Dominican friar Francisco de Burgoa, the codices were displayed by hanging them on the walls of a palace.5 In Figure 3 you can see how a screenfold would look from a far away—as if positioned on a palace wall.6
When seen from such a distance—when seen from across a courtyard by the Ñudzavui man or woman watching the epic being enacted—the detailed, individual pictures dissolve into a scrolling band of color.
This is very similar to the way that Ñudzavui artists represented song as it emerged, scroll-like, form the mouths of individuals painted within a codical text. Thus the Ñudzavui women and men watching the performance of a screenfold would not only be surrounded by the invisible voice of the actor telling the story but by the visible source of that unseen song—the colored pages of the screenfold itself. The codices, by presenting writing as a winding colored band, were ‘transfixing song’ upon the blank page.7
In summary, when exploring the stories presented in the codices remember that the small pictures which record the narrative are located within a larger context. Remember that those detailed drawings always remain meta-images within the composition of the screenfold as a whole, the screenfold as a visual manifestation of brilliant, scrolling song (Figure 4).
Ñudzavui Composition >
3 This discussion of the scrolling imagery of Ñudzavui song is taken entirely from King 1994.
4 King 1994, 115-122.
5 Burgoa 1989 , 210; translated in León-Portilla 1992, 326.
6 See also the animation of a prehispanic Ñudzavui palace on the main screen of the Codex Nuttall in the Ñudzavui documents section of Mesolore.
7 King 1994, 105-108.