O’Donovan notes #6i: Speaking the same language – sort of.

c.1900 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

This is me trying to introduce techniques of iconological analysis to an audience I’ve never met, while using none (or almost none) of the technical terms and without assuming the audience has read as much as a basic history of art. Good luck to all of us. 🙂

I was going to return to the two crowned women (see end of #6b) but instead I’ll pick up from post #6g, which emphasised the difference between a medium’s date and place of manufacture, and those of whatever is represented on/within it.

In the last paragraphs. I pointed out that between the image itself, and the reader’s ability to understand it, is a barrier that seems more, or less opaque, according to whether it ‘speaks’ the language, visual and/or spoken, to which you’re accustomed. It’s not fashionable, at present, to speak of graphic ‘languages’ but the concept is easy for newcomers to understand. I illustrated this point about the drawn and the written line with these nine images.

In the Voynich manuscript, as we’ve learned since 1912, few of the images appear legible. The reason for this, to put it simply, is that the original maker (enunciator) and his intended audience did not use the same conventions as those informing the art of medieval western Christian Europe – from which tradition our own derive today.

However there are some few images in the manuscript which do seem to speak ‘European’, or something nearly cognate with it.

One of them is to be seen on the reverse of the Voynich map. This is the example I’ll be concentrating on.

This page used to be known as folio 85v – 1, and so my illustrations may come up labelled ’85v-1′. Since the time I published my research-summary for this page, and today, the Beinecke library re-paginated the manuscript, the new system leaving this page – among others – without a specific number. On the Beinecke website its description is now “85r (part)“.

but the site’s side-bar is up again – cheers, Beinecke.

With no way to distinguish one (part) from another, researchers must include an illustration or link every time one (part) or another (part) is being discussed.

Materials – vellum

In the normal way, the vellum’s quality and finish would contribute to our investigation. Specialists can distinguish between vellum made in tenth century Persia as against that made in thirteenth century north Africa, and these again can be distinguished from vellum made at the same time in Germany or France. But between closely connected regions such as southern France and northern Spain, or Spain and North Africa it may be impossible to be categorical. The example shown at right pictures a section of a Q’uran sold by Southeby’s, with a description which reads in part:

Qur’an Section. Illuminated Arabic manuscript on vellum. North Africa or Southern Spain. 13thC, 9 lines per page in neat magribi script in brown ink on vellum.

The Voynich manuscript’s brown ink is no proof of European origin, either.

The feature most telling of inscription within western Europe or under western Christian auspices is that noted in the letter sent from McCrone to the Beinecke library [pdf]:

“The writing appears to have been done with a quill pen.”

The question one would normally ask next, of course, is the range over which quill-pens were being used early in the fifteenth century. I don’t just mean geographic range, but demographic range.

In fact, we don’t have to ask that question, though we should if the drawing had survived as a single image of unknown origins.

In case the ‘who used quill-pens’ question interests you, it’s fine to get your first background ‘sketch’ from an online site, but for anything better you’ll need to dig deeper. As a random example of information in a webpage (here), I’ve bolded the statements which are too vague or are a bit dubious.

It is known that some parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with quill in 2nd century BC. St. Isidore of Seville mentions them in the 7th century [AD] in his writings, and it is believed that quills then began to spread as a popular method of writing as better than reed pens. With quills, it was easy to write on parchment and vellum. They were also used with fine brushes to illustrate manuscripts with figures, decorations, and images and become more and more popular from the 15th century on, when writing and [reading?] flourished writing started to spread [sic] through the western world.

(detail) folio 1r

About that general issue, I think there’s a reasonable possibility that the red-coloured glyphs on folio 1r (right) are an effort to copy an inscription written initially with a vermilion brush. I’ve never found time to look into that possibility in depth, so take it as no more than a possibility.

My point is that neither the use of vellum, nor the use of a brown iron-gall ink, nor even apparent use of a quill pen is exclusively European. The presence of all three together makes it probable that the images were set down as we now have them in western (Latin) Europe or in areas under Latin control.

None of it tell us when, or where, the drawings were first enunciated.

On the contrary, the fact that for more than a century these images have appeared unintelligible to highly trained and experienced people – specialists in manuscripts such as Goldschmidt or Kraus, eminent specialists in the history of western Christian art, such as Erwin Panofsky, and very dedicated and thorough researchers such as John Tiltman, demonstrates clearly enough that a majority of images in this manuscript were not first given their form in that environment and do not employ the conventions employed in art of the medieval west.

(detail) f.78v

For yourself, you may feel a bit puzzled by the image from 85r (part), but I should think that feeling far less strong than your reaction on realising the object near the outstretched hand of a figure in folio 78v was never meant for a Latin cross.

Perhaps you feel tha you don’t quite “get” the image on folio 85r(part), but that on folio 78v seems to “make no sense”.

Of course both do make sense; what you’re experiencing is the different reaction you might have to a person who speaks your language but with a different accent, as against one speaking a language you haven’t learned – yet.

Beginning investigation – Scan the image – f.85r (part).

Here the aim is not to hunt frantically for ‘the’ answer.

