O’Donovan Notes – #8.3 Angles of approach – Medicine, Newbold and ‘astral spirits’ in the VMS (Pt 2)

c.2800 words.

[update – 10th January. Persistent format error finally fixed, a caption added, couple of minor typos corrected.]

The author’s rights are asserted.

Sections – Neoplatonic stars and biology – Whose idea? Neoplatonist anatomy??; de duodecim portis; Cotton MS Galba E IV; comparing styles; Newbold’s contribution.

It is a nice question whether Newbold gained his ideas of neoplatonic influence from his own imagination, or whether that idea too had come from Wilfrid along with the ‘Roger Bacon autograph’ theory.

Wilfrid had lived in England for a quarter of a century before moving to New York, having arrived in London in the autumn of 1890. He had been granted British citizenship in 1906 when his sponsors included Richard Garnett,* Keeper of Printed Books in the British Museum and who, under the pseudonym ‘G.R.Kent’, had published in the early 1890s a monograph entitled The Soul and the Stars.

  • Colin MacKinnon, ‘The Naturalization Papers of Wilfrid Michael Voynich’ (2013).
Richard Garnett

Richard died before Wilfrid acquired the manuscript, but Richard’s son Robert succeeded to the post and since at this time the Museum’s collection of medieval manuscripts had not been re-housed in the British Library, it does not seem unreasonable to think that Wilfrid would know Richard’s monograph, and even the manuscript Cotton MS Galba E IV which we’ll mention later, and which was then still in the Museum’s library.

Some further reason to believe this association of the manuscript’s figures with ‘souls’ predates Wilfrid’s first contact with Newbold is offered by what Kahn reports of Wilfrid’s approaching various persons in England during the period between 1912 and 1916. Kahn says these included a vice president of the Royal astronomical society and Andrew George Little, a medieval history professor whose special interest was the Franciscan religious order. Little had been until 1901 Professor of History at the University College of South Wales, but by the time Wilfrid acquired the manuscript was serving as professor of palaeography at Manchester.

After Wilfrid moved to New York, he at some time contacted the very wealthy and somewhat eccentric businessman George Fabyan, among whose funded projects was the Riverbank Laboratories (so termed) where William Friedman and his future wife Elizebeth first met. Three years before Wilfrid would settle in New York, Fabyan directed his Riverbank establishment to build an acoustical levitation machine, using specifications allegedly gained by decoding some of Francis Bacon’s writings and with technical assistance from Wallace Clement Sabine. On the surface of it, Fabyan must have seemed a perfect potential buyer for the manuscript – but neither he or anyone else would buy it.

But for all these reasons and others, it appears that Newbold had met Wilfrid early – perhaps as early as 1916 – and from that time onwards Newbold worked on the assumption that he was researching a ‘Bacon scientific autograph’. Wilfrid’s persuasive character clearly had its effect on Newbold’s more pliant one, to the point where by 1921 Newbold had so lost his sense of proportion that he not only brought to the scheduled lecture for the College of Physicians a person who was not a member, had no relevant qualifications or experience in medicine, and who was plainly a bookseller hunting a rich client but he permitted Voynich to address the assembled scientists and take up a third of the allotted time.

About a month later, Scientific American published an editorial based on the content in that lecture. It shows that even with the best will – even conceding such impossibilities as the manuscript’s including a drawing of a spiral galaxy – the meeting’s atmosphere had not remained solemn.

This is all there is to the still-persistent notion of a ‘biological Voynich’ story and it must have gone hard for Newbold because by then he had come to believe his own imagination, and Wilfrid’s, and was particularly sensitive to ridicule – as remarks made even in that lecture make clear.

In 1921, there was no protective bubble or ‘Voynich-R-us’ community that might insulate him from opinions voiced by the public at large or by more objective academic or scientific specialists. Below (right) is how the New Scientist editorial closed.

NOTE – when sections of text are reproduced as images in these posts, it is not only to save my time.

Sometimes it is important that readers see for themselves that a passage is represented precisely as published, free of any editorialising and in some cases too – as in this case – it avoids excessive attention from bots.

