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A speech scroll, also called a banderole in Western art history, is an illustrative device used to denote 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

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.

The murals of the Classic era site of Teotihuacanmarker 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.
At times, speech scrolls are decorated with devices that describe the tone of the speech:

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

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

European Medieval and Renaissance speech scrolls

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 painted alongside a figure.

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. 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 works very elaborate 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.


  1. Pohl, et al.
  2. Holt, Endangered Language Fund.
  3. Scene by scene of Codex Selden @
  4. Coggins, p. 104.
  5. Wishart p.300
  6. Boone, p. 59.
  7. 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.

  • Wishart Trevor (1966) On Sonic Art Routledge.

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