Skies above Pt 3: to tail or not to tail?

Two previous:

THIS IS THREE-POST LENGTH;  if your phone overheats, let me know and I’ll repost it in parts.

Précis of previous post.

The ‘star-flower’ motif is seen in only two contexts in the manuscript, and only  in quires whose form sits uneasily with theories of wholly European origin for both form and content.  The stacked quires were surely bound in Latin style and a number of the quires are the usual quarternion, but fold-outs like those in the manuscript are without parallel in Latin medieval works so far as we know, and septentions (as Quire 20 is believed to have been) are normally associated with Arabic-speaking regions.

The question of whether the star-flowers might link text from the month-diagrams to that in Quire 20 can’t be taken further until we know more about a ‘rose’ text-mark noted by Lori J. Walters in a thirteenth century manuscript in Tournai (TOU).  If any Voynich researcher decides to look into it, do remember to let me know.

….. so on that point, at present, the balance of evidence is heavily towards the negative.

Earlier references

. For earlier thoughts about the motif as linking text between the month-diagrams and Quire 20,  readers are referred to the basic sources such as d’Imperio and the first mailing list (see Bibliography page) and whatever else might turn up online.   I expect that Nick Pelling’s book of 2006 (now out of print, and which I do not have by me) paid them attention.  Search ‘Quire 20’ at ciphermysteries to read more.

Note that matter presented only on current forums and mailing lists cannot be cited unless sent to me with permission to quote.


Q: To ‘tail’ or not to ‘tail’?

I’m sure someone, somewhere, might rightly say they were first to muse aloud  that some star-flowers do, and others don’t have a bit of ‘stem’.

However, it was in 2010 that Pelling posted about script and ‘flower-stars’ in Quire 20, mentioning some points directly relevant to what follows:

  1. That Tim Tattrie had noted (i) “that the paragraph stars on f103 and f116 are notable because they don’t seem to have tails”; and (ii)  pointed out that the character which is rendered in EVA transcription as ‘x’ ( illustrated right) appears on every folio of Q20 except the first (f103) and the last (f116)
  2.  Pelling himself noted, in the same post, that these ‘x’ characters often sit next to ‘ar’ and ‘or’ pairs, e.g. arxor / salxor / kedarxy / oxorshey / oxar / shoxar / lxorxoiin, etc.

I will rephrase the question as:-  ‘Was the distinction between ‘tailed’ and ‘un-tailed’  significant for the first enunciator.?  ‘

*first enunciation”:

in terms of iconology describes the point at which a concept was first expressed in a specific form in physical media. Time and dissemination de-contextualise images, changing associated meaning and  contributing various other forms of overlay.  Where possible – and it is not always possible – identifying and separating such layers (‘chronological strata’), to identify a problematic artefact’s time and region of first enunciation re-contextualises it while clarifying issues of transmission, and so directing research towards  appropriate sources for its full explanation.  For such work – the rarer counterpart of textual criticism and more closely related to archaeology than art history – a solid background in comparative historical and cultural studies, technical studies and – above all –  attention to stylistics is recommended.

What follows is the result of independent study of the  star-flower’s occurrence in this manuscript. Only after this post was written were earlier comments on Quire 20 sought.  Any point on which a similar conclusion is reached here, then, should then be taken as supporting, not as supplanting or imitating precedents as e.g. Tim Tattrie’s remarks.



IN those eleven month-diagrams, the star-flower’s ‘tail’ reads well enough as a string or as a stem when it occurs. Adding a stem seems to ‘make sense’ of some sort there, but why  should the scribe trouble to add ‘stem’- strokes in Quire 20?

Why bother?

The ‘tailed’ version appears throughout except at the beginning and end of these ‘sentences’.  There is no tail shown in the first two quires sides of Quire 20 (f.103r and f.103v) and none again from the last few ‘sentences’ near the end (f.116r).  Almost all the rest have them. Almost.

 I  take this pattern of application as indicative of meaning conveyed.

Here’s why – the pros and cons.

If, in Quire 20,  the extra stroke (‘stem’) were only present beside the earlier ‘sentences’ or only found over the first couple of folios before it gave way to the simpler version, with that continuing through to the end of that section, then we might reasonably posit that the scribe tired of having to add the extra stroke, knowing that so many repetitions lay ahead.

In such a case, we might also take it that no objection was raised by others to that simplification  – as for example by a master of the atelier or a person who commissioned the work or  persons who needed to use it.  In other words, we might fairly suppose the ‘tail’ had no significance.

(postscript note) I cannot see reason to suppose the tails added later, as Pelling did, but if his observation should be correct, it is further reason to think – if it does not prove –  distinction between ‘tailed’ and ‘untailed’ significant.

Conversely, if a copyist had began by simplifying the motif but  then started to make it more ‘flower-like’, and continued that form to the end,  we might entertain among other possibilities that these marginal ‘star-flowers’ might only be ornamental, as it were a foretaste of the ornament exemplified here (left) by a detail from the Spinola hours, made about a century after the Vms.

But neither is so.

The simpler form is on the first two sides; then the more ornate continues – only to stop just a few ‘sentences’ short of the end.

Still more curious is that the ‘stem’ is omitted sometimes from a line of generally tailed motifs, even when there is ample space to include it, as in folio 115r (illustrated above, right). Nor is the centre of that exception given a red centre; it hasn’t been overlooked, but consciously ‘minimised’..

(postscript note: It is in that context that Tattrie’s observations about the written text gain added interest, suggesting that the inclusion of the ‘x’ character may have some direct relation to the tailed form. “[Voynich] ‘x’ appears on every folio of Q20 except the first (f103) and the last (f116).”

This correlation may also help put a check on the reflex which leads Voynich writers to dismiss as whimsical or arbitrary any element in the imagery for which a theoretical narrative offers no immediate explanation. Many reflexive excuses for a theory’s failure to explain the primary evidence rely on popular modern ideas about “the artist” and so imagine a greater degree of personal autonomy and personal self-expression for the makers than agrees with what we know of the medieval artisan’s position in his world


Reason and Purpose

It is also best, I find, to begin from a position that a fifteenth-century work is less likely to be any product of eccentric, autonomous artistic self-expression than one produced for a reason and to a practical purpose by persons who were a fairly normal product of their own time and environment: geographical, cultural and intellectual.

It is that context whose traces we seek in the imagery and which is so often ignored when ‘matches’ are adduced from a severely limited range of Latin manuscripts, the style and  character of whose drawings so rarely do  match that of the supposed target.  Happily, the  emblems which now occupy the month-diagrams’ centres are among the few easily legible by graphic conventions of the Mediterranean world.

Nor are we considering a work presented as a cheap notebook on paper – though in Latin Europe those, too, were habitually ruled out before any writing was done – so we must give due weight to the fact that the material was committed to the expensive and durable medium of vellum. It was made to survive; it was made  pocket-book size and these things in turn imply an expectation of subsequent readers and a form appropriate for use outside the scholarly library.  It is made to be durable, and in a form portable and serviceable. Unless we now imagine the first owner intended to destroy it during his or her own lifetime, then it could also be predicted to be used by at least one following generation.

Accepting as initial default, then, that the work is informed by reason and purpose and meant to embody transmissible information, we come to another possibility for the role of these ‘star-flower’ motifs, and their use both in Quire 20 and the series of month- diagrams.  That is, that their connection may not refer to links between the written text in both, after the style of signe de renvoi, but that the motif signifies related subject-matter as such. And in such a case, direct link between written text in those sections need not be posited at all, yet forms of connection might still exist of potential use to the linguists and cryptanalysts.

Let me offer an hypothetical case.  Let’s suppose…


Let us suppose a work whose general theme was the stars visible at a given latitude, month by month.Now, its first section it might have diagrams showing those stars,  in their ranks and order as seen month by month. They might even correlate each star with a particular place as was done, for example, in plates made for an astrolable.

from a late example, made in Lahore. I have shown (in the header) that the sinuous stem and ‘star-flower’ – as sun of night or light in the darkness –  are not incompatible an Indian-Arabic environment.

In another section, then, we suppose the subject is instead the lunar months and the agricultural roster describing each day’s assigned task.

While the stars’ visible progress remains just the same,  some asterisms and stars only are relevant to the second section.  The relevant ones, let’s say, are given a tail in the ‘calendar’ section and  others left without.  The intended reader knew by heart which star or asterism marked a period of the roster and needed no specific text- link to the earlier diagrams at all. Even if those periods might be identified by their stars, they needn’t be named for them.  After all, in the Voynich month-diagrams, the scribe didn’t write ‘Fishes-month’ but ‘March’.

