Academic journal article Visible Language

The Written Adornment: The Many Relations of Text and Image in Classic Maya Visual Culture

Academic journal article Visible Language

The Written Adornment: The Many Relations of Text and Image in Classic Maya Visual Culture

Article excerpt


One of the most striking features of Mayan writing is its use as part of the iconography employed to illustrate many of the scenes depicted in vases, friezes, paintings, stelae and all the various objects employed by the Maya to hold their artistic expressions and cultural imagery.

Writing might be used as part of the landscape, being held in the hand by the characters depicted, or portrayed as part of the headdresses of Mayan rulers, among many other possibilities. However, even if writing is integrated into the iconography, it does not lose its primary purpose, that of being used as a mechanism for the utterance of words and sounds.

Berlo (1983) defined three categories for textual sources in Mesoamerica: discrete texts, meaning normal independent texts, conjoined texts and images, and embedded texts. The last two categories are relevant to the matter of this paper. Conjoined texts and images refer to texts accompanying images where both maintain relative independence, and where the text can make direct references to the image, like names of its characters or short descriptions of its actions. Embedded texts include texts or script elements fused with the images themselves, and operate under the concept of "pictorial assimilation" established by Stone and Zender (2011, pp. 24-28). The analysis of the form in which the Maya employed this last category, embedded texts, is the main subject of this work. In Figure 1, both types of categories are illustrated.

Generally, when the text is embedded in the images, the use of writing implies name tagging (Mathews 1979; Houston and Taube 1987: 38-41) of rulers, gods, things, or places, but the location of the tag is integrated into the imagery of the scene, not as a separate entity, leaving it to the trained eye to discover it and apply its meaning to the whole composition.

In Figure 1, the text on top of the image is a tag describing the whole scene. The text says: AJ wa-WAJ-ji, aj waaj, 'he/she of the maize bread', where we can appreciate the logogram WAJ, 'maize bread'. Yet we might also see the same logogram, duplicated, on top of the huge basket placed close to the woman offering food to the male character in front of her. In this case, the logogram is there to indicate the contents of the basket, and the produce the woman is offering, maize bread.

But the logogram is not the actual representation of the maize bread, as we have various examples from the Classic Period (McNeil 2010: 304; Rents-Budet 1994: 120) showing what they might have actually looked like (figure 2).

So we can be sure that in the example from Calakmul (figure 1), the logogram unambiguously shows the word waaj to indicate the products offered by the woman, using the logogram for the word that names them.

There are some other examples of the use of writing in iconography, which will not be dealt with in this work. In particular, those where an object is not partially, or completely substituted by a group of writing signs, but shows the presence of glyphs on it. These include the representation of elements that usually have writing on them, and might have been depicted simply as they were, such as, thrones, ceramic vases, architectural elements, codices, or clothing. These elements are generally represented containing pseudo-glyphs, instead of indicating the actual writing painted or engraved on them, probably due to a matter of scale (Valencia 2010).

We can see one example of this use of writing in iconography in Figure 2.a, where a vase with a large red dot is represented on top of the bench where the main character is seated, which contains painted glyphs on its rim. In the same figure, we have another example on the vase represented to the side of the plate with the maize bread, which also contains glyphs on its rim.

In other cases, logograms are not used as writing but to signal the material something is made out of. This use includes the logogram for designating shining things to indicate something that reflects light or that is made out of jade; the logogram TE', 'tree, wood', to mark things made out of wood; and the logogram TUN, 'stone', used to designate things made out of this material. …

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