MS-Kircher-Linnaeus-O’Neill-MS: Art imitates art?

I have a provenancing problem to address, one that has nothing to do with Beineke MS 408 but will keep me occupied, I should think, until close to the end of this year, or early in the New Year so I hadn’t meant to put anything up here until then. As it is I have no time to spare for editing, cutting-out, proof-reading and marking categories and tags – for these and other errors, your indulgence is requested.

c,2600 words The author’s rights are asserted.

What takes me from more pressing work, is a post by Thony Christie which has put a new angle on the ‘sunflower’ thing and raised some interesting questions which I’d like to share.

For newcomers – in 1944, a minor American botanist wrote a note to Speculum (which not a botanical journal). His note included no references, no sources, no evidence that he had done any work aimed at even discerning whether the drawing’s intention was literal or not. He simply asserted that the drawing on folio 93r ‘was’ an American sunflower.

One important fact often neglected in discussion of this and other Voynich plant drawings is that they do not come with any scale-rule. There are indications of size within the conventions used for these drawings, but of those conventions I believe no commentator on the Voynich manuscript was aware before I published analytical commentaries for about forty of the drawings, and since my conclusions were unhelpful to the most energetically-promoted theories, they met the usual combination of determined ‘blind spot’ and ad.hominem remarks – informed as much by resort to fantasy and imagination as are those theories themselves.

So the fact remains that O’Neill had no grounds for presuming the plant a large one. For all he knew, the drawing might represent a plant no taller than, say, 5cm or 2″ high, or it might allude to one (or more) growing to 100 times that size. His opinions were not derived from any deeper or well-informed study of the drawing. Their only genesis was his imagination – as is the case for so many Voynich theories.

Now, in addition to that obvious, if overlooked fact, there are two historical facts to be kept for what follows.

First, that to date one has seen no objective evidence which requires us to take as fact that the Voynich quires were inscribed later than 1438 AD. Of late there has been some suggestion that the quires might have been left unbound for some time after that date, but so far nothing has been seen by way of evidence – at least not seen by me. Perhaps it will emerge at ‘Voynich 2022’.

However, the vellum’s date is obviously a problem for the three most publicised theories – the ‘New World’ theory, the ‘Central Europe Rudolfine’ theory and the ‘modern fake with telescopes’ theory. What theorists habitually do when the manuscript refuses to endorse their imagination-based theory, is to dismiss or to re-define the manuscript’s evidence, or to tweak the facts. To engineer a situation where there is one and only one theory, obviously the manuscript’s dates must be altered – and a date in the sixteenth century would suit at least two of the three, and also allow absorbtion of a ‘telescope’ theory, amoeba-like, and re-definition of the ‘modern fake’ idea to apply to nothing but the written text which (of course) none of those three theories can account for.

Most Voynich theorists are salesmen – and like salesmen, some really believe in what they want you to buy, and some are no better than con artists. Caveat emptor.

Too many Voynich theories are constructed less like a case for the prosecution than like an alibi, trying for an airtight story than a fair account of the evidence.

O’Neill bothered not at all with evidence, or with research. His position was “Trust me, I’m a botanist”.

He never attempted to show that the Voynich drawings were intended as specimen-portraits of any plant. He presumed so and relied on the tendency in his audience to define contemporary European habit as the right, natural and normal. But if that thoughtless presumption is inaccurate and the drawings not intended as ‘portraits’ of single plants, then how was he to know which elements could, and which couldn’t be read literally?

Again, like Voynich theory-spinners before and after him, he cherry-picked to suit whatever ideas had been produced by his imagination

He also presumed to apply to a manuscript then described as the work of a thirteenth-century Englishman the attitudes and scientific classifications created during the 1750s-1760s by a Swedish botanist named Carl von Linné.. It was he who would describe the Amerian plant as Helianthus annuus, coining an entirely new word from two Greek ones hēlios (sun) and anthos flower]. By convention such neologisms are described today as ‘new Latin’.