So – in such a case, though without direct textual links, connection would exist in the class of information common to both sections, rather than any single external text or single genre providing a single vocabulary common to both. The parameters of such a search need not be indefinite or infinite; competent analysis of the manuscript’s imagery and the disciplines of their own fields should together assist the linguist and/or cryptographer reduce research parameters to reasonable limits.


a hope unlikely to be realised soon. Over the past century the habit has become ingrained of beginning from an assumption that the most critical questions, such as those concerning content, genre and intent – questions scarcely addressed, let alone answered – have answers known and adopted as ‘givens’. So, in seeking ‘matches’ for the plant-pictures, Voynich writers have traditionally begun by presuming any image intended (but failed) to present a literal portrait of some plant from the European herbal corpus, with the intent therefore presumed medico-pharmaceutical. None of these ‘givens’ is known and all of dubious worth, given the failure over that century to find a place within the Latin herbal corpus for images of the style, range or sophistication of the Voynich plant-pictures.

(Koen Gheuens’ study of the ‘lobster’ motif in late medieval European works is one exception to the presumptive method, albeit limited to Latin works. Marco Ponzi’s meticulous study of medieval herbals is itself a worthwhile contribution to that literature, but whether it may prove directly relevant to the Voynich manuscript is yet to be seen).

How much is overlooked by assuming the usual limits for research may be illustrated by mentioning just one compendium of  360 pages, one of the most important plant-books produced in the medieval western Mediterranean, which ranges “from the most delicate flowers to the sturdiest of trees, from staple vegetables to luxury plants”..

I don’t say that the Kitāb al-filāḥa has never been mentioned,  but if ever mentioned was thereafter ignored. Theory-driven perceptions may be held, yet again, responsible. .

N.B. My hypothetical ‘star-related’ text is no more than an illustration; my reference to the astrolabe and to the Filāḥa similarly.  None is to be taken as sign of  ‘Voynich theory’.

Turning to the month-diagrams,

For the rest of this series, I’ll refer to the eleven diagrams by their inscribed month-names, with (1) or (2) added to distinguish names appearing twice .  That is, as ‘March’ or as April (1) etc.

I do this because the usual terminology is another relic.

Even if it should prove true, after investigation, that the emblems were meant to depict a type of zodiac, and that the diagrams were designed to serve astrology and that the informing language were French, German, Latin (or any other), the traditional method and terms are no product of preliminary investigation.  Post-hoc ‘matches’, sought as they are within limits assuming past speculations  fact  have no better basis and thus constantly fail to explain the primary evidence; they explain  the theory.  Not even two hundred examples of Aries as a sheep from Latin manuscript art constitutes proof that the Voynich ‘April’ emblems show sheep, or were intended as symbol for Aries, whether as astrological sign or as constellation.  The revisionist cannot treat the question, ‘What else could they be?’ as rhetorical.


Example: the Crossbowman

The first question in such cases is  what significance the figure had within the context it was made and even if we begin with central Europe,  anomalies appear.  Take for example, the ‘December’ diagram, whose centre shows a crossbowman who appears to be cocking his weapon without use of the stirrup or any other aid. In my opinion, what we are seeing is a double roll-nut used in a relatively light-weight bow, made of wood.  Of this type we have no physical example extant earlier than those made for Spanish marines in c.1510.  But I’ll go into more detail about that later in the series.  The usual interpretation of the figure, today, is that it represents Sagittarius.

Yet within central Europe (England, France and Germany) it was not the custom to identify December with Sagittarius.  November was Sagittarius’ month in those medieval calendars.

That discrepancy is rarely addressed when ‘matches’ are offered, such ‘matches’ being quite routinely presented without reference made to the associated month in the comparison – and usually central European – manuscript. Should the point  arise, it has been a natural and instinctive response to blame the ‘artist’ or the hand which wrote the later inscription,  as if it were some flaw in them that the theory-driven comparison was inexact. Such exceptions as occur in the Latin works are adduced without reference to style of drawing, or the wider context of the ‘December’ diagram.

Nor has any study established that the emblems – or indeed the diagrams as a whole – have any connection to astrology or that the series is derived from ideas about the tropical zodiac.  These things ‘everyone knows’ are things no-one actually knows at all. They may or not prove correct, but they are without proof so far.

Even in a specifically European setting and even, within that, in in a specifically astrological context,  a crossbowman may be associated with Leo or – more exactly, Leo’s third decan.

The illustration (above, left) from the Jagelonian Picatix.

(Like Leo, the crossbowman  and the devil in Christian literature-  ‘roams about, seeking what he may devour’).

Understanding what was implied by a given ‘crossbowman’ figure in the imagination of the ordinary population in medieval Europe is often clarified by such sources as the ‘poor man’s book’ – the pack of cards – after c.1377.

The earliest examples of these images on card are hand- painted; in effect single, miniature ‘illuminations’. Sets of printed cards soon appeared, though,  and proved the fortune (in every sense) of the fledgling printing industry.

Employed to assist education, for gambling, and as a spur to elegant word-play, as for fortune-telling, the new ‘joc’ passed from Spain through Italy to Germany within a few years of our earliest mention of cards in Europe in the later fourteenth century. Printers were thus initially speaking directly to the general perception – the common visual language – of contemporary Europe, appealing to ‘what everyone knew’ in terms of educational level,  popular lore, beliefs and prejudices, and across linguistic and social boundaries.

Printers might then re-use those blocks  as ready-made images to illustrate other texts or cut one down for some detail in it. Printing thus soon divorced imagery from specific text and the dedicated meaning an image had within earlier manuscript art.

But already in the early-to-mid fifteenth century, the crossbowman figure had resonance, as we say, throughout Latin Europe.  Contemporaries saw more than some generic ‘man with crossbow’, for in general apprehensions the type carried overtones of evil incarnate, the type of the relentless and remorseless hunter not only of animals, but of men, and even of souls.  In the extreme, that character coincided with Sagittarius’ character as it had been in some traditions.  A treacherous constellation, against the raising of whose bow’s seamen were warned to remain in harbour ‘under cover’.

Shown (right) a crossbowman on a card dated to the early fifteenth century and probably made in Italy though found in an old chest, in Spain.

In my opinion, this figure was designed as allusion to Juan I (‘el Cazador’) of Aragon, an inveterate hunter of animals and persecutor of the Jews.  Because a Christian folk-legend (‘the wandering Jew’), saw parallels constantly made between  migratory birds and the supposedly transient  Jews, images of this time repeatedly connect the crossbowman to birds and often to specific metaphors for the Jews such as owls or red-headed cranes.  By the time that image was made, cards had been known to Italy for about forty years or so.  It has another astronomical reference, too, and one of great antiquity, but no need to pursue that now.

However, and again from Italy and from about the same time, a second theme is disseminated which associates the bowman, and  hunting, with health.

Imagery of that sort emerges in the context of the Tacuinum sanitatis, where the bowman (and in some cases, the crossbowman) is pictured under the heading ‘East Wind’ and associated with Aries, Taurus and Gemini.  Hunting with hounds is simply listed among healthful ‘activities’ and not in connection with any month in particular.

detail from a copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. (ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644)


By the middle of the fifteenth century, and now in Germany, the crossbowman is envisaged in the form of a full-time mercenary (right), an Hungarian of Matthias’ Corvinus’ Black Army (Hungarian: Fekete sereg).

Once again, any link to the zodiac is either irrelevant to, or ancillary to the image and its intended use.

If we now add, to other reasons for saying that revisionist study is called for,  those items which become prominent only when the emblems are re-contextualised within their diagrams, we have the fact that ‘matches’ from Latin works have yet to be found for  tiered figures in ‘barrels’ like those on folio 70v, or for April creatures depicted in the way  Latin custom has “goat”, not “sheep”.  Ever more points at which the theoretical model fails to explain the evidence become apparent.

While an image such as that shown ( left) certainly suggests that if a Latin wished to bathe indoors, he did so in a tub – who didn’t?- it explains nothing of the reason the Voynich images are so differently drawn, show chiefly female figures, or why so many more hold ‘star-flowers’ in folio 70v than in any other.  Is ‘tub’ or ‘barrel’ the word realised in the Voynich images: that is, was it the concept given first enunciation in these folios?

Linguistic and graphic expression were two sides of a single coin in pre-modern times (and setting aside the literalism of the post 1440s).  Why should “March” be associated with those forms?

The maker surely knew; it is not beyond possiblity that we may come to know. Not though conjecture, speculation, hypothesising or imagining but by learning to see, and think, outside the frame of a post-industrial mindset. Historians are supposed to.

If. in adopting the month-names to describe the eleven diagrams, I err, it is at least an error for which the manuscript provides precedent.


