The destruction of preconquest indigenous codices is among the greatest material tragedies suffered by Mesoamerican societies during the European conquest of the Americas. The burning of thousands of Maya books by Diego de Landa in the sixteenth century, for example, is a loss that still haunts Maya communities today and anyone interested in the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Mesoamerica before 1492. Catholic missionaries viewed indigenous knowledges with great suspicion and suppressed any thought they considered heretical or pagan. This historical epistemic violence means there are great swaths of ancient Mesoamerican history lost forever. The relatively few examples of preconquest codices that do survive are now invaluable documents that reveal the sophisticated yet at times indecipherable nature of Mesoamerican writing and pictographic systems of communication. Surviving Postclassic manuscripts such as the Nahua Codex Borbonicus or the Maya Dresden Codex have been at the heart of Mesoamerican historical (and art historical) studies for they offer some of the most profound glimpses into the world of the Americas before the Spanish conquest. Despite the great loss of these precious documents, indigenous scribes and artists continued making manuscripts and codices during the colonial period (though many of them were also lost) often mixing indigenous writing and visual practices with European conventions. These offer great insight into indigenous ideologies and communication systems as they were transformed in the context of colonialism.
Painted Words by Elizabeth Hill Boone, Louise M. Burkhart, and David Tavárez presents a thoroughly convincing decipherment and collaborative analysis of a pictographic codex from seventeenth-century Mexico known as the Atzaqualco catechism (catalogued as Fonds Mexicain 399 at the Bibliothèque nationale de France). The book includes a full-color facsimile of the manuscript that alone makes this publication a must for anyone working on sixteenth-century Mesoamerica. Like other catechisms, the manuscript was intended to aid the reader in learning the doctrines of the faith and of the Catholic Church. Unlike other colonial pictorial catechisms, however, this work is tied to a specific site of production: the Atzaqualco altepetl (quarter) of Tenochtitlán, giving us a rare glimpse into the transforming intellectual (and theological) history of a very specific colonial Nahua site.
The opening chapter introduces us to what the authors call the “visual and textual chimera” that is the Atzaqualco manuscript—a pictographic catechism with additional religious and nonreligious painted images, strips of papers attached to the beginning and end of the manuscript, numerous glosses of the names of Nahua elite added after its production, and four Nahuatl texts. Consisting of thirty-one folios of European paper that were paginated in red ink when the manuscript arrived at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the authors believe the manuscript may be missing a few folios given that there are lapses in the catechism's content. The catechism itself is found between folios 2v through 29r. Content appears to be missing between folios 6 and 7 as well as between folios 24 and 25. Additionally, much of folio 16 has been torn away. After presenting the eight different components of the manuscript, Boone, Burkhart, and Tavárez go on to speculate the possible construction of the manuscript, methodically going through the folios and the attached page fragments and carefully inspecting the binding to argue for a construction that occurred in multiple stages. Their close reading of the physical state of the manuscript includes scrutinizing a small wormhole that runs from folio 10 through 25 but does not continue through folio 26, which allows them to conjecture that folios 26 through 29 were added later, further aided by the fact that these latter folios are not damaged like the earlier parts of the manuscript. Also insightful is their analysis of the condition of the manuscript, which they believe was well-used given the presence of paper patches and worn pages. The greatest wear is found in the earlier parts of the catechism, perhaps the pages that were consulted the most. This chapter also includes an extremely useful table that charts the extant pictographic catechisms and provides their dates, dimensions, number of folios, current location, and the relevant scholarly publications where they appear.
The second chapter, written by Boone, discusses how the Atzaqualco catechism sits between the (picto)graphic tradition of preconquest Mexico and the alphabetic tradition of Europe and New Spain before going into the materiality of the manuscript as a physical object. The Atzaqualco catechism contains elements of both Native and European traditions, yet is not fully one or the other. Preconquest pictographic writing systems contained multivalent images that record and preserve knowledge via figures and symbols that allow them to be read on many levels and voiced in different ways and languages; European books record text in a specific language, and can be read only in that language, yielding only one voicing and interpretation (36). The Atzaqualco catechism uses imagery similar to preconquest pictographs and yet is intended to communicate a very specific linguistic text like a European book would. It is therefore a unique product of the colonial period in Mexico. Boone continues her analysis by looking at the work's organizational structure, treatment of space, and form. Particularly important is her tracing of the sources for the manuscript's images by looking at specific European and ingenious Mesoamerican precedents. Boone ends the chapter by examining the authorship of the catechism's pictographs and concludes that a single pictographer painted the images.
