Pictures in Colonial Courts

FIGURE 10. Sacrificial scene, from page 12 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 10. Sacrificial scene, from page 12 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 11. Codex of Yanhuitlan, plate 19.

FIGURE 11. Codex of Yanhuitlan, plate 19.

FIGURE 12. Detail of the Lienzo of Jicayan.

FIGURE 12. Detail of the Lienzo of Jicayan.

FIGURE 13. Page from the Codex Sierra.

FIGURE 13. Page from the Codex Sierra.

FIGURE 14. Letter from don Diego de Guzmn, 1572.

FIGURE 14. Letter from don Diego de Guzmán, 1572.

FIGURE 15. Zahuatlan place glyph, from page 11 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 15. Zahuatlan place glyph, from page 11 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 16. The conquest of Zahuatlan, from page 13 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 16. The conquest of Zahuatlan, from page 13 of the Codex Selden.

Why was the Codex Selden painted—or, actually, repainted? A path-breaking article by Mary Elizabeth Smith points to a number of unusual features of the book’s form and content.4 She argues that these features suggest that the version of the Codex Selden which exists today was commissioned by the rulers of Añute to be used in a Spanish court for land litigation. If this is true, the Codex Selden was not repainted to be hung on a palace wall (which is how the screenfolds were traditionally displayed). Rather, the screenfold’s bottom-to-top vertical orientation is better suited for display on a table in a Spanish courtroom (see the animation in the opening screen for the Codex Selden in Mesolore). After all, the length of the screenfold (5.5 meters) would have required a rather high wall for mural display, in which case persons on the ground would have a difficult time reading the final pages at the very top. Display on a table would avoid this problem. Additionally, if this vertically-painted screenfold were fully extended down the length of a courtroom table, people on either side of the hypothetical table could easily view the images. If the narrative had been painted horizontally (as was the Selden’s original imagery) then only persons on one side of the table could have seen the imagery right side up.

The fact that a pictorial Ñudzavui book was being re-written around 1560—nearly forty years after the arrival of the first Spaniards in the Mixteca—offers us an intriguing view onto the nature of both Spanish-Ñudzavui interaction and of the process of transition from writing with pictures to writing with an alphabet.

The European “conquest of the Americas” was anything but a unified event. Even the mass death caused by European diseases had different impacts in different regions. While some indigenous communities became centers of Spanish rule, others owed tribute to an absentee Spanish landlord and had little if any regular contact with Europeans. Some indigenous communities were the locations for Spanish monasteries, some were the focus of investigation by the Inquisition, while still others were irregularly visited by traveling priests. Although the Mixteca was divided among Spanish encomenderos and evangelized by both Dominican friars and secular clergy, the Ñudzavui elite retained much of their traditional authority over their lands and subjects.5 This maintenance of indigenous rulership had a strong impact on both the degree to which indigenous Ñudzavui lifeways were preserved and on the rate of adoption of Spanish innovations.

Most significant for this discussion are the ways in which Ñudzavui writing was preserved, altered, and suppressed in the sixteenth century. Although Ñudzavui books were burned and Ñudzavui religious shrines destroyed, a comparison with the Quiché Maya (in the highlands of Guatemala, to the south) reveals interesting differences in the nature of contact in the two regions, especially regarding the conquest’s impact on indigenous writing in these areas. Consider the following documents, the Ñudzavui Codex Selden and the Quiché Popol Vuh (an alphabetic account which, like the Codex Selden, tells narratives of creation, dynastic foundation, and elite genealogy). The version of the Codex Selden that has been preserved for us was written sometime around 1556 to 1560. The alphabetically scripted version of the Popol Vuh was written sometime between 1555 and 1558.6 Although contemporaries of each other, these two texts were created under very different circumstances.

The authors of the Codex Selden wrote a book that was fully prehispanic in style and content—right down to depictions of supernatural contact and heart sacrifice (Figure 10). The arrival of the Europeans was not even mentioned. Yet the patrons of the Codex Selden may have commissioned it to be displayed before Spanish eyes, to be produced as evidence in a Spanish courtroom. This is a very different set of circumstances from those faced by the authors of the Popol Vuh at the Maya center of Santa Cruz Quiché. They were writing in secret, and lamented that “the one who reads and assesses it [the original book] has a hidden identity.” The original hieroglyphic text from which they worked was itself either hidden (“We shall write about this now, amid the preaching of God—We shall bring it out because there is no longer a place to see it, a Council Book”) or lost (“There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost…”).8 The apparent freedom of the Ñudzavui writers in Añute stands in sharp contrast to the situation of their Quiché contemporaries.