Fear of the Unknown and raft ‘Elegant’. Pt 2 – the white wall

Two previous

Header illustration:  Dehoij – Willem van de Velde ‘Sketching a Sea Battle’ [1845]

Any, or all of the Friedmans’ three premises might  be proven true one day.  But they weren’t in 1912, nor during the 1940s, and they haven’t been proven true yet.

In most fields of study, the misconceptions of sixty years ago have been superseded, but this is not the case in ‘Voynich studies’.

Since the late 1990s, and the closure of the first mailing list, the study has seen a catastrophic shift in emphasis from collaborative enquiry into a fifteenth-century object, to what Pelling once astutely described as a ‘Theory War’.

While not every researcher devotes their energies  to finding items in support of a particular theory, the majority now do.  The theories for which that circumstantial support is hunted are speculations derived from the earlier speculations by Wilfrid Voynich, William Romaine Newbold, the  Friedmans and/or Hugh O’Neill with the most widely disseminated – the most narrowly Eurocentic – theory being  the most dependent on them for its ‘givens’.

Because the earlier narratives were affected by ideas and assumptions characteristic of the late nineteenth- and earlier twentieth centuries about the nature of medieval thought and society, so now the usual type of speculative narrative (deemed ‘theory’) brings many outmoded ideas into the present time.

Until now, linguists and statistical analysts have stood apart from the theory-war’ but should any develop attachment to one or another of the hypothetical narratives or – on the other hand – produce results which present blank opposition to some widely held theory, this neutral territory could become as fraught with antagonisms as other aspects of the study now are.

With growth of theory-war mentality – especially noticeable after 2004 –   study of Beinecke MS 408 for its own sake has gradually become a sideline; for the most theory-driven the manuscript is just one of numerous sources to be mined for details that can, given compatible interpretation,  adorn the hypothetical narrative to give it the appearance of being more solid.  To observe that a given detail may  have been interpreted wrongly is to provoke nothing but hostility from those whose theoretical narrative is  well served by the error.   Indeed, many show every sign of preferring the virtual manuscript of their own invention to the problematic original, and some will go so far as to suggest the manuscript can be understood by none but hypothetical means.  To discuss or debate this last point was forbidden by executive order at, discussion of methodologies deemed ‘inappropriate’ for the study of a medieval manuscript.  No – I’m not kidding. The forum manager felt – probably rightly – that it would cause too much friction.

It is not only members of the larger theory groups who become enraged when confronted with a failure to adopt their preferred theory.    In the following passage,  leaders of a ‘New World’ theory become incoherent with rage for the same reason.  I would point out that one of the authors, Jules Janick, has a well-deserved reputation for his studies in the history of botany and its illustration.  None that I’ve read demand the reader ‘believe or else’ but  when that ‘Voynich hat’ is on his head, Janick is indistinguishable from the most vicious determined promoters of theories opposed to his own, though I concur with the idea that to defend a theory in despite of contrary evidence is behaviour better suited to fanatics than to scholars.    He and Tucker write:

Jules Janick, Arthur O. Tucker, Unravelling the Voynich Codex p.346

In addition to the fact that Janick and Tucker must know perfectly well that credit for the ‘hoax’ theory is not due to ‘bloggers’ but to Rich Santacoloma (a very civil theorist who does not render those of different opinions faceless), the way Janick and Tucker employ the term  “iconographic analysis” is not justified by the content of their book.  In it, I find no sign that either author understands what the discipline involves in terms of either method or range of expected sources – and no more do the ‘Eurocentic’ theory-groups whose members use it to describe any effort of any sort made to name the subject of an image.

To discuss and address issues of terminology and methodology is impossible in the current atmosphere of ‘theory-war’ just as it has become impossible to invite discussion of possible implications of the manuscript’s  including various Asian forms and conventions (see ‘details’ below). One might wish a return to reason and egalitarian attitudes were possible but I cannot envision it will be in the near future. Too much time, effort and ‘face’ has been invested in successful promotion of the various speculative-hypothetical stories.

upper – detail from folio 67v lower – detail from f.85r (drawn on the back of the Voynich map)


These are just two of numerous instances where the manuscript’s imagery includes motifs, details and stylistic habits characteristic of hither or further Asia.

As to the ‘white wall’ idea reflected in popular histories of the earlier twentieth century – little of it is found today in serious historical writing.  In fact, just a year after Friedman interviewed Erwin Panofsky, a first paper on the subject of Asian and other foreign peoples within Latin Europe was published in Speculum – the same journal which had finally decided to publish O’Neill’s 300 word ‘note’.  The latter sparked another Voynich narrative; the former failed to see any widening of the NSA’s research parameters.

  • Iris Origo, ‘The Domestic Enemy: The Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’,  Speculum, Vol.30 (1955) pp. 321-66

Origo cites, for example, via Robert Davidsohn, the complaint made by a twelfth-century Pisan monk about the number and variety of foreigners in his city during the annual Great Fair, speaking of:

  “Turks and Lybians [Libyans] and Parths and Chaldeans, and similar monsters emerging from the sea.” 

In the same century, Benjamin of Tudela described those to be seen in the city of Montpellier:

… Har Gaash which is called Montpellier. This is a place well situated for commerce.  It is about a parasang from the sea, and men come for business there from all quarters, from Edom, Ishmael [Yemen?], the land of  Algarve , Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the Great (by which he means all the Byzantine empire), from all the  land of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, France, Asia and England. People of all nations are found there doing business through the medium  of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are scholars of great eminence, at their head being R. Reuben,, …. They have among them houses of learning devoted to the study of the Talmud.

From those many temporary or shorter-resident foreigners, we move in the fourteenth century to greater number of permanent ones, beginning with  the decree issued by the Priors of Florence on March 2nd., 1363, which permitted “the unlimited importation of foreign slaves of either sex – provided only that they were infidels, not Christians”.

A slave should not be presumed illiterate, ill-bred or uncultured.  Slaves included free persons enslaved, whether by capture in war, by abduction or by deliberate sale to the slavers.   Mamluk Egypt was the major buyer, and Arab slavers the major supplier within the African continent, but the European Knights Hospitaller in Crete and the Genoese were the next most important figures in the medieval trade.   So alarmed did the Mongol rulers of the north become at the draining of their own potential armies by the loss of women and children that they banned the trade – or rather, attempted to do so.

Thus the plain fact of history is that the strange-looking matter in the Voynich manuscript could – for all we know – have come first into Latin horizons with an Asian woman as easily as a Latin man.  The ‘white wall’ idea is now nearly seventy years out of date at least, yet for theorists attached to narratives originating in the ideas of that time, assumptions and bias implicit in Wilfrid’s narrative, in the Friedman’s  parameters for research and thus in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma remains current thinking.   When one can be publicly admonished by a ‘Eurocentric’ on the grounds that, by asking whether we haven’t placed too much reliance on the Mnishovsky rumour, one deserves censure for having ‘spoken disrespectfully of a member of the nobility’, then one can only imagine the offense likely to be taken if one suggests Rudolf might have paid six hundred ducats for the writings of a Mongol slave.

Of course, it wasn’t only the slaves who knew something of Asia by the late 1300s.  In the Upper church of St. Francis of Assisi, a manuscript is depicted in the style of a western codex and with inscriptions intended for the  recently-invented  Phagspa script.   Tanaka wrote the seminal paper on this matter,  to which I referred when explaining for Voynicheros the historical context for the manuscript’s final phase of development before c.1400.   The information was received in silence.

Sources recommended in those posts to voynichimagery.

  • Hidemichi Tanaka, ‘The Mongolian script in Giotto’s paintings at the Scrovegni Chapel at Padova’,  Akten des XXV. Internationalen Kongresses fur Kunstgeschichte Pt.6 (1986) pp.167-74. or:
  • Hidemichi Tanaka, “Giotto and the Influences of the Mongols and the Chinese on His Art: A New Analysis of the Legend of St. Francis and the Fresco Paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel”, in: Bijutsu  shigaku [Art History] (Sendai), VI (1984),
  • D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Chronological strata ~ Avignon 1300s’, voynichimagery, (February 6th, 2015).
    • __________________, ‘On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean’, (October 31st, 2016).
  • Roxanne Pranzniac, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 177-217.

but see  also

  • Hidemichi Tanaka,, Oriental scripts in the paintings of Giotto’s period” – Extrait de la Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Mai-Juin 1989 pp. 214-224 .
  • Vera-Simone Schulz, ‘From Letter to Line: Artistic Experiments with Pseudo-Script in Late Medieval Italian Painting, Preliminary Remarks’ in Marzia Faietti and Gerhard Wolf (eds.), The Power of Line (2015) pp.144-161.


