Mashhad Dioscorides MS. Late 12thC.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired a page from a thirteenth century manuscript (1224 AD) whose text was a translation of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica. The page contains two illustrations and is closely related to another manuscript made in upper Mesopotamia, but which then went to Mashhad, and is known today as the ‘Mashhad Dioscorides’.
Illustrations in both these items are of interest to us, but before making comparisons with matter in Beinecke MS 408, these examples must be seen against their own natural background, to ensure that inferences taken from these comparisons are in keeping with the time, region and culture from which they came.
To provide that background – which was earlier given by Florence E. Day, soon after the page was acquired by the Met – it’s just as easy to quote the paper she published at that time in the Metropolitan Museum’s Bulletin of Art.. Where I differ from her views, or where I think readers will be helped by a little more detail, I’ll add comments and illustrations. The background painted, we can move onto comparing a few details.
“[The Mashhad manuscript] For intrinsic reasons .., may be accepted as the work of the third quarter of the twelfth century [and] provides the earliest known examples of the Mesopotamian School of painting.. …
In the Mashhad manuscript there is no illustration for the recipe on the Museum’s page … but for comparison we may turn to the painting [in the Mashhad MS] of two men getting sap from a balsam tree, one out of only four figure paintings in that whole manuscript.
re ‘Balsam tree’ – further mages of Commiphora gileadensis.
Note: The ‘Balsam tree’ had enormous cultural and religious significance throughout the region from Egypt to the Persian Gulf in ancient, classical and earlier medieval times. This, again, is a topic I’ve already addressed in detail in articles published online through voynichimagery, but here I’ll add one new illustration. This carved amethyst was found in the Holy Land. It dates to the time of Roman occupation before the destruction of the second Temple in 70 AD. It lay by what had between the way between the pool of Shiloah (Shiloam) and the Mount. The plant is shown in a way comparable to the image in the Mashhad Dioscorides and like that image, its message – though unrecognised by later re-users of such ‘balsam tree’ images – is resurrection within a short time after death, in much the way Christian belief would narrate the resurrections of Lazarus or of Christ.
For us, the ‘Balsam tree’ image in the Mashhad Dioscorides is not of interest for the plant’s identity and associations, but for the way its roots are drawn, that is, for the style in which they appear for – as Day quite rightly says elsewhere – “It’s not what is drawn, but how it is drawn that matters.”
Florence E. Day, “Reply to M. R. Ghirshman”, Artibus Asiae, 1951, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1951), pp. 248-250. Day used ‘iconography’ to mean “what is drawn”. Because the term ‘iconography’ has a less limited application these days, I’ve expressed her sentiment in way that modern readers will not misunderstand.
That maxim, for all its enduring validity in art history, does not appear to have had any noticeable effect on the level of Voynich commentary since 1912. It takes very little acquaintance with the manuscript’s study since that time to realise that while objective rigor is expected in offering opinions about the written text, the very opposite applies when opinions refer to the pictorial text. To offer objective criticism of a statistical analysis raises not an eyebrow, but (so to speak) fangs are bared if any criticism is offered of even highly fanciful assertions about the drawings, with responses to such criticism being as individual and imaginative as the ideas disputed. The one constant, since 1912, is that one must pretend the drawings are what they plainly are not – namely the product of mainstream Latin Christian culture.
It is not simply the absence of specifically Christian motifs and of the hierarchical themes which define the Latin Christian worldview that inform us of non Latin Christian origin for the overwhelming majority of this manuscript’s drawings, but their very style of drawing.
Early researchers – that is earlier than Friedman’s involvement – were more aware of this disparity, if not quite focused on it. The first to comment, I think, was Robert Steele who in 1928 said rather vaguely that, “It is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences.” – Robert Steele, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928) from the Abstract available online.
The unforced opinion which Erwin Panofsky gave in 1932 immediately after spending two hours with the manuscript makes clear that he, too, did not regard the drawings as any product of western Christian art but (wrongly assuming the manuscript an autograph and its content’s first composition contemporary with the manuscript’s manufacture) he attributed it to ‘Spain or somewhere southern, noting ‘Jewish and Arab influences’. Even more tellingly, from his vast knowledge of Europe’s medieval and Renaissance culture and art, he could think of nothing in his experience which might be validly compared with anything in the manuscript, save a suggestion that the design of the month-diagrams was somewhat similar to diagrams in a copy of the work translated by Jews from the Arabic for Alfonso X.