This effort to describe a Neoplatonic biology formed the medical part of Newbold’s lecture. Here are his comments on the drawing he labelled Plate IV. And before anyone laughs, just think how many other writers, since 1921, have relied on exactly the same flawed method, imposing on the drawings in just this same way the fruits of sheer imagination and without the slightest effort made to demonstrate that at any time, in any place or by any group of people, drawings of such a kind were ever made to convey the posited meaning.

Neoplatonist anatomy?!?

For people of Newbold’s time, an obvious objection was that neoplatonic philosophies were regarded as in every way antithetical to a focus on the material, especially when it came to the human body. A ‘neoplatonic physician’ seemed a contradiction in terms; and so a manuscript of neoplatonic biology would seem immediately ridiculous.

In preparing to oppose that long-held view of neoplatonism, James Wilberding recently described it well:

The true object of care for a Neoplatonist is one’s soul; one’s body is at best an object of indifference and at worst an obstacle to one’s philosophical ascent. Why, then, should a Neoplatonist engage with a field whose goal is the health and preservation of the body?

In 1921, Newbold was likely to find that most historians – whether of science or of religion – would object to the idea that a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar would produce a work combining reference to ‘astral spirits’, the rebirth of souls (a non-Christian belief) and explicit description of human generation.

But in fact, and in fairness to Newbold, there had been a philosophical-medical treatise on sperm circulating in England by, and indeed before, the thirteenth century.

de duodecim portis

For general background on that text, here’s Merisalo:

Along with Galen’s authentic texts revolutionizing Western medicine, less well-known ones gain popularity in the thirteenth century, not least thanks to being attributed to the [some?] great authority on Ancient medicine. One of these texts is a Latin treatise variously titled ‘Liber spermatis/De spermate/Microtegni/de duodecim portis’ etc., consisting of an embryological and an astrological part.

It starts circulating in the middle of the twelfth century in England and Southern France together with late Antique and early Mediaeval texts of philosophical, scientific and medical content. It appears at the end of the twelfth century in Bavaria, attributed to Galen as author and Constantine the African as translator.

The attribution to Galen, however, ensured the success of the treatise in its [most extended] form as a recurrent element in the Northern French Galenic omnibus volumes, with variable sets of texts, such as nos. 7-10 and 12. Apart from no. 7, which shows affinities both to the “Bavarian” and the Northern French texts, these volumes transmit a remarkably unified Galba + Berlin version.
It is, however, quite obvious that as late as the end of the thirteenth century, the
[most extended] text circulated in more than one version in Northern France, and that shorter extracts would be copied as well.

from: Outi Merisalo, ‘The Early Tradition of the Pseudo-Galenic De spermate (Twelfth-Thirteenth Centuries’, Scripta, Vol 5 (2012) pp. 99-109. [now accessible through JSTOR]

That reference to ‘Galba’ is to a manuscript once owned by John Dee, who wrote for it a table of Contents which allows us to see exactly which extracts were later removed.

British Library, Cotton MS Galba E IV.

This manuscript was already in the British Museum’s collection when Richard Garnett was there, and thus throughout the time Wilfrid lived in London – Cotton MS Galba E IV is now held in the British Library.

The contents range in date from 1175-1350 AD, and the volume is described by the Library as “a composite manuscript made up of two parts” the second part “produced in South-East England in the last quarter of the 12th century. It contains a collection of scientific texts” – which I’ll list in tabular form:

  • An anonymous text on natural philosophy, beginning:‘Sciendum est quid sit philosophia’.
  • Marius (fl. 1160), De Elementis (On the Elements), beginning: ‘[Natura] aque que est’.
  • Nemesius of Emesa (fl. 390), De Natura Hominis; the chapter De Elementis (On the Elements)
  • Hippocrates (b. c. 460 BC, d. c. 380 BC), De Aere, Aqua et Regionibus (The Book on Water, Air and the Regions).
  • Nemesius of Emesa, De Natura Hominis (On the Nature of Man), translated by Alfanus of Salerno (d. 1085).
  • Adelard of Bath (fl. 12th century), Questiones Naturales (Questions on Nature).ff. 228r-233v:
  • Pseudo-Aristotle (fl. 4th century BC), De Phisionomia (About Physiognomy).ff. 233v-238v:
  • Pseudo-Galen, De Spermate (On Sperm).
  • Soranus of Ephesus (fl. early 2nd century), Questiones Medicinales (Medical Questions)

In John Dee’s list; not in the present manuscript.