The third chapter, written by both Boone and Burkhart, examines the signs that make up the pictorial vocabulary of the manuscript. More than any other catechism, the Atzaqualco catechism encodes the sounds, words, and expressions of spoken Nahuatl, with some signs functioning both ideologically and glottographically. The pictographer interweaved the images with graphic affixes that further serve as linguistic signifiers. In chapter 4, Burkhart examines the hybrid colonial religious practices encountered and practiced by sixteenth-century Nahuas. After presenting the twelve sections of the catechism proper within the manuscript, which includes several prayers, the ten commandments, and a catechismal question and answer section, she includes a table that shows Christian vocabulary with translations in colonial Spanish and their Nahuatl equivalents, an invaluable resource for anyone working closely with sixteenth-century Nahuatl texts in the context of conversion. In the next chapter, Boone considers the enigmatic pictorial additions to the manuscript that were added after its initial production. Boone cross-references some of the claims in the Nahuatl text with other contemporaneous publications that narrate the history of Nahuas in Tenochtitlán during the sixteenth century. While at first glance these appended images may seem like random additions, Boone believes they serve to enhance and illustrate the Nahuatl texts that highlight the elevated political status of the descendants of the Aztec kings, particularly Don Pedro Moteuczoma, the former emperor's son.
In chapter 6, Tavárez provides close readings of the written words and glosses in Nahuatl to show that four different hands appear in the catechism. This builds upon the visual analysis of the images by Boone and Burkhart and further unravels the initial mystifying nature of the Atzaqualco catechism as we are able to better understand exactly how this manuscript was produced. He demonstrates that these hands do not bear resemblance to those found in other sixteenth-century codices and, with careful orthographic analysis, argues that the first of the four Nahuatl texts that was added to the manuscript is a copy of a text dated from 1576, though appears to have been copied well afterward due to its layout. Tavárez surveys the seventy-two name glosses that appear to repurpose some of the catechismal figures as fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Nahua political actors and European officials and considers how later Nahuas remembered the preconquest and conquest periods. This may also indicate that the catechism was circulating or directed toward an audience of highborn or influential patrons in Atzaqualco. He speculates that the catechismal may even have been used in a legal proceeding. Finally, the richly illustrated seventh chapter by Burkhart provides an image of each pictograph and its corresponding translation in Nahuatl and English and serves as a very comprehensive guide to understanding the pictographs and how they would have been understood when the catechism was in use.
Painted Words continues the long trend within the field of colonial Latin American art history's search for indigenous visuality that survived the conquest. As the authors note, the Atzaqualco manuscript “affords us a circumscribed but unusually profound perspective into the ways in which Nahua artists and writers memorialized and recast their ancestry, their absorption of Christian teachings, and their very identity as colonial subjects through novel pictorial and alphabetic discourses” (2). Although in the context of sixteenth-century Mexico the Atzaqualco manuscript is essentially a text of conversion, the book stresses indigenous agency and ingenuity in its production. To understand how the Atzaqualco catechism transmits language and meaning through the pictographs is to also understand preconquest Nahua writing conventions. Richly illustrated with full-color images, this landmark publication by the leading authorities on the Atzaqualco catechism recalls the monumental 1992 facsimile of The Codex Mendoza edited by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt. This is not, however, an edited volume, but a collaborative analysis that combines Boone's, Burkhart's, and Távarez's many years of research into a cumulative and comprehensive unraveling of the Atzaqualco manuscript. This publication is exemplary of the benefits of close collaborative work and should serve as a model not just for colonial Mesoamerican studies but also for projects that look at polylingual enigmatic manuscripts of any period or region. Painted Words is a major contribution that challenges dominant narratives of Spanish colonialism as a one-way, top-down system of impositions and reveals that indigenous peoples had a great deal of agency even in the context of evangelization.