I also see that a wiki article has been written during the past couple of years.

note (22nd April 2019) – on second reading I found that wiki article so bad as to be objectionable and have removed the link.  Readers will get a less skewed idea of the degree of intercourse between Asia and Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by reading the primary sources in Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, [4 vols]which can be read through the internet archive (vol. 1 linked) or  the excerpts reprinted with commentary on the  Silk Road Seattle site.



Postscript (4th April 2019) – in the current theory-driven atmosphere, it occurs to me that I should say plainly that by noting Asian elements in the imagery, or pointing out that the old   ‘white wall Europe’ idea is contradicted by the facts, I am not announcing allegiance to any existing theory, nor the advent of a new one.   If I have any ‘theory’ it is that the manuscript would be better served by more sober methods than theory creation.

April 5th – in response to readers’ comments I have added a couple of phrases, to clarify (i) that I do not mean to imply the forum manager responsible for this problem, which predates the establishment of and (ii) that an the ‘theory war’ includes (and could be argued to have begun with) those maintaining the theoretical history which is so often repeated today.


Next post:  Santacoloma’s instinct re forgery.

Notes on Panofsky’s comments 3 – hesitations

Header Illustration: (left) detail from Bodleian Library MS Marsh 144  p.211 11thC ; (centre) detail from Sassoon MS 823 / UPenn LJS 057 Catalonia 1361 AD; (right) detail from Beinecke MS 408.

Two previous


Notes 2, 3 & 4: dating and provenancing ‘shapely ladies’

second edition, edited and updated  – 15th. Feb. 2019

Anne Nill?  detail (reversed) from a photo posted at No source given.

Anne Nill wrote:

[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky]  became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century2  … but as he came to the female figures3 in connection with the colours used in the manuscript4  he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!

*’colours’ – he was first shown worn black-and-white negative copies.

“13thC? …..15th? …. 

Anne Nill conflates a question about dating manufacture (‘range of colours’), with one about dating content ( ‘shapely ladies’)  though it’s true that both together had caused Panofsky’s hesitation.

Eight decades on, the revisionist can consider each item separately and  Panofsky’s original judgement appears justified on both counts: manufacture, 15thC;  matter gained from older sources.  Some of those sources may indeed have been thirteenth-century.



‘Colours’ – The manuscript’s Palette:

detail from: Bexur, Driscoll, Lemay, Mysak, Stenger and Zyats, ‘Physical Findings’ in the Yale facsimile edition pp.23-37. original caption slightly edited but not altered.

Panofsky’s first dating manufacture of the manuscript to ‘not earlier than the fifteenth century’ would eventually become the consensus among persons whose work was in evaluating manuscripts.  By the early 1960s, as d’Imperio recorded:

“Helmut Lehmann-Haupt..stated in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November 1963 that “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400”.

Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8*

*note – typographic error in the original. Properly –  ‘Hellmut…’. [note added 26 April 2019]

These unnamed specialists, and Panofsky before them, were validated finally in 2011 by the vellum’s radiocarbon range : 1404-1438.

I’ll leave the subject of pigments for a later post, where I’ll compare Panofsky’s statement with Dr. Carter’s descriptive list of the palette  (recorded by d’Imperio), and by reference to a scientific study which was included in the Yale facsimile edition. Since the 1930s, and indeed since 1954 –  we have developed more precise techniques for analysis and identification.



Comment – Shapely figures

Panofsky was quite right to say that ‘shapely’ women (whom we’ll define by their swelled bellies) would not become a Latin fashion until the fifteenth century, but with more medieval manuscripts known today, we can say his original opinion may not have needed second-thoughts on this account, for research into the imagery in Spanish-and-Jewish manuscripts indicates that the form does occur there earlier, though interestingly only to represent metaphorical or allegorical ‘bodies’.  The closest comparison  found so far – since we must take  both stylistics and apparent subject into account  – is the ‘Gemini’ in MS Sassoon 823 (now: UPenn MS LJS 057).  The remarkably close similarity suggests a need to revise much of what has been generally assumed about the Voynich ‘ladies’.

(detail) f.77r

As our header shows, the ‘swelled belly’ emerged as an effort to imitate drawings in the first (pre-Ulugh Beg)  illustrations found in copies of al-Sufi’s Book of the Constellations. Those images in turn had reflected the traditions of  pre-Islamic peoples, including but not limited to, those of the Greeks and Romans. The rounded belly was most characteristic of an Indo-Persian style and we must consider that the works of al-Biruni may have had some part to play in  first formulation of the drawings illustrating al-Sufi’s tenth-century composition.

That remains to be seen.  However, the header for this post illustrates the progression of the style; the left panel shows a detail from  the ‘Gemini’ in an eleventh-century Iraqi copy of al-Sufi’s text; the centre shows the Gemini from MS Sassoon 823, whose content is a compilation of astronomical works, out together in 1361 in Catalonia, and the third panel is from another compilation, in a manuscript made (as we know) during the early decades of the fifteenth century.

The fourteenth-century Catalonian-Jewish figure has more in common with the Voynich manuscript’s unclothed figures than just the quirk which sees many of the bellies given a slightly-angular form.

They also have in common their curiously-formed ankles, flat feet and boneless-looking arms –  none of which elements appear in extant Islamic copies of al-Sufi’s constellation-illustrations, and none of which mars the later, more literal, fifteenth century ‘shapely women’ of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art.

There are differences evident, too.  A majority of the Voynich figures have heads disproportionately large, as the Catalonian figure does not.  More importantly (because even rarer ) many are drawn with overly large thighs in combination with bone-thin shanks, something shown most clearly in the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ sub-section, and which again is present neither in the Catalonian figure, nor in any remaining copies of al-Sufi’s work of which I’m aware.

That stylistic habit is not absolutely unknown, though  since it speaks more to the route by which the material had reached the west than our present subject, I leave it aside.

On the matter of proportions, which topic I’d brought forward quite early for its significance, the general indifference saw it ignored at that time, but more recently we have had a  lucid ‘revisionist’ post on the subject by Koen Gheuens, which I recommend:

. . . . . . . . . .

the chief point to be taken from this is that Panofsky’s judgement of ‘southern and Jewish’ content again finds support in the style of that drawing in a manuscript  predating the Voynich manuscript’s manufacture by at least forty years, and perhaps as much as sixty.

The possibility that its precedents could date from as early as the  the reign of Alfonso X (1254-1282) relies on the context in which the Sassoon ‘Gemini’ occurs, for even in Sassoon 823 its style of drawing stands apart.  To clarify, I rely on a paper by Fischer, Langermann and Kunitzsch, describing in detail the sections comprising the compilation of Sassoon 823/LJS 057.   The optional Preface clarifies another ‘ground hog day’ issue but skipping it will not lose anything from the main topic.



Optional preface: History of Sassoon 823/LJS 057 in Voynich studies.

I came across a notice of sale and acquisition for MS Sassoon 823 in 2011 in the course of my principal (non-Voynich-related) research.

Its description contained a greater-than-usual number of points in common with the Voynich manuscript – though at that time I was still the only person in the second mailing list to hold that Beinecke MS 408 was also a compilation from several earlier sources. (Today, I daresay, most would claim it general knowledge, and some would assert having known it all along.  Perhaps, if so, they might have lent a word of support at the time.)  Hunting more details of the manuscript, I had only an abstract of the article by  Fischer when I posted a note (in my old blogger blog, Findings) on Nov. 21st., 2011, listing the features I considered it had in common with the Voynich manuscript.  (At the time, a couple of the ‘German’ theorists were disputing use of the term ‘vellum’ and claiming the material could just as easily be described as German parchment.. which isn’t so, but they’ve come right on that matter since.)

A codex – probably fourteenth century – from the Iberian peninsula or thereabouts (Ceuta?) contains illustrations with human figures drawn short, and with distended bellies. One of these illustrations (for Gemini) is shown on p.288 of the article cited below.   That same article, written in 1988, provides the few details about the ms…

Article: Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch and Y. Tzvi Langermann, “The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS. Sassoon 823” The Jewish Quarterly Review , New Series, Vol. 78, No. 3/4 (Jan. – Apr., 1988), pp. 253-292

which says that the ms in question is:
*Inscribed in an ‘early’ Spanish hand.

*A florilegium – i.e. a collection of extracts.
*Vellum (?) rather than parchment.
*Total number of pages is greater than the Vms… but
*quires are also 8 pages each.