The apparent “freedom” to write possessed by the scribes of Añute does not appear to be an unusual exception for the Mixteca. The second half of the sixteenth century was a dynamic period in the history of Ñudzavui writing. Pictorial writing was changed, but was not yet lost, and the introduction of alphabetic writing opened up an entirely new means of written communication. What is fascinating about Ñudzavui writing during this half-century is the degree to which it involves syncretism and innovation, and the extent to which Ñudzavui scribes combined both image and alphabet in the documents they created. The Ñudzavui elite experimented with the full range of possible variations on the continuum between fully pictorial texts and fully alphabetic ones.

They produced pictorial works entirely prehispanic in style, like the circa 1560 Codex Selden itself.

They produced pictorial works in a style that blended prehispanic and European traditions of representation, such as the circa 1550 Codex of Yanhuitlan (Figure 11).9

They produced pictorial works glossed with small amounts of alphabetic text, such as that on the circa 1550 Lienzo of Jicayán (Figure 12).10

They produced works in which alphabetic text and painted image occupy equal space, such as the 1550-1564 Codex Sierra (Figure 13).11

And they produced entirely alphabetic texts, such as the letter don Diego de Guzmán wrote to a group of Ñudzavui nobles in 1572 (Figure 14).12

Alphabetic writing was clearly being used by Ñudzavui nobles in the 1560s, so why did the Añute elite avoid alphabetic writing in their new version of the Codex Selden? The choice of an entirely pictorial style for the Selden suggests a specific strategy for the manipulation of history. The Añute elite who commissioned the Selden may have consciously chosen to create a visually archaic document, one that looked as if it had been painted before the conquest. No indication of the presence of Europeans is given, and no alphabetic writing interferes with the “purity” of the painted image. Mary Elizabeth Smith argues that one of the possible ways the content of the repainted Selden may have been altered is in the inclusion of the place sign of Zahuatlan (a hill infixed with a dancing man—the Dzaha Dzavui name for Zahuatlan is Yucu Nicata, “The Hill that Danced”) in several parts of the screenfold (Figure 15). At the time the Codex Selden was repainted, the communities of Yanhuitlan and Añute (both neighbors in the Nochixtlan Valley) had been trying to claim Zahuatlan as their own subject community for several decades.13 By (re-?) writing Zahuatlan into Añute’s history, the Añute elite would have been able to go to Spanish adjudicators and show, in this “ancient” document, that Zahuatlan possessed close ties to Añute in the past. In accordance with historical precedent, it was therefore appropriate for Zahuatlan to be under Añute’s control in the present.

In sum, the Selden was probably not written with pictures because the rulers of Añute were unable to read and write using the alphabet, or because they simply weren’t able to present the past in any other way. The archaic style and subject matter of the Selden may be the result of conscious, calculated decisions, a document tailored to exploit the requirements of a specific colonial context. In this particular case, writing with pictures may have been a far more effective means of achieving the goals of the Añute elite than writing with an alphabet would have been. The Añute elite not only had to communicate the “facts” of relationships with Zahuatlan in the historical past (something that could have been recorded equally well with either the Selden itself or with an alphabetic transcription of its contents) but also the historicity of those facts (Figure 16). The form in which the written “facts” took (pictorial, “prehispanic”) was as important as the “facts” themselves. The Codex Selden is a reminder that alphabetic writing is not always the “best” or most “efficient” way to write and communicate. Writing with pictures can be more effective than writing with words.

Text by Byron Hamann
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4 Smith 1994, 121-122. See also Jansen and Pérez Jiménez 2007 for an alternative interpretation.

5 Chance 1986, 180-184; Terraciano 2001.

6 Tedlock 1996, 56.

7 Tedlock 1996, 63.

8 Tedlock 1996, 63, 198.

9 Jiménez-Moreno and Mateos Higuera 1940.

10 Smith 1973, 122-147.

11 León 1933.

12 Terraciano 1994, 107.

13 Smith 1994, 115-118.