I owe the following to Thomson and include his apparatus:

  • De phisionomia; extracts from “Aristotle,” “Loxus,” “Palemon.” (TKI 538; several MSS, one of the eleventh century.) and, among various other extracts,
  • A commentary on part of Hippocrates’ Epidimiarum, entitled ‘Expositio quintae incisionis epidemiarum Hippocratis’
  • Dioscorides, De herbis femineis. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 59, without incipit and explicit. As he mentions illustrations, his source might well have been Bodl. MS 130, made at Bury, eleventh-twelfth century. TKI 182 etc.)
  • Oribasius, De herbarum virtutibus. (TKI 6 etc.)
  • Odo de Meung, Versus de virtutibus herbarum, or Macer. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 107, as Macer, De viribus herbarum; inc. as in TKI 610.)
  • Palladius, De agricultura. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 113; incipit
    as in TKI 1026, and also explicit of complete work.)
  • Liber de simplici medicina’; Platearius?

For readers without Latin I should add that “De herbis femineis” does not mean ‘herbs for women’ but describes plants having characteristics associated with feminine character: such as roundness or softness of leaf and so on. If ‘feminine’ bothers you, think of it as ‘Yin’.

Had Newbold known of this manuscript, and it is evident that he dug into the question of what books had once been owned by Dee since this was another element in Wilfrid’s spell-binding but unsupported tale of genius science, misunderstood magician and pinnacle of European social aspiration, so it is possible that Newbold came to know something of Cotton MS Galba E IV and its earlier contents having included works on herbs and epidemics etc., I say it’s possible, but I’ve seen no evidence that he did know it.*

*Cotton MS Galba E IV is referenced in Burkhardt (1891-1902) and again in (1917); its contents would be described briefly by Haskins in 1927. For details of these publications see British Library Catalogue and Richard C. Dales, ‘Anonymi De elementis: From a Twelfth-Century Collection Scientific Works in British Museum MS Cotton Galba E. IV’, Isis, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Summer, 1965), pp. 174-189 (JSTOR)

Hague MMW A 10 11, Oxford, St.John’s MS 18, Beinecke MS 408 – How similar?

Though the format for those two fifteenth-century images was comparable, the context of each was very different: the Hague manuscript being a copy of a theological text by Augustine, and the St.John’s a text which moderns would call pseudo-science – a treatise on physiognomy.

But in what are the contents of Cotton MS Galba E IV, and what were, one does see adjacent texts from ancient and from more recent authors, from Christian and pre- or non-Christian writers, from treatises on generation to works about plants, and meteorology – all found together in this one English manuscript apparently complete half a century before the Voynich quires were inscribed.

What Newbold saw in the Voynich drawings may have been – and I think was – very largely a product of his following up a single good observation that the star-holders are meant for disembodied characters. One may call them souls, or pre-Christian daimons or deities but ‘demons’ seems inapt. Newbold was also reasonable in expecting that what would be so about the type in one section would be true in all.

His fundamental error was to adopt another person’s theory without careful scrutiny.

But then, after identifying the figures as disembodied characters, not to then turn and seek to discover where, when and in what context such forms are actually attested in any medieval art.

Instead, possessed of unreasonable certainty, he turned his eyes inward (as it were) and began to impose on the drawings whatever appeared consistent with that theory – one whose foundations were (and are) dubious in the extreme.

A scholar is expected to scrutinise carefully the foundation on which he/she intends to build. This is one reason that precedents are cited for any assertion made about a medieval manuscript.

However, from there he began seeking one, and then another detail he could be interpreted as consonant with that theory, in the back-to-front process still endemic in Voynich studies and which is known as allegoresis,

Consider his comments on folio 75. Questions of stylistics, of layout, of proportions in the figures, and all else – and whether or not these characteristics accord with his posited thirteenth-century English context are questions he never pauses to ask.

Why his heavens (it is ‘the heavens’ not Heaven which the bible describes as spread out lie a tent) should have sections carved from its boundary Newbold does not explain, nor why a birth canal should be coloured green; though the joy of allegoresis is that the perpetrator can always pull up some explanation for anything and everything, being freed of the normal constraints imposed by history, art history, manuscript studies and the general standards of proof.