In the ninety years since then, no argument has been offered which proves that suggestion true or false.
The Friedmans were disinclined to consider any but the Latin tradition and d’Imperio did so only in connection with a baseless notion that the text might be about occult subjects.
Others simply blamed the ‘artist’ when they found that, although most medieval Latin imagery is fairly intelligible whether one reads the Latin or not, these drawings ‘made no sense’ to them.
All attention, from 1912 was primarily focused on the written text, assumed enciphered, and when the images were attended to, was focused wholly on ‘what was drawn’ – or imagined drawn – and never on that simple but crucial matter of just how it was drawn, though this is always the thread which can guide one through questions of time and place of origin, of ‘authorship’ and so on.
Below, (upper register, left) the roots of that Balsam tree in the Mashhad manuscript are compared with two details from the Voynich manuscript: from folio 22r (upper register, right) and folio 6v (lower register).
I find fascinating that this was apparently not regarded as ‘crossed lines’ by the pre-Latin transmitters of the Voynich images. Perhaps they saw ‘crossed lines’ as applicable only to a single plane, as with interlace motifs, alphabetic letters and so on. I have already published, through voynichimagery, a detailed study of folio
I’ve added the detail from folio 6 as an afterthought and chiefly to alert readers to a couple of elements especially puzzling – one of them being on the recto and one on the verso. I simply do not know what to make of them and hope some reader may. Details of the two oddities are in the illustration’s internal captions (above).
But you see how those roots on folio 22r are drawn: the combination of slender root, elegant and spaced disposition, absolute comfort with lateral extension and given tips so pointed as to look almost sharp. That the Voynich version looks a little stiffer is not surprising; what we have is a fifteenth-century copy made by, or under Latin or Armenian Christian auspices, as we may suppose if the sewing supports are also dated to the early fifteenth century.
For the persons who first made these pictures, however, roots were living things in a sense more intense than we ever find in medieval Europe’s view of the world. Those in folio 6r look ‘fleshy’ in very literal sense, and in both the impression is of things actively moving below the earth as spiders or worms might do, rather than being (as they are in Latin art) the pegs which fix a plant or tree immoveable. As we say in English – ‘rooted to the spot’. (Curlicued trees in western art are purely ornamental).
Day says of the roots in the Mashhad drawing that they drawn ‘realistically’ but I’m not sure that’s how the original enunciator thought of what he was making. The ‘original’ might even have been found in a Greek text obtained for Baghdad’s School of Wisdom in the eighth or ninth century (see next post).
Having noted that the Mashhad manuscript includes just four figure-paintings, Day says further of the ‘Balsam tree’ illustration that it is given
… no ground [-line], or suggestion of a frame; the whole scene is simply inserted in the text.
The man standing at the right wears Moslem dress… his dress and boots may be the local twelfth- century fashion, as they are unlike those of the thirteenth-century Mesopotamian paintings.
The old man crouching barefoot at the left represents the old East Christian tradition, in startling contrast to the purely Moslem style of the other figure. His long curling hair, the humping of his shoulder with the head raised, the halo, and especially the fully modeled folds of his drapery, are inspired by paintings in earlier Syriac manuscripts.
The center of the Syriac style, in both Christian and Moslem times, was upper Mesopotamia, extending both east and west of Mayyafariqin, where the Mashhad manuscript was written. There is also a Syriac title beside the Arabic one, at the left of the tree, in the Jacobite Estrangelo script, which also belongs to that region.
Below, the map shows relative positions of Mayyafariqin (Diyabarkir), Mosul, Tabriz, the Black Sea and (lower register) to as far as Greece.
Mayyafariqin, Diyarbakır – a major seat of the Church of the East (‘Nestorians’) originally within the boundaries of Armenia, but now part of Turkey. We are told that among Greek-speakers during the Byzantine era, it was known as ‘the city of martyrs’ (Gk. Μαρτυρούπολις = Martyropolis), though in fact Martyropolis is a few miles distant and was given that name for the number of Christian martyrs whose relics and burials had been transferred there over time. Among those relics were the bones of St.Thomas, brought from southern India in about the 3rdC AD, and which would be transferred to Italy in 1350, where some fragments still revered in Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, to which they were taken. The Turks identify Diyarbakır with Silvan. Edessa was known as Urfa for some centuries. Its modern Turkish name is E Şanlıurfa.