There is also apparently a  book [which could be an intro. plus facsimile, at 292 pages]: Karl Adolf Franz Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch, Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann, The Hebrew astronomical codex ms. Sassoon 823, Center for advanced Judaic studies, University of Pennsylvania, (1994) – 292 pages.

As you’ll see, some of those details were mistaken: the provenance is now established as Catalonia and the library presently holding it is clear about the date: 1361.

The next year, still unable to get hold of a copy of the larger study, and with the manuscript not (yet) online, I put out the word again –  through my still-fairly-new wordpress blog, voynichimagery (‘Curiosities’, Friday, Nov.2nd., 2012)

Still no response from any of the thousand or so who read that post.

By  2013, I was about to give it up, but because I had not found anywhere a drawing so like in both form and style to the Voynich ‘ladies’ as the Sassoon manuscript’s ‘Gemini’, I followed that manuscript’s progress after its purchase by the University of Pennyslvania (where it would be re-classified  Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, MS 057).

By 2013 I was also frustrated that no other Voynich researcher had yet investigated exactly where and when ‘swelled belly’ figures begin appearing in Europe’s Latin (western Christian) art, so I set out to investigate both topics in parallel and in earnest.  I acquired a photocopy of Sassoon 823/LJS 057… which was later digitised by UPenn.

Some of my research and results I shared in the context of posts about Beinecke MS 408, published at voynichimagery through 2013-2014.  Two, for example, are:

  • D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The ‘beastly’ Lombardy Herbal Pt1 – female forms’ (22nd July 2013); and then (e.g.)
  • __________________,   ‘ Talking about art and codicology’, 26th October 2014).

I referenced the paper of 1988 which I’d first read in 2011 – and from which I quote again further below.

  • Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch, Tzvi Langermann, ‘The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS Sassoon 823’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXVIII, Nos. 3-4 (January-April, 1988) 253-292.

The most important discovery, in my opinion, was that the Sassoon ‘Gemini’ served as support not only for Panofsky’s location and character for the Voynich manuscript, but also for my own conclusions (published as early as 2011) that it is not only the ‘ladies’ in the calendar’s tiers, but all of them (and associated males) which were intended for celestial/immaterial ‘bodies’/souls.  To some extent, Nick Pelling (among others?) had sensed something of this in calling the figures “nymphs” – but it was also understood or intuited as early as 1921, by Professor Romaine Newbold, albeit he had interpreted that idea within the terms of  late-classical  neoPlatonist philosophy, rather than those of pragmatic astronomies.  (Some years later, Koen Gheuens would do something of the same, but in terms of the Latin mainstream and its standard texts: For the record, my own view is that we are seeing an older, more pragmatic tradition whose closest ‘cousins’ in the western Mediterranean are those of the navigator and chart-maker, whose terrestrial and celestial grids are constantly superimposed on one another.  However…

Having followed the trail of Sassoon 823 after its sale, corresponded with the new owner, written about it in posts (which were then still online and with the blog’s ranking, highly likely to turn up on any search),  I was disappointed to see that Darren Worley failed to refer to the precedent when, in 2017, he left a comment at Stephen Bax’ site announcing  the existence of Sassoon 823/LJS 057 in a way suggesting it a newly idea within the study.

At that time I  had a manuscript – a set of twelve essays – in the last stages of preparation for publication at that time;  and since academic editors do prefer no doubt should exist about the originality of work they have commissioned,  I asked Darren to acknowledge the precedent for form’s sake.  He did not.   No-one wants to be put in the position of being asked, in effect, why if their work is original, the same material is now seen everywhere (including and wikipedia) with not a mention of one’s own name as the first to have contributed the research, conclusions or insight.

Given that this relatively minor incident was only one of the great many similar – and worse instances that I’d had to deal with over almost a decade, I had no option but to stop sharing original material online, and to close voynichimagery from the public  – which I did soon after.  The issue has nothing to do with money, or copyright; it has to do with transparency and the honest mapping of the subject’s development over time.  (see the ‘About’ page)

On a brighter note, Worley’s comment itself had value.  I recommend it for his observation about the  quire signatures which I have not seen made before.


  The TEXTS IN MS SASSOON 823 AND THEIR PICTURES: Bar Hiyya, al-Sufi and anonymous. NON-LATIN LINEAGE.

Sassoon 823/LJS 057 was made almost forty years earlier than the posited ‘1400’, and fully half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made.

Whether Panofsky was right or not in first attributing the content in Beinecke MS 408 to the thirteenth century, its ‘swelled-belly’ figures offer no objection to a ‘southern and Jewish’ character ‘with Arabic influences’  – for that is precisely how the manuscript is described which offers our closest-known comparison for the unclothed  Voynich ‘ladies’.

Of the astronomical drawings in Sassoon 823, Fisher comment:

 the figures found in the Sassoon manuscript cannot have been copied from a manuscript of the Sufi latinus corpus, and equally not from an Islamic celestial globe. The only remaining possibility is that they were selected and copied from an Arabic manuscript of al-Sufi’s treatise.”

The text accompanying the Gemini figure (p.225) comes from an unnamed source, and the ‘Gemini’ image itself is not drawn in a way closely akin to any other, even in that manuscript.

The content in pages 195-228 is  described altogether as  “Astronomical Tables by Abraham bar Hiyya and others” and  In bold letters at the top of page 195 is written:  “From here onwards, from the Jerusalem Tables of the Nasi’  R. Hiyya the Spaniard, of blessed memory”

Kunitzsch adding his comment:

‘I know of no medieval astronomer by that name; however, the Nasi’ R. Abraham bar Hiyya is, of course, very well known, and in fact the tables in this entry up to page 214 are indeed his tables. On the other hand, I know of no other reference to Bar Hiyya’s tables as the “Jerusalem Tables.” … 

The ‘Gemini’ image (p.225) belongs to the additional, anonymous, material occupying pp. 215-28  which “deals mainly with astrology. Some of these tables are found in at least two other manuscripts which contain Bar Hiyya’s tables: Chicago, Newberry Library Or. 101, and Vatican Heb. 393.   Other items are unique to our manuscript…

ibid. p.272.

Chicago, Newberry Library Heb.MS 2 (unfoliated)

The ‘Gemini’ image may then have been brought into the Sassoon compendium with its anonymous(?) tables, not designed by Bar Hiyya but  found with his in at least two other manuscripts.   What is not known is how early the sources were joined – nor where – though ultimately the ‘Gemini’ (which we accept as deriving from an Arabic manuscript copy of al-Sufi’s ‘Book of the Constellations’ ) has to derive from the versions made before the time of Ulugh Beg, after which Gemini is differently represented.

Bar Hiyya  was known to the Latins as Abraham Judeus, and was born  three generations after al-Sufi’s death. (Al-Sufi  903-986; Bar Hiyya 1065—1136 AD).

Those manuscripts cited as containing the same tables, together with Bar Hiyya’s are not both presently accessible online, and Vatican Ebr.393 (1497 AD) though  digitised contains contains no constellation drawings. (Catalogue entry here.)  The Newberry Library informs me that the article by Fischer is mistaken. They have no ‘MS Or.101’, but they do have Heb.MS 2, whose content appears to be as described in that article. There are no constellation drawings in this copy.  At right, a reduced copy of one of the images very kindly sent me by the library.

Sidenote – ‘Jerusalem’.   David King demonstrated that in al-Andalus some at least had knowledge of Jerusalem latitudes;  an astrolabe  dated c.1300 has all its inscriptions save one in Arabic, the exception transliterating into Hebrew script the Arabic ” لعرض بیت المقدس لب li-ʿarḍ Bayti ‘l-Maqdis lām bā’” –  “for the latitude of Jerusalem, 32°”.

  • Abu Zayed & King & Schmidl, “From a heavenly Arabic poem to an enigmatic Judaeo-Arabic astrolabe” (2011), crediting  the Khalili Collection, London for the image.
  • David A. King, ‘Astronomy in medieval Jerusalem’ (Pt.2), revised and shortened 2018, available through

On Stephen Bax’ site (now in other hands) you will find various comments referring to Spain and to Spanish manuscripts, the work (chiefly by Darren Worley and Marco Ponzi) reviving and expanding the long-neglected opinion of  Panofsky, and later variation in Fr.Theodore Petersen’s work.

Checking the files of Reeds’ mailing list is always worthwhile; and I’d also suggest searching Nick Pelling’s long-running blog, ciphermysteries.   Running a search there before pursuing a ‘new line’ too far can often save you much time and effort – because even if Pelling has not looked at the subject himself, he may well mention that another researcher did.

A revisionist will want to revise past ideas and efforts, but it is always as well to begin by knowing what those were.