I do think Newbold’s first insight was reasonable, and though I’ve described the anthropoform figures, myself, as ‘hours’ and ‘tyches’ I see no reason to believe that the first enunciator mightn’t have called them daimons – or even ‘demons’ as Augustine did.

Two images and human forms in the Vms.

Clearly by the time that the images in Oxford, St.John’s MS 18 and Hague MMW 10 A 11 – Augustine’s City of God were painted, ideas so strongly opposed by Augustine met less objection from John of Bedford or contemporary painters in France and England.

One scholar argues the frontispiece for Roland’s text is taken directly from Bedford’s presentation copy (now Lisbon, Biblioteca d’Ajuda MS 52,XII,18), and another attributes it to the London illuminator (“lymnour”) William Arbell. For more on that, see the Bodleian’s catalogue entry.

The point is that with such patterns of circulation and exchange, one can say no more yet than that both belong to that ‘southern’ region of western Europe earlier defined.

There are differences between those two paintings, and still more points of difference between the way these bodies appear, and the form given the Voynich manuscript’s anthropoform figures. What the first two allow us to say is that during the fifteenth century, in southern Europe, unclothed bodies pictured in ranks along an horizon, or walking elevated paths, can refer to stars or daimons and their supposed influence..

Notice how, in both those manuscripts, the males are given the same ‘pudding-bowl’ haircut as we see on John of Bedford himself in the Bedford Hours. All the Hague manuscript’s elevated, unclothed figures are clean shaven; the figures placed on earth in the Roland frontispiece include one (second from left) that is bearded and another (second from right) which, like John, has a kind of five-o-clock shadow.

Otherwise, though these two images may resemble each other in some ways, they have not very much in common with the Voynich drawings as drawings.

(detail at right) shows “The text prefaced with a painted frontispiece on four levels: the signs of the zodiac, twelve men exhibiting the influence of these constellations, the stars (or planets generally), and seven men with rays shining on them exhibiting the appropriate influence.” Bodleian Catalogue of manuscripts in Oxford.

True, St.Johns’ manuscript shows a similar inclination to draw over-large heads, but we saw the same in an earlier post, in some illustrations from an Italian copy of Dante’s Cantos.

(detail) Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Holkham misc. 48 p.4. Italy (Genoa?) c 1350–1375

In sum

Despite Newbold’s efforts, and despite his range of reading and honest intentions, his solid contribution to the manuscript’s study comes down to a simple recognition that the Voynich figures should not be presumed literal. To that we may add that in a few known fifteenth-century works, elevated and unclothed figures are intended for what we may call, until we know better, ‘daimons’.

The original sense of that term:

Daimon: ” a lesser deity or guiding spirit such as the daimons of ancient Greek religion and mythology, and of later Hellenistic religion and philosophy.”

I can’t be sure, but it does not seem that this male from the Voynich calendar has a pudding-bowl haircut under his magnificent cap – the type of headwear I’ve called a tailed beanie.

Nice ‘tailed beanie’.

Here are some more examples, from 6thC Toledo, through the fifteenth century and sixteenth century until today. This type of headwear is still around. The most recent version nicely illustrates why one might have an end that looked pointed or more-or-less squared off. It depends on the type of fabric and, in examples formed by hook or needles, how the maker chooses to shape it and end it off.

Some recommended sources:

Simon Trépanier, ‘From Hades to the Stars’, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 36, No. 1 (April 2017), pp. 130-182. [JSTOR].

Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies) . Essential reading. If you decide to buy a copy, I suggest getting the hardcopy first edition.

Rodney M. Thomson, ‘ “Liber Marii de Elementis”; the work of a hitherto unknown Saliternian Master?‘, Viator, Vol. 3 (1972) pp.179-189. [pdf]

For the very keen:

Merisalo, O., & Pahta, P. (2008). ‘Tracing the trail of transmission: The pseudo-Galenic De spermate in Latin’. In M. Goyens, P. de Leemans, & A. Smets (Eds.), Science Translated: Latin and Vernacular Translations of Scientific Treatises in Medieval Europe (pp. 91-104). (Medievalia Lovaniensia). Leuven University Press.


