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Wednesday’s Woman … Zelia Nuttall revisited

February 26, 2014

Last week I wrote about Zelia Nuttall in relation to my colour theme and Alphabe Thursday; but I have read a little more about her and she seems to worthy of some recognition.

Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall, specialised in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican manuscripts and the pre-Aztec culture in Mexico. She was an American archaeologist and anthropologist, born at San Francisco in 1857.   She lived and was educated in Europe between 1865 and 1876; during this time she attended the Bedford College for Women in London.  She married Alphonse Louis Pinant,the anthropologist and linguist and had a daughter Nadine. Soon after she separated from her husband. It was about this time when she was appointed to the post of “Honorary Assistant in Mexican Archaeology”  at the Peabody Museum, Harvard, a position she held for 47 years.

Nuttall published her first paper before moving to Dresden in 1886.  From here,  she took an expedition to Mexico where she worked in the Mexico National Museum.  Now divorced from her husband; She was sent to Russia by the University Museum to gather books, exhibits and information.  It is not clear how she came across the Zapotecan Manuscript (now called the Codex Nuttall) but she was able to trace the Mixtec codex and write the introduction for its first facsimile publication in 1903 (see below)  Soon after this she settled in Coyoacan, Mexico where she died in 1933.

I would like to see the original codex,  Zelia’s introduction describes quite a different picture that the book portrays.

‘ In the year 1519 the Spanish conquistador Fernando Cortes sent to the Emperor Charles V ‘dos libros delos que tienen los yndios’ or two hand painted books from the native cultures of Middle America. One of them may have been the Mixtec manuscript now known as the Codex Nuttall.  

Originating in what is now the State of Oaxaca, Mexico, the Codex Nuttall was painted by Mixtec artists at some time not to long before the Spanish Conquest. It is, in effect a Book of Kings, one of a series of masterworks narrating in picture and hieroglyph the sacred history of the Mixtecs.  Centring around the year 1000 AD., it shows the births of kings, their marriages, offspring and major events in their lives.    

Over a dazzling white gesso background swarm hundreds of figures painted in rich earth colours.  Kings in elaborate costumes of textiles and skins, ornamented with feathers, wearing elaborate masks of pre-Columbian gods, carrying ceremonial objects, wearing strange accoutrements, they stalk or squat through the pages.  

Warriors in battle dress advance, marriage ceremonies are celebrated with bowls of frothed chocolate, kings and their consorts face one another in solemn rites, a child is born, a naked priest rips the heart out of a victim in a stark temple, rows of figures bear tribute or offer ceramics and decorated aprons, grave men make hieratic gestures to one another, a leopard bares its teeth, a woman kneels by a stream, fantastic twin temples rise to the sky, and the strange Mixtec symbols mostly undeciphered, convey a hint of place-names  now lost’.  

She ends the introduction by saying ‘ This is a strange world of vision, perplexing at times in what it communicates, awe-inspiring for its simple, powerful technique, at times baffling, but its realm of beauty and visual symbol without modern counterpart.  Within its alien aesthetics it is one of the most beautiful books in the world, and it deserves a modern re-experiencing.

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