With regard to the ‘shapely ladies’ in Beinecke MS 408,  I should mention that the opinion of Fischer et. al. appears to preclude any close connection between them and the ‘23 12 virgins’ which appear in a 9thC Byzantine diagram within Vat.Lat. gr. 1291.[Vatican City, Lateran Palace collection, Greek ms 1291]. The comparison has often – in fact continually – been re-produced since 2001 though without any effort to produce a formal argument, so far as I can discover.   It would appear to have been introduced to the study by Dana Scott in a post to Reeds’ mailing list (Mon. 12th. Feb. 2001), because ten days later (Thurs, 22nd. Feb 2001) Adam McLean refers to the diagram as if only recently mentioned.  The point remains a little uncertain because link to the image which Dana attached and labelled ‘Ptolemy’ no longer works.

an overlooked typo corrected, with apologies to readers, on Nov.23rd., 2019.



Note: Swelled bellies in fourteenth century Bohemia.

Probably irrelevant to Beinecke MS 408,  I include this for the Voynicheros fascinated by Rudolf and his world.

The same essay continues:

To which globe are the (hemisphere) illustrations in the Sassoon manuscript most closely related? The answer is probably the globe of the King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus II (or III ?), which is now kept in Bernkastel-Kues and was first described by Hartmann.

The Spanish origin of the star catalogue in Sassoon 823 has already been established in Part I of this article (i.e. by Fischer, Kunitzsch and Langermann), .

Since the star illustrations in the Sassoon manuscript are similar to both Vienna codex 5318 [not digitised] which is considered to belong to the same family as Catania 87 [not found online] and the two hemispheres on pp. 112-13 of Vienna Codex 5415 [see Warburg database], and since both of these Latin manuscripts now located at Vienna originate from Prague, one ought to consider the possibility of Spanish influence on the manuscripts executed at Prague.

In the middle ages there were relations between the royal courts at Prague and Castile. The father of the present writer conducted research in Spanish archives before the civil war in that country which were destroyed in that conflict. He found there that the first known astronomer in Prague was sent as a “gift” by King Alfonso of Castille to Premysl Ottakar II King of Bohemia. … Previous scholars have frequently noted that Prague was the place of origin of many astronomical atlases.

 ibid. p.284

(Premysl Ottokar II was King of Bohemia 1253 -1278;  – D)

The Bohemian line of development shows an absence of some characteristics shared by the Voynich figures and those in Sassoon 823. Nor does the Voynich calendar show Gemini in this form But for the ‘ladies’ in the Vms’ bathy-section and for some of the surrounding figures in the calendar, we may suggest as one explanation, common emergence from that earlier, non-Latin al-Sufi textual tradition current in Spain,  the Bohemian works having been gained by second-hand exposure to them.  Of three examples illustrated by Fischer in another paper, it is only that  dated c.1350 which distinguishes the female figure by small, high breasts and none shows similar style for the limbs and hair as we see in the Sassoon manuscript.


Another section Sassoon 823 (pp. 25-29) contains extracts from Abraham Ibn Ezra’s astrological works – interesting in view of our earlier reference to the Voynich calendar’s month-names and their orthography.

Ibn Ezra, who also translated Ibn al-Muthanna’s commentary on the tables of al-Khwarizmi,  is recorded – in the Parma version –  as saying “The tables in the Almagest are useless”

  • above quoted from p.255 of Fisher, ‘Hebrew Astronomical Codex….’

and just to show that the eastern ‘swelled belly’ was often difficult for Latins to interpret, here’s what was made of it c.1300 by a draughtsman in Paris: the belly becomes a rib-cage, twisted sideways.



Prague 1350 AD



Few heeded the distinction between dates of composition and those of manufacture

The point is that this distinction between dates for manufacture and for content, when considered in concert with other items of evidence, (some of which have already been mentioned in these posts) obliges us to take seriously the possibility that our manuscript is a fifteenth-century copy of material gained from sources which may date to the thirteenth century – or earlier.

This is something which had been suggested even while the cryptanalysts were involved, half a century ago. In 1969 Tiltman seems to attribute to both Panofsky and the keeper of manuscripts his saying:

… the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

Quotation above from [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘(1968).



Other than John Tiltman, the record of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma shows that the cryptanalysts around William Friedman evince a lack of regard for opinions of specialists in their own subjects.  Friedman is recorded complaining of the ‘naivety’ of university men and his behaviour towards Newbold and towards Panofsky reinforces this impression.

That curious indifference may be due partly to the diversity of those opinions, partly to individual bias, and in the case of Erwin Panofsky partly his uncooperative response in 1954, but more than those – so it appears to me – was the dichotomy presented by those opinions versus the cryptanalysts’ confidence that they had a role, and an important role, to play in the manuscript’s study.

Had they accepted the opinion of early fifteenth century date, they would have had to abandon their fixed belief that the written part of the text was ciphertext – one so resistant to their cryptological attacks  that they must presume it the invention of a highly sophisticated Latin, one having access to techniques not attested until the …  late fifteenth century…  early sixteenth century…   late sixteenth century… early seventeenth century…

Marcus Marci’s reporting the Rudolf-rumour had one clear benefit for this study. It set a definite limit on such rovings. Rudolf’s death occured in 1621.

Today, the ‘cipher-or-language… or other’ question remains unresolved, but the date for manufacture is set within narrow limits and obliges us to date the content, therefore, before that period 1404-1438.

And the content, like the ‘shapely ladies’ may derive from sources considerably earlier – as two of those specialists had pointed out.

In sum: Panofsky dated the pigments – and hence manufacture – in the fifteenth century.  He was right.  By reference to the ‘swelled belly’ figures, Panofsky felt his initial view of the content as “early… perhaps as early as the thirteenth century” could not be correct, and since he had no knowledge of that custom in art of the western Mediterranean before the fifteenth century, so he felt he must shift the date for content to co-incide with than of manufacture: 15thC.   Given the resources available today, we are able to say he was right about a pre=fifteenth-century date for composition,* since the ‘Gemini’ in Sassoon 823 is in a manuscript dated 1361, and made as he said by Jews of ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.

*the ‘pre=‘ dropped out during editing. Replaced today (15th Feb. 2019) with apologies to readers.

Moreover, that image occurs in a manuscript whose matter dates to a much earlier period and some of which is, in fact, dated to the thirteenth century and the time of Alfonzo X, a court in which (again as Panofsky said) you find influence from Islamic art in Jewish – and in Christian – art.


Notes 6 & 7  ... shows strong Arabic 6and Jewish influences.7 “

So far  little to oppose, but much to support this part of Panofsky’s original assessment.

*header picture’s caption corrected – 24th July 2019.


Next post:  Notes 8 ‘Kabbala’; Notes 12 & 13:  Salomon and Liebeschutz.


Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2

Panofsky had been in America since September of 1931, invited as guest lecturer by Professor Cook:

Two years before the enforced exodus of the intellectual élite that followed the advent of Hitler, Panofsky became a regular guest professor in the United States, at the invitation of Professor Cook. He [Panofsky] lectured in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the auspices of what was to become the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University’s graduate department of art history, and immediately made a deep impression on his American colleagues and students.

  • William S. Heckscher, ‘Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 28, No. 1, Erwin Panofsky: In Memoriam (1969), pp. 4-21. (p.13).
  • [Biography] Dr. Walter S. Cook, in whose honour annual lectures are presented at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.

The meeting with Mrs. Voynich is most easily explained by positing that both were consulting medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library, for it was a worker there (the librarian?)  Ms.Greene who offered to introduce Mrs. Voynich to the Professor.

“Mrs. Voynich has been working at the Morgan Library, and Miss Greene continues to be most friendly and helpful. A short time ago she volunteered the opinion that she did not think any scholar in this country would be able to help us with the problem … [but now] a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky … 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.” – Letter from Anne Nill to H.Garland, (Feb 10th., 1932).

Mrs. Voynich first showed Panofsky the worn negative photostats, perhaps late in 1931, but he saw the manuscript itself the next year – on Feb. 5th 1932. (see first post in this series)


Panofsky’s subsequent career in America; the value of his private (1932) assessment of the manuscript.

or Panofsky’s earlier approach to art, see

On Panofsky in America, I’ll cite Gaston:

 Panofsky’s appointment to the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 1933 and to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1935, together with his extraordinary productivity and high profile as public lecturer in the following three decades guaranteed him a stellar career, and an influence within the discipline, and the humanities in general, that was then unrivalled for an art historian. …One of the serious shortcomings of Panofsky’s approach to images was his unwillingness to explore the social matrices in which [pictures] were produced and used.

  • (review) Irving Lavin (ed.), Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside. A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) (1995) reviewed by Robert W.Gaston in  International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring, 1998), pp. 613-623.

