Pre-Conference offering: “On the cryptographers’ conundrum & Rudolfine art”.

c.3400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

In the post before last, I quoted one scientific writer as saying that the manuscript’s vellum “is coarse for the thirteenth century, but not impossible…. “1 That writer was Robert Steele, whose area was the history of medieval science, and whose specialisation was the work of Roger Bacon, that thirteenth-century Franciscan to whom Wilfrid had assigned ‘authorship’ of everything in the manuscript. And as ‘the Roger Bacon cipher manuscript’ the manuscript was described throughout the twentieth century.2

1 Robert Steele, ‘Science in Medieval Cipher’, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928)

2 Jim Reeds’ Bibliography in my list of Constant References.

I don’t dispute the results of the radiocarbon-14 dating, but it is interesting to see how few had earlier protested the thirteenth-century date until pressured by such things as O’Neill’s over-confident ‘Note’ of 1944, or the Friedmans’ inability to find in European works any examples of complex ciphers before the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

The Friedmans were as inflexible in their expectation of the text as a ciphertext as in their presumption that the whole content of this manuscript must be the product of a single European ‘author’.

Erwin Panofsky, a specialist in art of Europe’s medieval and Renaissance periods and the only specialist in art analysis to comment on this manuscript between 1912 and the early 2000s, would emphasise, repeatedly and correctly, that the Voynich drawings lack Renaissance influence, and continue saying so despite declining to openly oppose O’Neill – whose assertions implied a date post 1492. It should be understood that for most of the twentieth century, ‘Renaissance art’ was defined in terms of certain prominent individual artists – chiefly those of Florence and with focus on the period of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci who flourished after 1470.

FIG. 1. Ewin Panofsky

That is why Panofsky said that, were it not for O’Neill’s ‘sunflower’, his opinion would be that the manuscript should be dated no later than c.1470 because it contained no evidence of Renaissance style.

Today it is more usual to define the ‘renaissance’ in terms of an intellectual movement and to begin from a somewhat earlier period, but Panofsky’s point remains valid.

Other individuals, less qualified and less able, would obligingly offer the Friedmans later dates and since neither of the Friedmans, nor d’Imperio, was in a position to make informed qualitative judgements between one opinion-statement and another, so d’Imperio simply grouped them by proposed century in her Elegant Enigma.

Despite these areas of ignorance and cryptographers’ understandable inclination to form theories as a preliminary to research rather than as its conclusion, the twentieth-century sources reveal a dawning recognition that the overwhelming majority of drawings in this manuscript do not conform to the customs of Latin medieval art OR of western ‘Renaissance’ art’ as then defined.

At the same time, the general inability to imagine that one might look beyond the boundaries of Latin Europe to find the origini of the manuscript’s content – as distinct from the present manuscript’s manufacture – meant that instead of looking about them to discover when and where people DID employ similar conventions in art, people with ‘author’ theories tried to push the manuscript’s dating ever further towards their own time in the hope of finding some niche for the manuscript’s images in the history of western European art.

Pushing aside date-line barriers.


Cryptographers, of course, were doing the same. Instead of questioning whether their initial assumptions were valid – such as that the written text must be plain prose or poetry and enciphered – their frustration at being unable to ‘break’ what they supposed a ciphertext by a single author led them also to push the proposed dating to far beyond what any informed codicologist or palaeographer would have agreed to. Not that many cryptographers have ever allowed scholarship from the history of art or of medieval manuscripts to limit their cryptographic speculations.

That it might not be a ciphertext at all was simply unthinkable for the Friedmans, and with no European cipher-method having been very complex before the time of Trithemius and Vigenère, they simply ignored the manuscript’s likely dating and began pushing for an ever-later date to suit that theory., moving unhesitatingly into the sixteenth and even into the seventeenth century and without, it seems, a moment’s pause.

CIPHERS – For those curious about how cryptographic methods evolved in western Christian culture, Thony Christie has recently provided a short, standard account of it (HERE). For cipher-methods known to Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, I’ve quoted his Bacon’s own words in a separate page (HERE) with annotations from the translator, Tenney L. Davis and from me. Christie does not mention a number of other known cipher-systems, including that recorded by Abraham Colorni. I had hoped by approaching Cryptologia, to enlist the aid of a cryptographer to test Colorni’s methods against the Voynich text, a task which Nick Pelling then offered to undertake, though so to date the question of its relevance remains in limbo. Pelling supposed, wrongly, I’d just ‘fallen over’ Colorni, but he turned up as part of a specific line of investigation I was following and which, unfortunately, was thus brought to a halt – temporarily, I hope.

And in that way Voynich studies came to have its most peculiar feature – a habit of beginning not with historical questions, but with pre-emptive answers presented as logical constructions the foundations of which were, to put it mildly, untested against those wider fields of scholarship relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts.

I’ve tried, often, over the past ten years and more to ask Voynich writers the simplest of research questions, viz. ‘What first led you to form that idea?’ or ‘How did this possibility emerge?’.

I’ve found it quite rare that any, from 1912 – 2022, has provided an answer. Far more usual, in my experience, is that the person has been so rapt in the story presented by their own imagination that such a question has seemed to them ill-motivated, or senseless or its answer quite self-evident. In any case, not a question to answer.

Yet there are exceptions. Tiltman is usually quite clear about how his opinions emerged from his efforts to investigate specific questions and from information he gained from external specialists, or at least tried to gain from external specialists (his experience with the eminent T.A. Sprague appears to have had quite a profound effect).3

3.the incident and a note on Sprague’s qualifications – see section in post ‘Not One of Mine‘.

Panofsky and Steele are two more who are very clear on how they reached a particular opinion. O’Neill stands at the very opposite limit of the spectrum, refusing to explain anything of his thought-processes, or any sources consulted and so forth.

Ensuring that the research path from question to conclusion is clearly outlined is, of course, the way solid investigative research proceeds. It does not ensure a conclusion is correct; what it does is make easier the work of those who will follow and who, one hopes, be even better able to see where a given path in research went out of true.

The Voynich text-image ‘Paradox’.

The opposite approach meant that the manuscript came to seem as if it embodied a paradox: that is, that the drawings reflected no influence from the Renaissance, yet the written text was imagined a ciphertext far too difficult to have been invented earlier than the late Renaissance.

The paradox was not, in fact, a product of the manuscript but a product of the unthinking adoption of a chain of untested and even unexamined assumptions – viz. that the whole content sprang from the mind of a single ‘author’; that first enunciation of the content occurred in the same time and place the manuscript was made; that the ‘author’ could be none but a western ‘Latin’; that the written text must cover plaintext prose or poetry, that the letter referring to Rudolf had been written by Marcus Marci rather than (perhaps) on his behalf by an unknown person.

Rather than re-examining those assumptions singly and as a chain, and giving greatest weight to the primary evidence – the manuscript’s codicology, palaeography and drawings – theories took the foreground and most of them were theories about cipher-methods or theories about historical personages. The usual deep attachment of a theorist for his/her theory was another inhibiting factor.

Description of the manuscript’s sections hardened, though a result of nothing but to guesswork, including Newbold’s subjective impressions. Chronology went out the window. Various ingenious workarounds were thought up to cope with perception of that paradox – but those too were (and still usually are) overwhelmingly of the theory-first variety, without any firm roots in the corpus of historical studies, manuscript studies or iconological studies existing in the world beyond the Voynich ‘bubble’. The Freidman’s worked in a secrecy bubble of their own making, but in more recent time I have actually seen a couple of self-promoting ‘Voynich experts’ assert that all one needs to know in Voynich research can, and should, be gained only from members of the ‘Voynich community’!

There’s no doubt at all that some cryptographers read – Nick Pelling, for one. But on the other hand, I must say that the least-often consulted of the pages and posts I’ve published through voynichrevisionist is the one I designed it around – the Bibliography page.