D’Imperio reported that “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.’” but I’m yet to see any evidence he relied on other than imagination and guesswork, his knowledge of Newbold’s views, and his own inclination to civilly accommodate the opinions of others. Lynn Thorndike he wasn’t. I think the more telling fact is that although his area of specialisation was medieval technology – including mechanics, plumbing and hydraulics etc., he suggests those ‘tubes and pipes’ might be someone else’s problem: organs of the body. One more item for the ‘Not One of Mine’ set.

“no one pours new wine into old wineskins”

.. but the reciprocal is often true.

c.1000 words. The author’s rights are asserted.

IN 2023 –

Our first research question will be whether or not European manuscripts of the pre-Renaissance period always gave ‘antique’ texts contemporary illustrations. And if not, how can you tell?

To begin exploring this question of ‘old wine, new skins?’ I’ll begin with detail from a late fifteenth century manuscript, despite its late date. Ellie Velinska introduced the detail in 2013, while hunting for comparisons for the way the human body is represented in Beinecke MS 408.

Ellie’s blog has been closed since, but I want to refer to that detail because it comes from copy of Augustine’s De civitate Dei made almost exactly a thousand years after the text was first composed.

Augustine’s text, in turn, as written about a century later than Ausonius composed those verses which, as we’ve seen, provided Bede with the same system of correspondence between sign-and-month which informs the Voynich calendar: Fishes as sign for March; Crab for July; Archer for December and so on.

It’s worth taking a minute to think about it: by the time the Voynich calendar was set down on its vellum, the custom had been at least a thousand years old, and no longer generally employed by makers of fine manuscripts in Europe. Nonetheless it is preserved as late as c.1350 in Bodleian, Douce 313, and to at least the early fifteenth century in Beinecke MS 408.

For those who didn’t follow last year’s enquiry, here are Ausonius’ verses.

The tropic star of Capricorn prescribes the opening of Janus’s reign.

In the midst of Numa’s month stands the sign of stout Aquarius.

The Fishes twain come forth in days of March.

Thou, Ram of Phrixus, lookst back on April’s calends,

May marvels at the horn of Agenor’s Bull.

June sees the Spartan twins march in the heavens.

July brings the star of the Crab which blazes at the solstice.

The raging Lion scorches the month of August with his fires.

Beneath the star, O Virgin, September loads the vines.

October’s seed-time balances the Scales.

The wintry Scorpion bids November go headlong.

The Archer ends his shining in mid-December.

-translation by Hugh White.

Ausonius’ verses (or perhaps Bede’s summary of them in De temporum ratione) inform two twelfth-century mosaic calendars though these are in towns 900 kilometers apart – one being in the far south in Otranto and the other in San Savino in Piacenza.

(detail) mosaic calendar ‘months and labors’ Otranto.

I have found no scholarly discussion of the Otranto mosaic’s unusual script.

Piacenza’s ‘July’ shows a nice lobster with a three-point head (and, unlike the Vms’ lobsters, with its legs in the right place)

The name ‘Piacenza’ may ring a bell for some readers.

San Savino’s charter provided an example of elongated letter-forms which was introduced to Voynich studies by Jim Reeds, and (too often without a nod to him) has been much repeated since. In fact, reading his posts to the first mailing list was what led me to wonder if Piacenza might have still more relevant matter.

Reeds cited Cappelli’s Dizionario Di Abbreviature. Panofsky had recommended that William Friedman read it (1952). The 1929 edition is presently at the internet archive HERE.

Voynich researchers seem not to have found that old system of correlations so far in any northern, Germanic or ‘central European’ manuscript. It’s tempting to think, then, that it was some unknown supporter of that theory who first made the overconfident statement recently repeated by a relative newcomer, viz:

“In the calendars of the time [which time?], January was Aquarius and Pisces was February.

Merely speculation to that point.. the rest is flummery:

” The names of the months in the VM must have[sic!] been written much later, perhaps in the 17th century. ..”

Theorists often use their imagination; what makes imaginative assertions counterproductive is when they are presented as if statements of undeniable fact – and newcomers led to repeat them.

To paraphrase a certain non-Voynich author,

the grave danger is … an incapacity to recognise the fictitious character of ‘common sense’

see Meinrad Calleja, ‘The Madness of Certainty’, Malta Humanist Association Newsletter, Jan 11th., 2015, where Calleja quotes and references the original.

Here’s a nice example of why neither ‘commonsense’ nor common opinion is enough.