Before von Linné, the first European drawings of the American sunflower had appeared around the end of the sixteenth century and earlier seventeenth. The plant wasn’t called a ‘sunflower’ as Helianthus, but as ‘the Peruvian chrysanthemum’ or ‘Flos Solis Peruvianum’ and as Charles Heiser’s study noted “According to the descriptions, the first sunflowers introduced into Europe had purple disks..” The image on folio 93r has no petals and its centre is not dark-coloured.

Theorists have an easy way to avoid modifying their theories in the face of objection from the primary document, or from any better informed research – from a Voynich writer or any other. They say to all within earshot, ‘Pay no attention; this is unnecessary’, proceeding to do as they have advised. Or to that determined ignorance they may add some theory, as imaginative and disconnected to reality as any other, about the dissenters’ motives, character and so forth. Hence theories that the artis-draughtsmen were incompetent, mad and so forth. Persons with plausible-sounding alibis, discourage cross-examination.

O’Neill used the simple ‘Just ignore’ approach – listing no sources, naming none of those he claimed supported his ‘identification’ and determinedly refusing to engage with the criticisms of the far-better informed Fr. Theodore Petersen.

What makes the subject worth another look at Voynich revisionist is an image posted recently by Thony Christie from a book published between the time the first sunflower images were printed in Europe and the time when Carl von Linné was born.

This shows a plant evidently believed to turn with the sun, and which might therefore be used as a kind of living sundial. This Kircher labels in poor Greek – not in Latin or even in ‘new Latin’ – Oroskopion ‘Eliotropikon.

Note – (1st November, 2022). A comment by Thony Christie made me realise I’d expressed the last sentence poorly. Instead of saying that Kircher labelled it in poor Greek, I should have said ‘labelled the drawing’ in poor Greek. The drawing is (as I failed to make clear enough) of Kircher’s conception of a flower-powered time-piece. That Kircher or his illustrator did know what a sunflower’s flower looked like is evident from other illustrations in the same book. These you can see in a short, well illustrated blogpost by Caroline Edge which I first read in 2010 and can still recommend:

‘Kircher’s Magnetism’, Heliolatry: photography and light (blog), 11th Sept. 2008.

As you see from the way that diagram has been captioned (above) everyone who looked at the picture imagined it showed the image of an American sunflower – but it does not. The leaves are not those of Helianthus annuus (as we now call it). And no more is the flower. A sunflower does not have strap-like leaves. Its leaves are not wrapped about the stem or stalk as so many tropical plants’ and lilies’ are, and neither does it have four (or is it five?) layers of petals.

The sunflower (H. annuus) has nothing in common with the plant we are shown in Kircher’s book apart from the fact that sunflowers are included in the enormous family Asteraceae, which at last count contains 32,000 species described in 1,900 genera. Some of them do – unlike the American sunflowers, produce many layers of petals. Here are just four plants among those many.

The image on folio 93r does not show any petals at all. It shows only a seed-head. We know this meant for one of the Asteraceae because the way it is characteristic of that family of plants.

Here are seed-heads from just two of the 32,000 species. Compare particularly the small, outer leaflet- or petal-like phyllaries surrounding each. Again, don’t try to opt for one of these illustrations as the subject of the Voynich drawing.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.93r

Although we do not know just how much the illustrator of Kircher’s book was subject to Kircher’s instructions, nor what other sources he consulted, it is fairly clear that he cannot have been trying to draw the ‘Peruvian chrysanthemum’ from what are now the known illustrations published before 1643. They looked like this. (NOTE- the labels given these next images have added Linnaeus’ descriptions which is – strictly speaking – an anachronism).

Herbal (1615 AD) by Francisco Hernández, court physician to Felipe II of Spain.jpg

We know that Athanasius Kircher proof-read his books before they went into print and I must presume until I have time to check it, that he also approved the drawings made to illustrate his works.