Panofsky wrote primarily on late medieval and Renaissance art in northern Europe and Italy, and mostly, but by no means exclusively, on painting.

He was not omniscient, nor dispassionate.  He revered humanism and like the majority of his own time, idealised the model of the auteur as creative spirit gifted with  superior sensitivity, perception and so forth. It is the more appealing, humanist and individualist, counterpart for that obsession with the dominant white male which infused the whole of medieval Latin art and remained a preoccupation of historians in the European tradition for most of the twentieth century.


Where Panofsky’s opinion differed from the majority.
  • Non-Latin

Absence of the ‘dominant white male’ theme – and numerous other defining themes of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art – from the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 is a powerful argument for the content’s non-Latin origin – something Panofsky recognised. He attributed it to southern (Sephardi?) Jewish origin saying he recognised influence from Islamic style and from Kabbalah. If he ever elaborated on these things in writing, no record of it has come to light.

There are details in the manuscript which express the Mediterranean and/or Latin (i.e. western European) traditions – but in the present writer’s view these are plainly late-phase additions. They include (of course) post-manufacture items such as marginalia, but some details in the body of the work – principally the central motifs in the calendar’s diagrams.

It never occurred to Wilfrid Voynich to suppose the work other than the individual creation (autograph) of an individual, ‘superior type’ and a white male European.  Nor, apparently did others look much further than southern Europe and the figure of Ramon Llull.

This phenomenon,by which the world is effectively defined as Europe – and into which nothing comes except by the authority and choice of a Latin European male – was usual among nineteenth century historians and particularly the Anglo-German school.  It affected assumptions then, and is still with us, having deeply impacted on the course, nature and direction of the manuscript’s study for most of the period from 1912-2015.

The present author found, still, in 2014, that the majority of Voynicheros imagine it impossible that anything of non-European origin could be found in Europe except that Latin European had fetched it or commissioned its being brought.  This is what we call the ‘White Wall’ phenomenon, and that it should persist to the present day would surely distress Lynn White – a pioneer in the history of cross-cultural exchange upon whose pioneering studies so much more has now been built.

  • .Lynn White, Jr., ‘Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 141-159
  • ________________, ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.
  • ________________, ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221

Panofsky does not suggest the manuscript’s content came from any great distance, but the very fact that he could see the content does not evince the culture of Latin Europe sets his opinion of the manuscript apart from the majority.

Though apparently Panofsky’s 1932 assessment came to be known to the Friedman group, neither it nor his responses of 1954 were given much weight by the cryptanalysts.  In 1978 d’Imperio knows so little of Panofsky’s work that she imagines him unaware of the work of Albertus Magnus (!)

  • Non-authorial

Panofsky differs again from the reflexive assumptions made by those writing about the manuscript from 1912-1954.

He does not imagine any  ‘author’ for the whole work in 1933 and even in 1945, speaks of a nameless figure, almost a generic one: the man writing down his life-time’s learning for his son. Even that idea seems to imply that much of what is written is to be seen as inherited from an earlier time.

The majority simply presumed the work the creation of a Latin ‘author’ and the matter contemporaneous with the present manuscript’s inscription.

On the other hand, Panofsky no more than anyone else during the twentieth century imagined that the work could be entirely derivative.

In 1932 he saw it emerging from a community rather than an individual. BY 1954, in answer to Q.10, he speaks of “a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir”.

Social history did not exist as yet, except as a means to make lessons attractive for children or by way of that idealisation of medieval artisans reflected by the ‘arts and crafts movement‘.

The first English-language History of Technology – its first volume –  was published only in 1954, under Charles’ Singer’s editorship.

The interaction between the history of events and the history of economic factors has always been in flux, and though England is given much credit for the study’s development, even in the 1950s it was often dismissed as  ‘mere commerce’.

Social history as a scholarly discipline only gained general recognition in the 1960s (initially termed ‘laundry-list history’) and women’s history gained its place still later.

Comparative cultural studies were almost unheard of, and Lynn White struggled against the ‘white wall’ phenomenon for thirty years and more.

In the context of his time, Panofsky’s approach to the manuscript and his forming opinions solely from the primary evidence – though by reference to his own wide range of substantial study – makes his the most important commentary we have on the subject of the imagery, even now.

Because it suited the Friedmans believe that the text was a very clever, unique, cipher, they were obliged to adopt an ‘authorial’ idea of the manuscript, and this has proven a persistent habit in the study, though less emphasised since about 2011.

  • Composite of earlier matter.

I take as implied by the answer he gave to Friedman’s Q.10 that Panofsky saw the manuscript as deriving from earlier matter;  something of the same implication might be taken from his alluding to Kabbalah in 1932.

The ‘authorial’ idea carried an   expectation of the homogenous autograph, an idea found in most commentaries on the manuscript to as late as 2010-2011, when the present author was obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ in the second mailing list for saying the content could be no autograph, nor the work of a single author, because the stylistic variations indicated derivation from at least three earlier sources, each manifesting a distinct history and line of transmission to Europe.

That opinion is now widely accepted – without reference to the present author’s evidence and argument – because after some months, one contributor to that mailing list recalled that the word ‘compilation’ is found somewhere in the ‘Voynich gospel’ – d’Imperio’s booklet of 1978. This official ‘sanction’ permitted the then-radical shift from the traditional ‘authorial’ to ‘non-authorial’ approach. ( My thanks to Don Hoffman for being the first to brave the picket-line and adopt the conclusions of my work, even use of the technical term ‘florilegium’ – which in medieval times meant a collection of textual, not botanical, items).

  • Setting aside Newbold’s categories.

Panofsky was among the very few to offer any explanation of the manuscript and of its content by reference to the primary document itself, and he never adopted  Newbold’s impressionistic categories  as others did – including the cryptanalysts’ who merely elaborated  them.

He avoided  both the ‘authorial’ notion and Newbold’s idea of a specifically ‘biological’ section.

Once again, neither Panofsky’s opinion, (nor the substantial evidence and argument provided by the present writer from 2009) saw the abandonment of Newbold’s and Friedman’s “categories” – with the result that one still sees Voynich narratives produced and adopted which unsupported by the historical evidence.

On efforts to justify the ‘biological’ idea see e.g.

I am told, though have not the details, that a contributor to is presently (Jan-Feb 2019) reprising Velinksa’s ideas and approach, though whether properly acknowledging the precedents, including Velinska’s work, you must discover for yourself.  In either case, it is a nonsense within any theory insisting the manuscript entirely the product of Latin European culture. Da Vinci was a hundred years before his time, and he wasn’t born until 1519: at best eighty years after the manuscript was made, and at worst (for such ideas) almost a century.

But the persistence of such notions relies, ultimately on an impression expressed by William Romaine Newbold.


  • Opinions as conclusions from evidence.

Unlike the majority of Voynich writers, before him or since, Panofsky derived his opinions from the primary source and solid historical and iconographic evidence.

Every extant study by him displays a consistent rigor and his sense of obligation to the reader: he will explain how he reached each point in his conclusions by reference to direct, specific, and verifiable reference across a wide range of historical, textual and art-historical material – always with a focus on the primary evidence.  One may differ, but one is never asked simply ‘to believe’.  His aim is not persuasion but elucidation.  It constitutes a forensic approach which was to that time, and is largely still, scarcely employed in discussions of Beinecke MS 408.

One must suppose that had he been asked to do so, Panofsky could have produced a study of the manuscript –  its form and imagery –  which would have substantially altered our understanding of its content.

But all he was asked to do was fill out  Friedman’s questionnaire.

A brief outline of Panofsky’s usual practice is offered here.

Next post: Panofsky’s hesitations.

minor corrections 8th Feb. 2019

Military cryptanalysts: the ‘Art-Group Four’

Header Picture: public domain image of Princeton, IAS, Huld hall

Two prior posts:

Military cryptanalysts – Prelude (
Military cryptanalysts: Interrogatories of 1954 (

After his first, brief survey of the Friedman-von Neumann letter-file, Jim Reeds told other list-members (9th. April 1994):

…A[p]parently Friedman and John v. Neumann had a chat with Panofsky and wrote down a list of questions, and Panofsky wrote a letter answering them. I will summarize their contents when I get the xeroxes..

Closer inspection showed otherwise:   Von Neumann was Panofsky’s colleague who for two years (March 1952-March 1954) effectively stood between Panofsky and the somewhat importunate Friedman.  von Neumann later made a point of saying  that he just ‘sat in’ on their eventual meeting in March 1954.

