In today’s world, there exists a strong difference between people who can paint and people who can write. Many people know how to write, and an entire profession is dedicated to writing as their career. Additionally, painters make their career out of creating art through the use of a brush or other artistic tools.
In Mesoamerica, however, the concepts of writing and painting were one and the same. Among both the Aztec and the Maya, writers were painters and painters were writers, and there was one word used for them in each of their respective languages: tlacuilo (Nahuatl) and ahts’ib’ (Mayan).
Origins of painting and writing in Mesoamerica
The fact that these words refer simultaneously to writing and painting hints at the paper- and ceramic-based origins of the practice of recording writing. Although the Maya region is well-known for its inscribed stone monuments, it is not likely that writing developed first on stone, for its surface is not forgiving of mistakes. Much more likely is that writing developed on paper and then additionally recorded on stone.
Paper vs. ceramic surfaces
An Aztec tlacuilo and a Maya ah ts’ib’ would have used either paper or ceramic surfaces to paint their message (and occasionally animal hides!). Mesoamerican cultures used a paper made from the inner bark of a fig tree, called amatl by the cultures of Central Mexico, which was first stripped from the tree, then soaked and pounded into long strips to make the paper. These strips of paper would be folded to create a folded accordion-style book. The pages of this book were covered with a special stucco that formed a thin, smooth layer on top of the paper. The painter scribe could then craft their message, using mineral and vegetable pigments to create a colorful, meaningful message on the paper.
Ceramic vessels were decorated in very similar methods. Once the vessel was created, a slip was applied to it to create an ideal surface for painting. The tlacuilo or ah ts’ib’ would paint the surface of the vessel with a similar kind of writing conveyed in the books. Ceramic vessels could also have these images and scripts carved into them as well.
What was written?
When you understand what was written on ceramics and in books, you can understand why ancient Mesoamericans viewed painting and writing through the same lens. The writing systems of the Aztec, Mixtec and Maya each deserve their own individual post, but a simple explanation would be that each of these cultures tended to blend the two categories that we would call picture and text. Central Mexican cultures used a “pictographic” or “semasiographic” system that art historian Elizabeth Boone has defined as a writing system. This means that their way of writing was to use pictures. So, when you open a Mixtec codex, the pictures are not just pictures, but also language. Even the Maya, who used a hieroglyphic writing system, frequently incorporated text in their images and images in their text.
Ancient Mesoamericans, then, did not label objects by the contents within them, but by the processes that formed them. So, when you are looking at a codex or a ceramic vessel, the method that painted it and the objects represented in the painted layer are referred to by the same names: tlacuiloliztli and ts’ib’.
Michael Coe and Justin Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe
Elizabeth Boone, Stories in Red and Black, Cycles of Time and Meaning
Mary Miller, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya