Specialist opinions. Panofsky’s comments of 1932.

Header Illustration: detail from a 12thC Islamic juglet in the Mallorca museum.
Two previous posts:

Thanks to Rich Santacoloma for permission to quote from his transcription of Anne Nill’s letter.


[To Herbert Garland, Feb 10th., 1932] 1.

…. the upshot of it was that a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky of that institute is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think. So Mrs. Voynich met him at the Morgan Library where she showed him the photostats (note that they are negatives and now in poor condition, having greatly faded in some parts). He became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century.2 He asked to see the original, which we showed to him last Friday [= Feb.5th., 1932 -D.      Rich adds: “they must have taken him to the safe deposit box”].

(detail) fol 70v

[On seeing the original, Panofsky’s] first impression was that it was early, but as he came to the female figures3 (in conjunction with the colors used in the manuscript)4 he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century! The more I think of it (always making allowance for my slender knowledge of art) the more I think that his contention is sound. I cannot think of a single early MS. or painting which contains such “shapely” female figures as those in the MS. (See 3)

Furthermore he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain)5 and shows strong Arabic 6 and Jewish influences.7 He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!8

Well, all that would make it interesting, anyway.  You know both Professor Thompson*  and Professor Manly* have been suggesting Spanish for some time (thought there might be something Lullian in it)…

*”Professor Thompson” is James Westfall Thompson (University of Chicago 1895-1933; UCBerkely 1933-1941).
**”Professor Manly is John Matthews Manly, an American Professor of English Literature (chiefly Shakespeare and Chaucer) .

Dr. Panofsky examined the two more-or-less visible sentences (one on the key page and one on page 17 [r]) 9 … which are apparently not in cipher and seemed to think they were Spanish rather than Latin (or rather something that had to do with Spanish).10

details from folio 17r. Comparison of script-sizes. The larger script is standard ‘Voynichese’ while the smaller (inset) is the ‘plain text’ marginal inscription whose regional dialect is still not certainly identified.

I am inclined to think he is right. He also noticed, what I am pleased to say I had noticed before, that the names of the months written in the plates of the signs of the Zodiac, and undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish. For example April is written “Abril”. October is “Octembre” (or Octember I forget which), which certainly suggest some form of Spanish, rather than Latin or French or Italian.11

The upshot of it is that we have given him a whole set of photostats for his institute, as he wants two men there to work on it. One of them (I think Professor Salomon or Liebeschutz)12  seems identified some remarkable Vatican manuscript (written in a senseless sort of Latin if I remember rightly) which had defied scholars for a long time.13

Perhaps they will not react to it as he seems to think they will, but if they do, we have achieved at least one of the things Mr. Voynich wanted- it was just this method of attack, in an institute, that he always hoped for and didn’t think was possible to secure for it unless the MS. was sold to an Institution. It now looks as if it might be possible to start some work of this sort on it even if we cannot sell the MS. at this time.”

Anticipating material to be part of later posts, here (below) is a map shows the  region of which Panofsky was evidently thinking.  And so too were Manly, Thompson and Fr. Petersen, because  Ramon Llull was born in  the  shortlived independent kingdom of Majorca.  But in this western limit of the Mediterranean we find it all; Occitan and Catalan; Pronounced Jewish and ‘Arab’ influence, early Kabbalah and so on.

erratum for ‘Lull’ read ‘Llull’


Variant forms of  Occitan occur, some blending with varieties of Catalan.

Pelling once suggested  the calendar’s month-names were in the dialect of Toulouse.

Gerona (mod. Girona) was an early flourishing centre of Kabbalah, and is still noted for that reason. Here Rabbi Jacob ben Sheshet of Gerona  composed (between 1230-1240) the book called ‘Responding with Correct Answers (Response of Correct Answers)’.  Its Chapter 2 is included, in English translation, in

  • Joseph Dan et.al., The Early Kabbalah, Classics in Western Spirituality series (1986). pp.133-150

Avignon, Montpellier, Perpingnan were all centres of Jewish learning and relative safety.

Joint Muslim and Byzantine rule over the Balearics had been followed by sole Muslim governance before the islands were taken once more by the Latins.  Evidence of Islamic presence and lingering influence continues there to this day.

  • On this point see e.g.  posts published by ‘Hesperides‘ at Poemas Del Río Wang in 2010. An extract from one:

That period, the age of the Arabic caliphates was the golden age of the Balearic islands – al-Yaza‘ir al-Sharqiya, “the Western Islands.” The memories of it are preserved by the stone drainage ditches enmeshing all Mallorca and in use even today, by the gorgeous fountains and painted beams with Arabic inscriptions of the ancient mountain estates, as well as by the names of most settlements – Binissalem, Banyalbufar, Alcúdia – and of several families. And of course by the vineyards. Among them especially by the estate Can Majoral, whose Butibalausí wines still preserve the former Arabic name of the vineyard, and each bottle of them has on its back label the poem ‘Goblets’ by Idris Ibn al-Yamani.

  • from: ‘Butibalausi‘, Poemas del Rio Wang, Dec. 31st., 2008.

To provide readers with even the minimum by way of preliminary notes, and sources needed to research Panofsky’s assessment of the manuscript will take more than one post and must look beyond Voynich-theory narratives.

Some fairly important matter will have to wait.  Later, we’ll come to the issue of strategies adopted by past and present  Voynicheros when some widely accepted ‘theory’ comes up against scientific or other evidence opposing it.

Among technical matters which Panofsky raised are the vellum’s finish and the manuscript’s palette.  The last is yet to be comprehensively documented but we will consider a certain organic yellow pigment.