Skies above: elevated souls Pt.1 (moral character)

About the ‘ladies in baskets’ on folio 70v-i….(cont.)  

So far, the research had identified certain  environments where we find the same informing ideas; where, for example, it was not considered  odd  to liken the stars to a series of baskets, and where it was equally acceptable  to speak of the stars as a ‘conclave’ of some kind, but one outstanding problem which must be addressed before we go further is  that of perceived moral character.

‘Good women’.

That the month-diagrams should envisage the heavens’ denizens as mainly females, and show a good number of those unclothed presents a blank opposition to the mores of medieval Latin Europe.

The heavens were understood to be a destination assigned only to the good – and no  ‘good woman’ was depicted in medieval Latin art unclothed and (to use Panofsky’s expression) “shapely”.

Even the constellation of Virgo was normally to be found dressed by then, and when one of Gemini’s twins was depicted as a unclothed female (at least until 1440) she was meant for a sexless, or a married woman, or as the temptress Eve – who according to some popular traditions was never accepted into heaven. (Dante side-stepped the issue and does not specify Eve’s location in the circles of heaven, purgatory or hell, unless it be directly below those ‘four holy stars’ he saw as he emerged from the underworld. I do not think Par. 32.4-6 means Eve, but the Magdalen – cf  Purg. 28.93-94 … but that’s all by the bye).

It wasn’t only Latin tradition which defined, by default, any unclothed ‘shapely’ female as less than moral; the same was true in most communities of the medieval Mediterranean (and no, I’m not forgetting the diagram in Vat.gr. 1291).

It was that discrepancy between the Voynich drawings and the usual (Wilfrid-Friedman) narrative which led me to doubt the ‘Latin author’ idea very early in my acquaintance with Beinecke MS 408.

Naturally I had begun, as most do, by supposing there must be some original body of solid study informing ideas contained in the Beinecke catalogue description, and the sources everywhere recommended, but this matter of the ‘ladies’ led me to enquire further and to the conclusion that the usual theory had no solid foundation, only elaborate superstructure, and that this had been the case since 1912. I am only speaking of interpretation given the images and the quasi-historical narratives.

The usual flaw in them has been to presume correct some assumption or other, and to select images, or add commentary less to explain the images themselves than to convice a reader that the theory is plausible.  This is why discussions most often focus on points of ‘similarity’ while ignoring as irrelevant all the points of difference.

One of the best comparisons for the month-diagram’s tiered figures that I have seen was Ellie Velinska’s, as I’ve said before.  Among more recent offerings has been that included in a post by  JK Petersen from a manuscript which he cites as  ‘Darmstadt c.1390’.

I have not been able to locate that manuscript, but found another illustration of the same kind at the Courtauld Iconographic Database (here) and will later reproduce a detail from it.

The image illustrates a parable from Matthew Ch.25, verses 1-16, the last two verses stating the story’s moral and beginning “You are to be the light of the world…’.

Here is another illustration of that same parable, and from yet another copy of Speculum Humanae Salvationis ( Brit. Sloane MS 361, folio 44r).  Note that the ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’ maids (a term often rendered as ‘virgins’) are given simple dress, but the  five  ‘wise’ maids are placed in the higher register and crowned while the five ‘foolish’ maids are assigned the lower level.

Those lamp-bearing maids are always ten in number in these illustrations  –   another point of difference from the Voynich month diagrams.

In still another copy, made somewhat later in the fifteenth century, the moral message is expressed more forcefully. The picture says, in effect,  “either carry the Christian light or stoke the fires (of hell).” (Brit.Lib. Harley ms 2838),

Differences:

  1.  these ‘maids’ are always neatly dressed and coiffed
  2. they are never  in baskets, tubs, or buckets,
  3. In  images of this type they always carry ‘lamps’ of a contemporary sort:  apparently of coarse pottery, cup-shaped,  and when provided with a hand-grip, evidently designed to set in a sconce or (if without hand-grip) to be set on a flat surface.  Illustration (right) from the Corsiana ms copy of the Spec.Hum.Salv., courtesy of the Courtauld Iconographic Database.
  4. The flames are never depicted without a lamp.
  5. The flames are never depicted as flowers or as stars
  6. The flames are never ‘tied’ to the maids by a stem- or string.
  7. The figures’ bodies are never shown deformed or with ‘boneless’ limbs.