That means, I think, that we cannot resort to the usual last resort of the theorist – blaming the artist for not producing images more like what the theorist’s imagination would like to see.

And since the drawing in Kircher’s book does NOT present us with a specimen-drawing made from a living specimen of any American sunflower, and is not even nearly close to the way American sunflowers had been represented by the three earliest known sources: the Flemish Dodoens in 1568, the Sienese Mattioli in 1586 or by Hernandez in 1615.

This raises several very interesting questions and possibilities. First, whether the ‘sun-turning’ seeds which Kircher hoped to use as a sort of mechanism came from any plant he’d ever seen in life. Second, whether the assumption that his ‘sun-turning’ – heliotrope – plant was in fact the plant which von Linné would later describe as Helianthus annuus, and which – as we’ve seen – resembles neither the plant in on f.93r not that adorning Kircher’s 1643 treatise on magnetism.

It is of course interesting to try working out just what plant was intended by that drawing made for Kircher’s book and which (for the meantime) we must suppose he approved. But for persons working on the Voynich manuscript, the more interesting question is whether that drawing had been influenced by the drawing on folio 93r of what is now Beinecke MS 408.

It will be remembered that the person who had the Voynich material longest and who is reported by himself and by others as having studied with persistence and determination over years, and who had not spared time, expense and even public denigration in the cause of having the mattter better understood had sent copies of some sections to Kircher as early as 1637, asking his help in identifying the Voynich script. Kircher did not trouble to reply for almost 18 months, and then was so ill-mannered as to respond not to Baresch directly but (as it were) by insulting him at one remove, a habit we used to describe as ‘suburban’ in my youth.

So it is not beyond possibility either that Kircher’s access to the enormous range of scripts maintained by the Vatican library had allowed him to identify the Voynich script (his letter to Moretus speaks of Jerome and refers to ‘Illyrian’. I believe I do no Voynichero an injustice in saying that I first introduced the following image to Voynich studies. This was done in 2011, as I looked into the question of what Kircher had meant by ‘Illyrian’ in his letter to Moretus.


We can accept that the seed-head shown on folio 93r is that of some member of the Asteracea and that the flower drawn in Kircher’s Oroskopion ‘Eliotropikon is also a member of the Asteracea.

The real problem on all counts is the way the leaves are drawn on Kircher’s plant.

They are shown as leaf-sheaths, which is no characteristic of the American sunflower, nor generally of the Asteraceae but of grass-like plants of the monocotyledons, including the Graminaceae or Gramineae, and now often called Poaceae, which included grasses, reeds, cereals, and sugar cane. Other monocots have the same characteristic, such as the bananas, ginger plants and Strelitzia. The leaves of H. annuua are not formed in that way.

and while, for reasons I have already explained in considerable detail and by reference oth to detailed analyses of the Voynich plant pictures and what is for me the usual range of documentary, textual and iconographic sources, that the Voynich plant pictures are formed as intelligent and clear composites of plants grouped by non-European customs and by their natural proximity (habitat) and uses that are complementary or alternative, the issue is very different when images are considered that were produced in early modern Europe, by Europeans, for a European audience of that time – already habituated to the idea of realistic (illusionist) scientific specimen-drawings as a norm.

In the circumstances, the inclusion of a scroll reading ‘Nature and art combined’ is certainly intriguing, but utterly unilluminating. One is left asking whether, in fact, Kircher had learned to read Voynichese; whether he understood that the Voynich figures were composites… and so on. So far as I’m aware, the only Voynich writer to have had an intimation of the fact was John Tiltman, to whom the idea had occurred, but whose expectation of a wholly European authorship denied greater insight.

leaf – Lily of the Valley.

The leaves in the Voynich drawing can be fairly argued those of a monocot and if we take the paint’s applications as any useful indication, we might compare them in a very general way to the venation in some other monocots in whose leaves no central vein may be evident from the front – as one sometimes sees e,g, in leaves of Convallaria majalis.

