Panofsky and O’Neill’s paper.

I feel obliged to counter a statement made recently by Koen Gheuens, who said in a Voynich forum that “Don’t forget that Panofsky hopped on the “New World” train as soon as it passed by.”

Panofsky did nothing of the kind.

He simply refused to engage in argument. Having given his opinion to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill in 1932, and unsuccessfully attempted for two years to avoid William Friedman’s determined efforts to involve him further, Panofsky finally met him and then, when Friedman had the effrontery to expect Panofsky to fill out a ridiculous ‘questionnaire’, he wrote in answer to Question 3: What’s the date?

A: Were it not for the sunflower which, if correctly identified, would date the manuscript after 1492, I should have thought that it was executed a little earlier, say, about 1470.

The emphasis is mine.

So far as I’ve been able to discover, Panofsky never said or wrote another word about the Voynich manuscript, and given the politicisation of the manuscript’s study once it had been effectively co-opted by American military intelligence during the McCarthy era, one understands both Panofsky’s unwillingness to become involved and his declining to engage positively or negatively with O’Neill’s foolish assumption that he could read the Voynich plant-pictures as if they’d been modern botanical specimen drawings.

There is no excuse for attempting to misrepresent a scholar of Panofsky’s erudition and competence as if he’d been incompetent or a ‘band-wagon’ type. Panofsky was never a ‘bandwagon’-er, and I sincerely wish that the same could be said for every Voynich writer, both past and present.

Earlier posts in this blog map the evolution of Voynich studies, several treating that meeting between Panofsky and Friedman, the circumstances in which it occurred, and why I regard many of Panofsky’s replies to that questionnaire as coolly satirical.

His unforced and serious assessment was offered in 1932, with a later report that he concurred with a keeper of manuscripts in saying it could not be any later than within a decade of 1500. The mistakes Panofsky made in 1932 were those typical of the time: he initially assumed all the content in the manuscript had originated with a single ‘author’ and so confused date of manufacture with date of origin for the content. However, in agreement with the keeper of manuscripts he later realised that this wasn’t so, and that while he might allow manufacture to have been so late, the information itself might be ‘considerably earlier’ that is older – as I have found it is.

2 thoughts on “Panofsky and O’Neill’s paper.

  1. The statement you quote, taken literally, means: I would date the MS to 1470, but the sunflower, if correctly identified, makes it later. So: ‘after 1492, unless…’

    Even 1470 is decidedly wrong though. There is nothing in the MS that would allow an experienced art historian to posit a date after 1450. So twist it as you will, he was clearly influenced. One would expect an eminent scholar who is certain of his initial assessment to stick with that assessment. Here he says that his personal preference would be 1470, so even that is a sign that the MS baffled him. That it doesn’t offer much of a foothold even to experienced art historians.


    1. I’m not sure I can agree with you that ‘there is nothing which would allow an experienced art historian to posit a date after 1450’. It depends what you imagine meant by ‘an art historian’, and what factors you imagine Panofsky and that keeper of manuscripts took into account. If, for example, they considered the fold-ins, and the way the text-block has been bound with (flax?) fibre sewing-supports then the later date of manufacture is understandable. Indeed – the Beinecke website has always used a remarkably wide date-range.
      I read that comment by Panofsky as simply recognising the existence of O’Neill’s assertions and allowing for the possibility that, should those identifications be proven -presumably by translation of the written text, then his own views would be contradicted. This isn’t vacillation – it’s reason. I don’t agree that the manuscript ‘baffled’ him to the extent you suggest.

      I would agree that despite his encyclopaedic knowledge of western Christian art, literature and history (including its theological literature), Panofsky found very little which spoke to the history of western art of the medieval and renaissance era. And in that I must concur. But his reference to ‘Spain or somewhere southern, with Arabic and Jewish influence’ has also been supported and I agree that it was into the southwestern Mediterranean that the information first came.

      I would agree, from my own research, that what evidence of western European influence is to be found in the drawings dates most of those details to c.1350-1415, but that the majority of the manuscript’s drawings are not from Latin (western Christian) origins at all. I would add, though, that in my opinion the diagram on folio 57v could have been added as late as the 17thC

      But to speak of ‘an art historian’ is a bit like speaking of ‘a scientist’ – you have to qualify.


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