Robert Steele expresses clearly that sense of paradox when he writes – still assuming an all-Latin European origin for both composition and manufacture –

“the usual methods for dating a manuscript fail us; the writing cannot be placed; the vellum is coarse for the thirteenth century but not impossible; the ink is good. Only the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased. It is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influence.”

The drawings are not, in fact, devoid of discernable style(s) as I’ve spent some years in explaining and demonstrating for other researchers.

What is true is that the overwhelming majority do not use the styles – or as I’ve put it the iconographic languages – of western art. Nonetheless some few are intelligible in when read in those terms, and among them (as we’ve seen) are many of the emblems used to fill the Voynich calendar’s diagrams.


Forms and the changing tone of visual ‘languages’ can be placed and dated. They are not endlessly mutuable mutable, though this is a fact which has evidently eluded a great many Voynicheros since 1912, including the Friedmans, d’Imperio and others who would urge a Renaissance, or an Early Modern date for the whole manuscript.

Such theories constantly overlook is the fact (and it is an historical fact) that once the styles and customs of classical Greek and Roman art had been taken up by artists in late medieval Latin Europe – during the Italian ‘renaissance’ – that tide did not turn until the second half of the nineteenth century.

In other words, no hallmarks of Renaissance art in the Voynich drawings means you will not find valid comparisons in European art of the post-Renaissance period … Some of the most obvious markers are:

Literalism (or ‘illusionism’) – became a standard part of the western artistic vocabulary, and was widely applied, including (e.g.) to the way plants were to be drawn. We have already seen, in speaking of the ‘sunflower’ myth, how well developed that type of literalism was by the early 1500s, and it did not regress thereafter. It is altogether absent from the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures and indeed from most of its other drawings.

Use of vanishing-point perspective is another constant of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance style in Latin Europe. An argument might be made that a bench drawn near the top of f.77v is an effort at perspective drawing, but it is not ‘vanishing point’ perspective; just a typical instance of providing a view which avoids the table, chair or bench appearing to have only two legs. Here is an example of vanishing-point perspective (see how the line of columns on the right hand side grow smaller the further they are from the viewer).


A modern lay person might presume that “an artist can draw any way he/she likes” and so long as you are speaking of some modern artists that is fairly true, but it is not true for artists in the pre-modern era.

It is also true that a good deal of informal art can exist – if we include such things as personal notebooks, patterns for embroidery and tapestry, or books4 produced by persons who had been relegated to the fringes of Europe’s social hierarchies, but it is a mistake to imagine that fashions in ‘high’ art did not become pervasive. People who draw, try to draw ‘well’. This point will come up again in connection with Bodleian Douce 313 with its November-Crocodile. the most general sense.

Before turning to Bodleian Douce 313 though, I owe readers a better idea of why I have protested so vehemently the continual efforts made to attribute everything in the manuscript to so late a period as that of the Rudolfine court.

Rudolf II.

Rudolf II was indisputably a great patron of the arts – objets d’art and paintings were one of the few things for which he might outlay money, apart from books and instruments for the latest science and the prosecution of his ‘new crusade’ against the Turks.

During the period when he held court, we see emerge in western art and in Rudolf’s circle, the style we call Mannerism, with some pieces made for Rudolf arguably verging on the Baroque.5 They maintain, of course, the Italian re-classicised human body, use of literalism, use of perspective and all the rest which marks art of the Italian ‘Renaissance’.

5.if these terms are new to you, a brief overview here.

Three artists employed at different times by Rudolf can be said represent perfectly each of those strands in late sixteenth and seventeenth century European art.

FIG 4. Ottavio Miseroni – Cameo. Cleopatra.

From Italy, we have the Milanese lapidary artist, Ottavio Miseroni (1567-1624) – to whom, as d’Imperio reported, Marcus Marci is said to have been related. He also made the inlaid chest from which a detail was illustrated above (FIG 3).

FIG. 5. Dürer – Martagon lily.