Even so, difficulties remain in comparing the stem/trunk of Kircher’s Heliotrope with this plant drawing from Beinecke MS 408, because even though it is possible to argue both show leaf-sheaths, the Kircher image is unequivocal on that point, where the Voynich image is not, and its leaves are broader, shorter and above all pendulant in contrast to those given Kircher’s ‘heliotrope’ with their prominent central veins.

Was Kircher influenced by drawings in Beinecke MS 408? Was he influenced particularly by the drawing on folio 93r? If so, did O’Neill know Kircher’s book and had that same frontispiece any influence on his decision to proclaim the Voynich drawing to be what it is not in any respect – viz. the drawing of a specimen of H. annuua, or the copy of any early modern European drawing of H. annuua. (If you know better, feel free to say so in a comment – go on, Don’t be afraid of the ‘thou-shalt-not’ brigade. If you prefer, add a ‘NFP note to your comment and I won’t publish it.)

So now, the fascinating question is whether Kircher knew, or believed he knew other kinds of heliotropic plants, of which there are a few. Some European plants were called ‘turnsol’ or ‘turnsole’.

Middle English turnesole, from Middle French tournesol, from Old Italian tornasole, from tornare to turn (from Medieval Latin) + sole sun, from Latin sol (accusative solem)

Miriam webster.

We have a genus Heliotropium, which includes herbs and shrubs of the borage family.

The flowers of Euphorbia helioscopia turn towards the sun.

A dye-plant native to Europe Chrozophora tinctoria is another turnsole.

The wonderful deep red Tulipa schrenckii follows the sun.

None of them have seed heads similar to the Asteraceae.

…neither does the Tree helitotrope, Tournefortia argentea, formerly Heliotropium foertherianum and sometime described (I don’t know why) ?Heliotropium arboreum.

For the Voynich drawing, I think it quite possible and certainly consistent with the results from studying about forty other of its plant-pictures in detail, that T. argentea should provide one element in the group on f.93r, but in that case, I should expect to find the referenced member of the Asteraceae occurring naturally in the same region and employed with, or as alternative for T.argentea. Discovering how a given plant was used in a given time and environment before 1440 is the serious part of investigating these drawings in Beinecke MS 408. ‘Medicinal’ is not a useful default.

What type of plant or plants composed Kircher’s fantasy sun-dial interests me less than whether an image from Beinecke MS 408, copied at Baresch’s initiative and expense, played some role in the form it is given in Kircher’s frontispiece.

And that’s as far as I’ll take the question.


In the earlier page about O’Neill’s theory (here) I referred mischievously to Scalesia villosa – beautifully photographed by David Day (here). It was mischievous – to show that impossible identifications can be suggested by the loose standards of O’Neill’s theory, but here in fairness I should add that the ‘Daisy Tree’ is found chiefly in the Galapagos islands, which had become known to some Europeans as early as 1535. Whether any are heliotropic I haven’t enquired; it is not relevant imo to understanding the Voynich plant-drawings. However, for those interested, a page on earliest recorded Europeans in those islands, a first basic outline is on theDiscovering Galapagossite.

One thought on “MS-Kircher-Linnaeus-O’Neill-MS: Art imitates art?

  1. Kircher’s letter to Moretus uses ‘Illyrican’ – as Philip Neal transcribes it. However, Neal’s translation into English renders it ‘Illyrian’, and I have followed his translation, though with some reservations, because ‘Illyrica’ and ‘Illyria’ were sometimes distinguished from one another.
    The Latin reads (in Neal’s transcription)

    Alterum denique folium quod ipsi ignoto characteri genere scriptum uidebatur
    illyrico idiomate, charactere quem D. Hieronymi uulgo uocant, impressum sciat; utunturque eodem charactere hic Romae in missalibus alijsque sacris libris illyrico sermone imprimendis.

    Neal’s transcription, his notes and his English translation are entitled
    ‘The letter of Athanasius Kircher to Theodorus Moretus (1639)’
    and can be accessed through his website, in the page:


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