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Speech scroll

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Title: Speech scroll  
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Subject: Language, Nahuatl, Bois Protat, Cotzumalhuapa, Moctezuma II
Collection: Iconography, Medieval Art, Mesoamerican Art
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Speech scroll

A Teotihuacan stick-ball player with a bi-color speech scroll. Note the "tabs" along the outer edge of the speech scroll.

A speech scroll, also called a banderole or phylactery[1] in art history, is an illustrative device denoting speech, song, or, in rarer cases, other types of sound.

Developed independently on two continents, the device was in use by European painters during the Medieval and Renaissance periods as well as by artists within Mesoamerican cultures from as early as 650 BC until after the 16th century Spanish conquest.

While European speech scrolls were drawn as if they were an actual unfurled scroll , Mesoamerican speech scrolls are merely scroll-shaped, looking much like a question mark.


  • Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica 1
  • European banderoles 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5

Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

A rollout of the San Andrés cylinder seal, showing a bird "speaking" the name "3 Ajaw".

Speech scrolls are found throughout Mesoamerica. One of the earliest examples of a Mesoamerican speech scroll was found on an Olmec ceramic cylinder seal dated to approximately 650 BC. Here two lines issue from a bird's mouth followed by glyphs proposed to be "3 Ajaw," a ruler's name.[2]

The murals of the Classic era site of Teotihuacan are filled with speech scrolls, in particular the lively (and unexplained) tableaus found within the Tepantitla compound -- this mural, for example, shows no fewer than 20 speech scrolls.

In Mesoamerica, the speech-scroll is usually oriented with the longest outer edge upward, so that the central element (or "tongue") curves downward as it spirals. Some Mesoamerican speech scrolls are divided lengthwise with each side a different shade.

Glyphs or similar markings rarely appear on the Mesoamerican speech scroll, although "tabs"—small, triangular or square blocks—are sometimes seen along the outer edge. If the speech scroll represents a tongue, then the tabs may represent teeth, but their meaning or message, if any, is not known.[3]

The two figures on the right show the red and white "flint knife" icon attached to their small speech scrolls, indicating that they are verbally attacking the travellers on the left. From page 7 of the Codex Selden.[4]

At times, speech scrolls are decorated with devices that describe the tone of the speech:

  • In an engraving at the Maya site of Chichen Itza, a ruler's speech scroll takes the form of a serpent.[5]
  • A Spaniard's speech scroll in a 16th-century Aztec codex is decorated with feathers to denote "soft, smooth words".[6]
  • In another 16th century codex, the Selden Codex, two Mixtec rulers (photo above) are shown insulting two ambassadors through the use of "flint knife" icons attached to the speech scrolls.[7]

As with many native traditions, use of the speech scroll died out in the decades following the Spanish Conquest.

European banderoles

A 1506 painting by Bernhard Strigel with banderole.
Scenes of the Resurrection, an illuminated manuscript, 1188.

In contrast to the abstract nature of Mesoamerican speech scrolls, Medieval European speech scrolls or banderoles appear as actual scrolls, floating in apparent three-dimensional space (or in actual space in sculpture). They first become common at the start of the Gothic period. Previously, as in Byzantine art, spoken words, if they appeared at all, were usually painted alongside a figure; these are called tituli. However, earlier works using banderoles are the Aachen Gospels of Otto III (c. 975) and the 12th-century English Romanesque Cloisters Cross.[8] The latter work demonstrates the use of banderoles as attributes for Old Testament prophets, to distinguish them from the book-carrying Four Evangelists of the New Testament and other Christian saints, a convention appearing in Italy in the 13th century. It may be seen in the Santa Trinita Maestà by Cimabue, (Uffizi, 1280–90), Duccio's Maestà (1308–11), and other works. The convention had a historical appropriateness, as the Old Testament was originally written on scrolls, whereas nearly all surviving New Testament manuscripts are codices (like modern books). They may also be used for the words of angels, especially Gabriel's greeting to Mary in Annunciation scenes.[9] During the 14th century, quotations in banderoles increasingly allowed artists to include more complex ideas in their works, though for the moment usually in Latin, thus greatly restricting the audience that could follow them.[10]

Unlike Mesoamerican speech scrolls, European speech scrolls usually contain the spoken words, much like a modern day speech balloon. The majority of these are in religious works and contain Biblical quotations from the figure depicted – Old Testament prophets for example, were often shown with an appropriate quotation from their work. Because the words are usually religious in nature, the speech scroll is often written in Latin even when appearing in woodcut illustrations for books written in the vernacular.[11] This would also enable the illustration to be used in editions in other languages.

European speech scrolls may at times be seen in secular works as well and may also contain the name of a person to identify them. On carved figures the words would usually be painted on the scroll and have since worn away. In some Late Gothic and Renaissance works, and in architectural decoration, very elaborate empty banderoles seem to be for decorative purposes only.

The European speech scroll fell out of favor largely due to an increasing interest in realism in painting; the halo had a similar decline.

See also


  1. ^ Petersen, Robert S. (2011). Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives.  
  2. ^ Pohl, et al.
  3. ^ Holt, Endangered Language Fund.
  4. ^ Scene by scene of Codex Selden @
  5. ^ Coggins, p. 104.
  6. ^ Wishart p.300
  7. ^ Boone, p. 59.
  8. ^ discussion of Aachen Gospels
  9. ^ Ladis & Maginnis, pp. 155-156
  10. ^ Ladis & Maginnis, pp. 156-161
  11. ^ Hilmo, p. xxiv.


  • Boone, Elizabeth (1994) Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes, Duke University Press.
  • Coggins, Clement Chase (1992) "Pure Language & Lapidary Prose" in New Theories on the Ancient Maya, Elin C. Danien and Robert J. Sharer, Eds., University of Pennsylvania Museum.
  • Hilmo Maidie (2004) Medieval Images, Icons, and Chaucer Illustrated English Literary Texts: From Ruthwell Cross to the Ellesmere Chaucer, Ashgate Publishing.
  • Holt, Dennis "About the Endangered Language Fund Logo", accessed November 2007.
  • Ladis, Andrew & Maginnis, Hayden B. J., Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation, 1997, Penn State Press, ISBN 0-271-02091-1, ISBN 978-0-271-02091-4, google books
  • Pohl, Mary; Kevin O. Pope, Christopher von Nagy (2002) "Olmec Origins of Mesoamerican Writing, in Science, vol. 298, pp. 1984–1987.
  • Wishart Trevor (1966) On Sonic Art Routledge.
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