Scan the image slowly and methodically, giving equal weight to details that do, and those that don’t strike a sort-of-familiar chord.

Different people go about this differently, but it’s a vital preliminary.

Some people look carefully and methodically, memorising every detail; others try to make a close copy by hand. Others like to mutter to themselves, describing an image detail by detail. Whatever method works for you and doesn’t annoy the neighbours is fine.

Similarities and Differences.

Technical issues will come to the fore as you scan the image. If you are trying to make an exact copy, for example, how would you expect to form the diagram’s circles?

Would you reach for a pair of compasses? If so – stop first and check. Did the fifteenth-century copyist use a pair of compasses?

To answer that question you might need to download a large version of the page from the Beinecke site (see link above). While you’re checking out that question about compasses you might also ask – Is there any sign of a ruler’s being used?

(Next time someone tries to compare images in the Beinecke ms with drawings illustrating the works of Hildegard of Bingen, you might remember this issue of instruments).

As it happens, the ruler-and-compass issue one of the big research questions in Voynich studies, despite the fact that few have recognised its being one. It is one of the reasons I think a drawing on folio 57v was inscribed in a very different situation from the rest.

But if you like musing, or like digging, it’s a fascinating question when you’ve nothing else on your mind: What sort of people, where and when, did not rule out a page before writing, and generally eschewed use of ruler-straight lines?

It is evident that among the fifteenth-century copyists there was at least one who thought he would tidy up a couple of the ‘bathy-‘ images by using a ruler, but his hand isn’t seen for long!

This post is already long enough, so I’ll skip other questions of this sort and move on to an apparent use of two fourfold systems to organise the drawing.

Fourfold divisions.

One fourfold division is provided by the four human figures; the other by what is revealed on close inspection to be four banners or perhaps leaves, or perhaps they’re meant for channeled waters which peter out. Their nominal poles/stems/canals serve to divide the four inhabited sections. Here’s one:

If they’re meant for rivers*, then the person who first made this drawing understood ‘the Paradise’ to occupy the centre of the world, under the mid-heavens.

*In Biblical tradition, four rivers flowed out from Paradise; the Arabs say two remain above ground – the Nile and the Euphrates – but the other two sank underground.

On the other hand, if they were meant to signify banners or flags, we might ask whether they are meant as reference to physical banners/flags? Or for the four principal winds? Or the cardinal points of direction as ‘four Poles’? The four winds are not always closely identified with the cardinal directions.

Where one illustrator might show an allegorical ‘North Wind’ blowing from the North Pole (magnetic- or astronomical-) the navigators and weatherwise knew that the winds which came directly from the Pole were not principal winds, but fairly light ones. In the words of one fifteenth century Arab navigator:

The four cardinal winds are light winds. The remaining ones have technically-formed names and we have mentioned them all in the following verse

“The wind of al-Saba comes from the rising of the sun

But a little towards the Pole, while Shamāl slightly to the west of it [Pole]

Between Canopus’ setting and the west comes Dabūr

Canopus’ rising shows the place of al-Janūb”

G.R. Tibbetts, (1971) Arab Navigation… (p.142)

Canopus, known as Suhel or Suhail, is the star described in earlier western astronomy as alpha Argo ratis. A western conference of astronomers decided, in 1888, to break the enormous constellation of the southern ship into its parts, so now Canopus is master only of its hull: alpha Carina.

How can we know whether the diagram is speaking about the physical world, or about winds, stars, seasons, or about Paradise or even the four horsemen of the Apocalypse?

More to the point, how can we know if, and how, we should align a set of these fourfold division with the cardinal points.

Here’s a clue. Consider the four figures.

I’ll be very nice to my kind readers and be more specific still.

Lingering over the details, consider the costume that each has been given.

… to be continued.

image enlarged from original

(and no, it’s not a fleur-de-lys – that’s your memory tossing up a ‘nearest match’. Check that impression – How was the fleur-de-lys actually drawn in Europe over the period between the 12th-late 14thC?)

6 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes #6i: Speaking the same language – sort of.

  1. L.L. has just told me that she considers the form of the ‘banner’ detail resembles a cermonial fly-whisk, symbolic of high status from north Africa’s Oruba to Buddhist south-east Asia and China. A very interesting suggestion.


  2. A friend and mathematician has said that he felt impatient about being expected to spend time ‘just looking’ until he realised that he behaves exactly this way when considering a chess problem from some historical masters’ contest Perhaps that insight will be helpful to some readers.


  3. I think one of the characters is a Physician holding up a matula.

    Lille, Bibliothèque municipale, Christine de Pizan, Epître Othea, 1460,
    MS. 391, folio 39v (mirrored for better comparision ) VMS f85r2


    1. Matthias, Can you explain the character written over the Voynich figure’s chest?

      also – I wonder if you’d be kind enough to ask around and see if you can find the name of the person who first offered the ‘urine bottle’ suggestion. I know the idea has been raised fairly often, and over a fairly long time, but it would be good to credit the person who first thought it up.


      1. Matthias replied to this,
        “”I myself had this idea in 2017, I don’t know if anyone thought of it before. A search didn’t turn up anything, unfortunately. Maybe you know more than I do.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.