This (below) is a group that almost anyone in Venice will tell you is a statue of St.Theodore, the original patron saint of the city. Sounds plausible. Everyone says the same.

St. Theodore, Venice. The halo, shield and sword are all late additions. The beast seems to have been an entirely separate sculpture before it came to Venice.

And in a sense it’s true. Since the figure was erected, it has been a statue of St.Theodore.

If you go a bit deeper though, the facts are more interesting. Its various component parts arrived separately in medieval Venice, having been looted from Constantinople. It was only then that the sword, shield and halo – and possibly also the spear – were made. The chief figure is actually a late Roman sculpture of a Roman soldier, and the body of the ‘dragon’ closely resembles the form of a mummified crocodile when seen close to – especially the hind-part. What purpose or relationship (if any) the separate parts had before they came to Venice we simply do not know. That’s a fine example of old wine given a new skin.

O’Donovan notes – 7c.i – Calendar. Bodleian Douce 313.

c.4700 words (including references. longish footnotes and a Notice to Readers.)

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract – A crocodile as emblem for November has been noted in these posts, so far, only in Beinecke MS 408 and in a Franciscan missal (Bodleian, Douce 313), both being pocket-sized manuscripts, noted for the extraordinary number of their drawings and, in different senses, for the simplicity of those drawings.

This post considers other possible points in common, because if the ‘Marci’ letter of 1665/6 should be genuine, an idea of connection between Beinecke MS 408 and the Franciscans has been around, now, for three and a half centuries, yet remains largely unexplored. We also consider the different attitudes towards making books and images between the early Franciscans and that other preaching order, the Dominicans – and certain interests common to both.

Prefatory remarks:

The opinion I hold, after more than a decade’s working through the sections of Beinecke MS 408, is that a majority of its drawings entered Latin1 horizons only c.1350 AD and that the style of that majority fall into two groups, of which one derives ultimately from works of Hellenistic origin (c.3rdC BC – 5thC AD)2 and the other from a Roman cultural context c.1st-3rdC AD. All which fall into one or other of those groups demonstrate evidence of non-classical and non-Latin affect over the intervening period, that is, to c.1350 AD. Though relatively few drawings in Beinecke MS 408 are expressed in the way of art in the medieval Mediterranean and Latin west, the calendar’s central emblems are among those few.

1. By ‘Latin’ Europe is meant here, and throughout posts to this blog, that part of western Europe whose shared culture had been formed by use of Latin for its language of liturgy, scholarship and diplomacy – the counterparts elsewhere in the Mediterranean world being Arabic and Greek.

2.in certain regions not invaded by Rome, Hellenistic culture survived much longer than it did in the Mediterranean.

It is also my opinion – though the informing research was never shared online beyond one a vague hint – that the manuscript is likely to have been among those improperly acquired by Guglielmo Libri, the manuscript being entrusted (or returned) to a member of the Jesuit order after Libri’s death in Fiesole as an effort at restitution and so reaching Fr. Beckx, in whose trunk Voynich says he first saw it in about 1911. Beckx was head of the Jesuit order when he resided in Fiesole from 1873-1883/4, a time when his order was suppressed in Rome.3

3. for more detail about Fr Beckx life, and relevance for Voynich studies, see separate page in the top bar (HERE). Catholics believe not only that they should acknowledge sins of commission and omission in confession, but that sins are not forgiven unless and until some effort is made to restore, or make other restitution, for harm done.

Libri had died four years before Beckx arrived, the doubtful honour of becoming Libri’s chief executor falling to Count Giacomo Manzonia, resident of the same same town, and by all reports noble in character and not merely in name.

  • Jeremy M. Norman, Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel: A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri. (2013)
  • Andrea Del Centina, ‘The manuscript of Abel’s Parisian memoir found in its entirety’, Historia Mathematica Vol. 29 (2002) pp. 65-69.
  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘A True and Faithful Relation of the Death of Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carucci dalla Sommaia’, voynichimagery, (March 23rd., 2015) – that post was published and I’ll provide a copy to any wanting it. email: voynichimagery AT gmail com.

As I say, that research was never shared online other than a couple of faint hints, so I was interested to see that quite soon afterwards a member of one voynich forum asked in that place – though had not asked me, nor named me – what lay behind reference to Libri. Not unpredictably, another asserted with quite magnificent self-assurance (given that he knew no more than did the questioner) that it was “100% hypothetical”.