From Germany came that master of literalism, Albrecht Dürer, whose reputation rests largely on his having studied in Italy and brought the ideas and techniques of the Italian Renaissance into the north.

A deeply moral person, Dürer produced only one picture which might be termed ‘Rudolfine’ – the Suicide of Lucretia, but even then he avoided making the nude figure’s face inviting by sixteenth-century standards.

(Rudolf also liked an Italian altarpiece which Dürer had painted in Venice on commission from the town’s German merchants. Rudolf liked that altarpiece so much he commandeered it or, to put it more politely, ‘acquired it’ and had it carried to Prague.)

FIG 6. (detail) female head – by Bartolomaus Spranger

And finally from Flanders came the Mannerist, Bartolomaus Spranger, who is today most closely identified with the development of what is called ‘Rudolfine Mannerism’ – an example of which is seen at left.

In Rudolfine art, one typically finds that women – even when fully clothed – convey an atmosphere very far from that conveyed by female figures in the Voynich manuscript, clothed or unclothed.

Images of Athena made for the Rudolfine court, and subsequently imitated by others, would have created public outrage in classical Athens in precisely the way that painting Christ’s mother in the way Mary Magdalen should appear could be predicted to outrage the whole of Christian Europe.

To quote the article by the Holy Roman Empire Association:

Many artworks commissioned by Rudolf are unusually erotic“.


‘Shapely’ is how Panofsky described some of the Voynich figures but they are scarcely designed to excite with their overlarge heads, ‘boneless’ arms, flat feet and marred faces.

To distinguish between an unclothed figure, a naked woman and a ‘nude’ is not mere semantics. The Voynich figures that unclothed are just that. They cannot be simply supposed literal: the question of literal versus abstract, or metaphorical has to be formally addressed before one may speak of them as women, let alone as naked women or as nudes. Naked women are what you see in copies of the Balneis Puteolanis and in many copies the illustrations were, by the standards of their time, prurient images as, I would argue, none of the Voynich drawings are.

Equally to the point is that perspective and emphasis on symmetry are absent from the Voynich drawings but are inseparable from the way in which technical information and instruments were represented after the mid-fifteenth century in Europe. This is a constantly-overlooked but important objection to theories about the whole manuscript as a modern fake, or identification of roughly-cylindrical objects (which I have described as forms of container) in the manuscript’s leaf-and-root section.

Falsity and Fakery.

When Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) invented his microscope, European art was already in its Early Modern period and technical instruments were being represented by technical drawings (Fig.8) and quite literally in other contexts (Fig. 10. further below).

FIG 8.

Even Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, had been no stranger to technical diagrams or Euclidian geometry.

FIG 9. (detail) Brit.Lib. Royal MS 7 F VIII f.25r. Last quarter of the 13tC.

Iin short – neither Wilfrid’s theory of Baconian authorship, nor Santacoloma’s theory of a faked ‘Baconian’ manuscript explains why the artefacts seen in the ‘leaf and root’ section have the form they actually have.

‘Fixing’ their form by substituting ruled lines for ones which are neither straight nor precisely parallel, and altering the lack of perspective to add a greater sense of depth than the original displays, may be a way to add a greater air of probability to a theory, but is not best practice, and certainly not how reputable museums normally behave.

We don’t correct ancient paintings to look more like modern paintings, or ‘adjust’ medieval paintings to look more nearly like one produced during the seventeenth century.

Except, it seems, in Voynichland where the manuscript is treated with scant respect..

So long as we accept that the manuscript once belonged to Jakub Hořčický, we can accept the proposition that the content of our manuscript was probably present in Prague during Rudolf’s time.

If, however, the signature in the manuscript is proven fake or of very much more recent date, then we cannot assert the manuscript was in Prague much before the time when Baresh sent careful copies of some section or sections to Athanasius Kircher, believing that the matter was in some sense ‘ancient’ and in some sense ‘Egyptian’.