Reeds’ entry  in his  Voynich Bibliography:

  • Panofsky, Erwin. “Answers to Questions for Prof. E. Panofsky.” Letter to William F. Friedman, March 19, 1954. Correspondence between Friedman, Panofsky, and J. v. Neumann. Letters from Richard Salomon to Erwin Panofsky and Gertrud Bing. WFF 1614.  (i.e.: George Marshall Foundation (library?) William F. Friedman Collection,  file no. 1614.)

Though Bauer (2017 p.558) also mentions this correspondence between Salomon and Panofsky, it is not referred to by Sheldon

It is interesting to imagine how news of the planned meeting might have affected members of the FBI or HUAC.  The  ‘ciphertext’ had been touted by the late Wilfrid Voynich as of value to the military; its present owner, his widow,  was known to have lived in Russia and sympathised with revolutionaries.  Wilfrid’s BOI file presumably became an FBI file in 1938, and the FBI had already had reason to ‘chat’ with Panofsky, in 1950.

Add to this the fact that Friedman had a history of instability, that Tiltman represented a foreign government, and that von Neumann worked on America’s nuclear weapons program at Los Alamos, and you can see why the thought of their meeting would have raised hair on the neck of the good FBI man.  Some surely doubted that they were intending to meet only to chat about  medieval art.

Hostility towards Jewish academics did not come only from external agencies; some otherwise intelligent men and academics were bigots too.  It has been pointed out to me that  in the early 1950s, Revilo Oliver attempted to renew an early acquaintance with Friedman

George David Birkhoff – another of similar mind – headed the maths department at Harvard through the first and second world war (1912 to 1944). Birkhoff’s anti-Semitic views and remarks are well-documented but not unequivocal. Siegmund-Schultze discovered a letter of 1928 which shows that Birkhoff interviewed von Neumann in Paris in 1928. (see excerpt below). Birkhoff was interested in astronomy, as was Van der Waerden.

And while Panofsky was the last man in the world to be paranoid,  it is understandable that he should prefer to keep to the world of colleagues students and the IAS, having as little as possible to do with bureaucrats. men in fedoras, and military chaps of the spies-and-ciphers sort.

We are  looking into this to understand why, in writing responses to a ‘quiz’ framed by Friedman, Panofsky’s replies are so derivative and laconic.

If we take those responses  at face value, we must suppose Panofsky considered the manuscript the work of a sixteenth-century  German;  it not, we must return to the privately-given opinion of 1931 1932 and suppose Panofsky’s opinion to be that the manuscript was  Jewish and from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.   A southern locus better agrees with the orthography of the month-names; on the other hand some of the marginal inscriptions have been interpreted as German.  (How much later they were added is uncertain).

“The Group of Four”

William Friedman was employed by the National Security Agency (See prior post, ‘Prelude’.)

Though a fine cryptographer he also had a history of instability. I’ll illustrate with a couple of quotations, the first describing an early incident involving John Tiltman.

 [During Tiltman’s voyage to America by sea in 1942] he was made party to what amounted to a breach of security by the communications officer of the ship. Knowing something of Tiltman’s mission (the officer handled enciphered messages), he took it upon himself to show Tiltman the secure communications gear he was responsible for. Tiltman promised himself to cover the officer’s well-intentioned indiscretion by acting as if he had never seen the gear when he would be shown it officially. Upon his arrival in the U.S., both the Navy (in the person of Joseph Wenger) and the Army (through William Friedman) demonstrated the gear for him, each independently of the other. As it turned out, Wenger had received authorization for his actions. Friedman, much like the naval officer aboard ship, discussed the equipment on his own authority. This, according to Tiltman, led to a confrontation between Friedman and General Strong, the staff intelligence officer (G-2) for General Marshall, which may have led to one of Friedman’s breakdowns. (p.45)

There can be no doubt about that instability; most modern accounts of Friedman’s life speak of it, e.g.

Friedman’s life-long mental problems, particularly his depression, insomnia, and alcoholism, are summarized in a letter to his biographer, Ronald Clark, written by Friedman’s last psychiatrist (he’d consulted at least three for varying periods over the years), Zigmond M. Lebensohn, dated 10 May 1976. (Papers of Elizebeth S. Friedman, Box 13, File 30, George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia). Lebensohn’s letter notes that Friedman had been hospitalized with mental illness five separate times beginning in 1940. His last hospitalization was in late 1963.

  • [pdf] Colin MacKinnon, ‘William Friedman’s Bletchley Park Diary: A New Source for the History of Anglo-American Intelligence Cooperation’, Intelligence and National Security, (December 2005) note 9, pp.4-5.

In 1952 John Tiltman was still a member of CGHQ.  The meeting with Panofsky was continually deferred by him, or by von Neumann until March 1954 – about the time Tiltman retired from GCHQ though still  based at the British Embassy in Washington and still the senior British (UK) liaison officer to the United States.

Tiltman’s work in America was chiefly to assist the sharing of sensitive military intelligence between two of the three war-time allies, America and Britain,  at a time when neither side  felt  complete confidence in the other…

The third participant was the true civilian, Erwin Panofsky.  For those without previous knowledge of Panofsky’s work, I add a passage about perspective – in more senses than one – from a paper which he wrote in 1932, the same year he saw the Voynich manuscript.

  • Erwin Panofsky,‘ZumProblemder Beschreibung und Inhaltsdeutung von Werken der bildenden Kunst’, Logos 21 (1932): 103–19;
  • above paper, translated by Jas´ Elsner and Katharina Lorenz under the title ‘On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts’, Critical Inquiry 38 (Spring 2012): 467–82.

[For Lucian] to have been unambiguous would have been to have understood the work of art not from the vantage point of the second century AD but from that of the fifth century BC. He would also have needed to bring to mind identical comparable cases and thus to have been aware of changes in the possibilities of spatial expression over the period.  In short, he would have to have modeled his description not on the immediate perception of a given object within the picture but on the knowledge of general principles of depiction, that include an understanding of style which only a historical consciousness could have provided.

In my work (both here, and in general), when I speak of ‘stylistics’ I’m referring to those things bolded in the quotation above.

  • A lecture by Panofsky: “The Value of Error in the History of Art” (youtube)
  • Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography: Racial Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876-1980. p.239 (note 165). A very interesting footnote shedding light on how Carl Neumann and Panofsky each regarded  Dürer’s view of the Jews – when both men were in Germany and  Hitler was coming to power.

John von Neumann, was Panofsky’s colleague and friend  should not be confused with Carl Neumann.

Los Alamos identification badge for John von Neumann. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory. via Alex Wellerstein’s blog.

Leaving Germany in the 1930s he had come to work, as Panofsky had done from 1933, at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.  One difference between them was that in 1943, von Neumann was personally invited by Oppenheimer to participate in the Manhattan Project. By 1952,  von Neumann had effectively two sets of ‘colleagues’.

Still more likely to create a frisson among the McCarthyists and others if they heard of the meeting was that  John von Neumann shared  rights with Karl Fuchs for the patent on a top secret nuclear mechanism which Fuchs had certainly shared with America’s other (and now even more distrusted) war-time ally, Communist Russia!   Fuchs had been convicted of spying just two years before Friedman started pushing to meet von Neumann’s ‘colleague’.

Given their  positions, their eminence, their specialisations and the atmosphere of the time, one cannot suppose that  any outsider – or that most of the insiders – could quite believe that none of the four had motives other than a desire to ‘have a chat’ about art.

Mutual uncertainty  about motives might also explain why, for those two years, any proposed meeting date was found impossible either by von Neumann or by Tiltman. A disinclination for further involvement with Friedman (or Tiltman) and awareness for the need for care and discretion might do much to explain Panofsky’s  responses, both to Friedman and to his ‘quiz’, which we’ll now turn to consider in the next two posts.

After Friedman informed von Neumann that he wanted to include ‘JT’ in the proposed meeting – or rather once  von Neumann had time to learn  ‘JT’s’ “avocation’ – the tone of the Friedman-von Neumann correspondence changes suddenly: from March 1952.

What fun! 



I am not implying any conspiracy between the four to exchange military secrets, but describing the context within which Friedman framed, and Panofsky responded to,  the ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’.


see also:

  • [pdf] Daniel Keenan, Kultur and acculturation: Erwin Panofsky in the United States of America, (PhD thesis), Glasgow University, 2014.

For insight into von Neumann’s presence at Los Alamos see e.g.

A recent and revealing study of Fuch’s activity:

  • Michael S. Goodman, ‘The grandfather of the hydrogen bomb?: Anglo-American intelligence and Klaus Fuchs’, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences , Vol. 34, No. 1 (2003), pp. 1-22.


Next post:  The ‘quiz’.