Though the Gospel text speaks specifically of oil in the lamps, Orthodox imagery could depict the light as a rush or taper.  The example shown (below, left) is from a mural in the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Pec. And in this case again the ‘wise’ are envisaged as ennobled by their acceptance into heaven.

The thinking behind this Orthodox imagery can be explained conveniently by quoting a passage from Chrysostom’s eighth homily on I Thess. He is  speaking of the same theme: Christ’s return at the end of days:

And upon the coming of an affectionate father (i.e. the deity), his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain [shut] indoors.

 I have cited Chrysostom over others because he was a native of Antioch; his period of greatest productivity was the third quarter of the fourth century AD, and thereafter his writings were widely disseminated and as well known by medieval times to the Latin as to the Orthodox churches. All thought (and think) very highly of Chrysostom, but I confess I cannot warm to the man.

On anachronism: When attempting to elucidate a medieval religious image, care should be taken to avoid anachronistic sources. Ideas widely disseminated today under the rubric ‘Christian’ may not have been part of the medieval Christian way of thought before 1440.

More

Some are positively antithetical to the norms of both western and eastern Christianity to that time. For example, a version of the Bible recently issued by an American fundamentalist sect omits passages and episodes they consider incompatible with their vision of Christ as a military figure and ‘fundamentalist’ in the modern American manner. Their text thus uses for the word ‘disciples’  a term specific to the military and excludes an episode from the Christian gospels in which Christ refuses to sanction the stoning of a woman taken in adultery… and so on.

In other cases, a post-medieval source is to be avoided simply because it is flawed.  I regret to say that the King James’ Bible (1611) is in this category, despite its being so widely and deservedly revered for the beauty of its English. The Revised Authorised version is more widely used today.   In my own work I have found most reliable (since the 1980s) the NIV interlinear bible. It was produced by a co-operation of well respected Biblical scholars of the Christian and the Jewish faith.  Its comments and scholia thus unite modern historical research with the long tradition of religious commentary proper to each of those faiths, and it presents, line by line in parallel with the offered translation the original texts in their original languages.  It does not include certain books, known as the Deuterocanonicals  which were everywhere accepted in medieval Europe to 1519 and included in all bibles until the publication of Luther’s Bible in 1534. To explain various visual and verbal allusions in earlier manuscripts and art, the Deutos are needed too.

There are neither lamps, nor tapers, depicted in the hands of the Voynich figures –  male or female, clothed or unclothed- in the month diagrams. Nor are their bodies depicted in a way commensurate with medieval Latin conventions, nor those of Orthodox Christian art. There is nothing in the depiction of their bodies to suggest they were designed to convey any Christian message. 

The Voynich “lamp” on folio 8ov.

The nearest we have to a lamp’s depiction is a type of horn-‘lamp’ on folio 80v – another of the ‘ladies’ sections.  I have already  compared it with Hellenistic and later images in the analyses published at Voynich imagery – and from a post of 2016 reproduce the image of the coin (below, centre). It is not a ‘cornucopia’, but it is a horn.

 

So – once more the imagery directs us away from medieval Latin (western European) Christian culture and, by way of earlier, and eastern Christianity, to the pre-Christian period.

Bearing in mind that there are many more than ten, or twelve ‘ladies’ in the tiers of each month-diagram in the Voynich manuscript, we should not expect any easy correspondence with the usual depictions of the zodiac, or anything of that sort, but an image first brought to notice by Dana Scott (so far as I can discover) as been so constantly re-presented since then – rarely with proper credit given – that it must be considered here.  The diagram in question is on folio 9r Vat.gr. 1291, dated to the eighth century by some scholars, and to the ninth by others.

Differences:

  1. Nowhere does the Beinecke manuscript depict a chariot; it has no crowned rider, nor indeed any sort of horseman.
  2. None of the Voynich month-diagrams is amenable to twelve’fold radial division, and the number of tiers in folio 70v-i is only two.
  3. The Voynich figures hold star-flowers, often with strings or stems – none of those in this diagram do.
  4. the zodiac in the outer (highest) circle of this diagram shows no close correspondence to the central emblems of the month-diagrams in the Voynich manuscript.