More – if we accept the same doubts which were expressed about the authenticity of the ‘Marci’ letter by the same researchers, then we may be able to simply dump the whole theory of connection to Rudolf, for which no other evidence has yet been produced.

Folium Blue? Pigments can settle some questions.

In the continuing absence of any specific evidence to the contrary, we shall maintain the normal practice of treating as largely irrelevant the interval between the making of a manuscript’s parchment or vellum and the material’s inscription – say five years or less. We can continue to accept as our working range, the radiocarbon-14 range of 1404/5-1438.

That standard assumption would have to be altered if, for example, the manuscript’s pigments included a pink and this was found gained from logwood and not from sappanwood (the original meaning of ‘brazilwood’ in medieval Europe).

On the other hand, if its palette should include among its blues that described as ‘folium’ blue, we could discard immediately any theory of a twentieth-century fake for those folios at least, because the method for extracting that particular hue from Chrozophora tinctoria was forgotten in the nineteenth century and its re-discovery announced only recently – in April 2020.

It has long been my hope that another and more thorough analytical study might be made of the manuscript’s pigments, with the advice of well-qualified and experienced conservators or, if advisable, by commissioning a full analysis of the palette from some professional scientific group such as the McCrone Group.

  • P. Nabais, ‘ … molecular structure for the medieval blue from Chrozophora tinctoria, also known as folium’, Science Advances, Vol. 6, Issue 16 (online 17 Apr 2020).

Postscript – the header shows a detail from the following image, from a book published in 1624:

and now I really must stop spending work-time on Voynich things – for the next few weeks at least.

FIG. 10

Postscript – I should have included here that in a late paper, recording a talk he had given, John Tiltman wrote,

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10.

It seems to me this is no argument for the manuscript’s content having so late an origin; quite the contrary. I would suggest that the Keeper of Manuscripts at Cambridge had noted the discrepancy (only recently noticed again) between (a) the evident age of most of the content as such (b) the materials on which that content is now set (including pigments, vellum etc.) and (c) the binding. It is not at all unusual for quires to have remained unbound for years – even, sometimes, for centuries.

One thought on “Pre-Conference offering: “On the cryptographers’ conundrum & Rudolfine art”.

  1. I have a bad habit of resorting to verbal ‘shorthand’ when pressed for time, and I see now that I’ve done it in speaking of the sources used to create pink.
    In fact, reading the list of colours described (in d’Imperio) the arrival of pink in the European painter’s palette during the second half of the fifteenth century is chiefly of interest because none is noted in the Voynich palette.

    Even so, I should have been clearer than I was.

    More than one plant is described as “brazilwood” in the medieval and later documents, and for a time it is even found uused to describe logwood, whose best-known use is rather for its producing a good black and shades in the grey scale, having been used to create these in writing, in painting and in dyeing, though a purple was obtained from it by dyers.

    Today the tree(s) which first brought a ‘pink’ into the western artistic vocabulary are known popularly as sappanwood, the earliest having been imported into the west through the middle east. Among them is the Caesalpina today described Caesalpinia braziliensis, though not a Brazilian plant. Other species of Caesalpinia which provided pink pigments include one indigenous to the Brazilian coast and now described as Caesalpinia echinata (or pau-brasil in Portuguese). That tree is native to the coast of Brazil and a pink derived from it, in manuscripts of European manufacture, provides a terminus a quo.

    Cheaper than minim red and insect-derived reds, the various ‘brazilwood’ reds and pinks would give way to what was actually an older vegetable red, gained from the madder plant – which Linnaeus described as Rubia peregrina and is not to be confused with “Dyer’s Madder” which was and is obtained – according to Thurston – from Rubia tinctoria. She writes in connection with dyeing that “a rose dye, pinker than Dyer’s Madder, is obstained from the roots of the R.peregrina found at the edge of woods in the west of England”.
    I have seen a natural lichen pink in fabric handwoven in Scotland, and while I guess the dye was probably from O. tartarea, how that particular hue was gained I still do not know.


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