Readers will no doubt begin to see why I chose to have that moment of ‘first contact’ between Latins and the plant-pictures imagined to occur in upper Mesopotamia.
While speaking of Diyabakir, I might include for Voynich students a note about the small drawings which are found on the back of the last folio in Beinecke MS 408.
There were three figures: at the top one which appears to be a monster of some type, though it is now partly erased and indistinct. Only by reference to the following two can I suggest it represents in semi-anthropomorphic form the constellation of Draco – this, I’ve no doubt, having been identified with some person or group such as (for example, Genghis Khan or the Mongols). It was a tradition through much of the near east, and survives still as proverbs in some communities, that at the end of days, the Pole of the Northern sky will again be occupied by Draco. Christianity made of that constellation no longer the symbol of healing and wisdom it had been, but the embodiment of evil.
Below that half-obliterated figure we see a fat-tailed sheep, that fat tail telling us the drawing originated no closer to Europe than North Africa, though more likely in the Levant or near east. It is here emblematic of the constellation Aries and, possibly of Christ, who is also believed by Christians to be coming again at the end of days.
Below this again, we see one of those figures which, elsewhere in the manuscript, consistently represent (in my opinion) individual stars, correlated with place – and in this case with the inhabitants of a place.
The form given the figure’s headwear, however, is not the usual band-and-veil or turreted crown. In my opinion it resembles best the type of three-crowned tiara initially worn by the figures which stood for centuries before the great temple of Harran but which is also seen apparently as type of wig in pre-Islamic Yemen. For a time, made of fabric and its three rings now of metal, it became a type of ‘crown’ for some eastern Christian churches and finally – in the fourteenth century – it was adopted as the triple crown of the Roman pope. (That’s a somewhat simplified history, but it will do here).
In this case, I’m sure the group is copied from an exemplar and this ‘end of the world’ speaks of the destruction of some particular city. If it means Harran, it might refer to any of the earlier tribulations suffered by the inhabitants but more likely, as the final entry, it refers to the 1260s when Harran was totally destroyed by the Mongols and finally abandoned. Certainly, many of that time did believe the Mongols’ attitude to conquest and habitual slaughter of entire populations signalled the world’s imminent end. Christians expected Christ’s second coming.
Harran and Edessa were traditional enemies. Harran was associated with star-worship and was for a time a centre in which works of classical and post-classical Greek origin were translated into Syriac and into Arabic. The Greeks had called it Hellenopolis ‘ Ἑλληνόπολις “pagan city”.
Altogether, as I read that vertical series of small drawings, the message is not about astrology, magic, or western Christian ideas but is historical, political and to a degree polemical comment on events in the near east by someone directly affected by them.
An alternative reading, for which a reasonable argument might be made, is that the allusion is rather to events of 1402, when Timur granted all of Diyar Bakr (Diyabakir) to the White Sheep Turkomans and the Christians – including the Nestorians – were expelled. I quoted from a wiki article when treating this point at voynichimagery, and do so again:
The city of Amida/Amid/Diyabakir … was [initially] predominantly an Armenian and Syriac Orthodox centre; there is little evidence for a presence of the Church of the East in the earlier period, but Amid was part of the Church of the East Diocese of Maiperqat in [by] 1257 … Some years later the bishop … “of Maiperqat, Amid and Mardin‘ was present at the consecrations of the patriarchs Denha I in 1265 and Yahballaha III in 1281.
To which I added
The bishop consecrated as Yahballaha III was a Chinese Nestorian named Rabban Marcos, companion of the Uyghur Rabban Bar Sawma. It was the latter who led an embassy to the west pleading help for eastern Christians and military aid for Arghun in 1287, wintering over in Genoa 1287-8.from ‘Chronological strata revisited #2a’, voynichimagery.
I note that the account in the linked wiki article over-emphasises the importance of a few Latins who served as letter-carriers, armed escorts and so on, especially the role of one Genoese named Buscarello de Ghizolfi, who was termed ‘officer of the guard’ by Arghun and who thus should have figured in the Marco Polo narrative, but does not.
Though Ghizolfi was a merchant, there’s nothing known about the Voynich manuscript that allows any theory of connection to him in my view.
.. ‘Echoes of Style’ … to be continued…