So all it tells us, essentially, is that in the ninth century, somewhere in the Byzantine empire  but probably in Constantinople, an effort was made to render into Christianised form information gained from earlier sources of which some may have had a Christian origin, as the matter of its written text does not.

Point of similarity:

In only one point does it shed any light on images in the Voynich month diagrams, that is, that the bodies of the figures described as ’12 holy virgins’ display some characteristics in common with the way the unclothed female figures are drawn in the Voynich month-diagrams.

Their description as ’12 holy virgins’ is another part of the  effort (largely unsuccessful and short-lived) to re-interpret this pre-Christian imagery in Christian terms.   I suspect the bridge between the 12 female figures and their Christian description depended on the ‘Shepherd of Hermas.

At least they are unclothed. We might fairly describe their limbs as rubbery-looking.  Their hair seems to have been cropped  and this, with the other characteristics, suggests they were originally envisaged as  ‘women of an hour’.

 

Dawn light.

One of the 12  holds an object not unlike the ‘cup-lamps’ in those Latin images shown earlier (e.g. the Corsiana manuscript) and I read it as signifying the hour of dawn,  ‘lighting the Sonne’s return’. It might even be meant for the dawn star, Venus, but I do not insist on it, nor that we see here a flame rather than, say, burning incense.  The object might even be a horn, rather than a small lamp or burner; to decide the issue one would have to see the manuscript itself.

Sources:

Vat gr.1291 has been the subject of much scholarly attention, but most of it has been paid the written part of the text.

Franz Boll described both text and miniatures and although he has been dead for a hundred years, and his work since been emended and many of his guiding theories disproved or disputed, his name should at least be mentioned.   Sources more often cited today include Spatharkis of Leiden University, and Timothy Janz.

 

  • Timothy Janz, ‘The scribes and the date of the Vat.gr.1291’, In Miscellanea Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticanae, Vol X (2003), pp.159-175* and plates. I-V.
  • Ionannis Spatharakis, ‘Some Observations On The Ptolemy Ms. Vat. Gr. 1291: Its Date And The Two Initial Miniatures’,  Byzantinische Zeitschrift 71 (1):41-49 (1978)
  • ______________, Corpus of Dated Illuminated Greek Manuscripts to the Year 1453, Leiden, 1981.
  • ______________, Studies in Byzantine Manuscript Illumination and Iconography (1996 – collected papers)

 

Voynich stars as guiding lights ‘of the hour’.

There is nothing in the image from Vat.gr.1291 or from the illustrations of the ‘wise and foolish maids’ which allows any inference about the content of the Voynich month diagrams or their labels – certainly not enough to justify suggesting the Voynich labels or text derives the content of Vat.gr.1291 or of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis.

There may be a more general, conceptual, link, and for its linguistic basis the first and most obvious possibility is the [Gk.] horae and false (‘folk’) etymologies attaching to it.

Some slight evidence for a link to Ptolemy’s tables is offered by similarities between the style of drawing for unclothed Voynich ‘ladies’ in the bathy section and Gemini’s depiction in Sassoon 823 (UPenn LJS 057), which latter manuscript  I introduced, noted, hunted out and illustrated at Voynichimagery even before UPenn had catalogued it, or put a digitised copy online.

I have since seen the  reference used by one or two Voynicheros, but always without mention of the  analytical commentary, comparative images and conclusions I provided (or any mention of my name).  The same bad practices and the same culprits have so often abused the generosity of those contributing original finds and research to this study since the early 2000s that one reaches a point where it seems pointless to keep feeding the pigeons.  Partly on my own account, and partly in self-imposed solidarity with the numerous others similarly treated I closed voynichimagery in 2017.

For the same reason, I’ll say no more about my own investigation of the Voynich figures as ‘of the hour’, though I will say the answer requires, first, careful investigation of the range of meaning for an ‘hour’ – the answer is not any simple ’12’ or ’12×2′.