That bit of trivia is now called to mind because to illustrate Dominican attitudes to painting in that part of Italy about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ve chosen a praedella painted for a church in Fiesole by a native of the region, the Dominican friar popularly known as ‘Fra Angelico’. (Part of the praedella serves as our heading).

Rupecanina is a small hamlet in the mountains about 27 km (17.3 miles) north of Florence.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in about 1395 – some say in Rupercanina and others in nearby Vicchio. Because friars took a new name on entry to their religious order, with a surname from the place they joined it, so Guido became the Dominican friar, Fra John of Fiesole. His brother Benedetto also joined the Dominicans. Both are believed trained as illuminators of manuscripts before entering the order – Fra John perhaps in 1407 or perhaps in 1417. Sources differ, but this bracket of 1407-1437 is nicely convenient for us and the palette used by Fra Angelico a potentially useful comparison for that in Beinecke MS 408. N.B. I’m not suggesting that Fra Angelico or his brother made the Voynich drawings!

Both brothers produced works for the Dominican convent of S. Marco in Florence; Benedetto illuminated choral books for San Marco and for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole and is thought to have assisted Fra John in creating his frescos in Florence and possibly also assisted with that praedella.

  • Graves, Robert Edmund (ed.). Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (A–K). Vol. I (3rd ed.) .p.494.

The Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and the order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) were established as mendicant orders with a charter to preach without being tied to any parish, but the Dominicans began by studying rhetoric, logic, theology and languages, from a theory that they could overwhelm others and convert them by force of logical argument. (That their logical arguments might be built on arguable premises did not occur to them.) That they made so few converts in that way would eventually cause a number of Dominicans to become enraged beyond reason and and simultaneously incur the wrath – sometimes fatal – of non-European communities whose sensibilities their style of missionary preaching offended.

Franciscans believed, on the other hand – in the earlier years at least – that by simply living as Christ had done, in poverty and as an itinerant who relied on the local community for daily sustenance and to whom they should speak very simply, would not only bring others to Christianity but encourage Christians to a more authentic Christian life. This philosophy was so obviously in contrast to the way of life practiced by ‘princes of the church’ and other religious orders that the founder, Francis of Assisi, came within a hairsbreadth of being executed for heresy but led, equally, to an enormous popularity among the ordinary people.

Both orders required that members to take a vow of poverty but here again their practices differed before the mid-fourteenth century. Dominicans defined that poverty merely as a nominal personal poverty and had no objection to the priory being wealthy in lands, money or goods, or in using lavish pigments and gilding for their manuscripts and churches. The early Franciscans, in Italy, had refused gifts of land or money for their community, and while their attitudes would change over time, and fourteenth-century France is often mentioned as part of the reason for that change, we see that difference of opinion expressed in illustrations made for a mid-thirteenth century Dominican bible known as the ‘Abbey’ bible. In the detail (below) the sub-text is that Christ loves Dominicans; that Franciscans’ manuscripts are mean and amateurish; that none can read music; that they are poorly dressed, wear sandals over dirty feet and are ‘dumb’ in more than one sense of the word.

image from Elizabeth Morrison, ‘Far from Marginal’, Getty Museum Blog (Sept. 7th., 2011). Morrison’s comment in more diplomatic.

Many early Franciscans had been unlettered men, but not all – and by the 1400s many were being formally trained in theology and ordained as priests. However, the thirteenth-century work shows that there may have been more than just gut-feeling, or the rumour allegedly mentioned by Marci, behind Wilfrid’s asserting that his small, pocket-sized ‘ugly ducking’ manuscript was a thirteenth-century Franciscan product, despite its being unlike texts produced in centres such as Oxford or Paris even by a Franciscan as Roger Bacon was.

Franciscan simplicity – and a crocodile.

In marked contrast to Dominican ornament – whether in the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries – we have the style of Bodleian, MS Douce 313. It presents as simple and of an almost penitential restraint, but the drawings are fine, fairly sophisticated and in a currently-fashionable form, known as grisaille. Below, its emblem for November, which we’ll compare later with that in Beinecke 408.

The example of Douce 313 provides some helpful information – first, that the Voynich November crocodile is not the result of individual whim. Secondly, that the crocodile was regarded in at least one place in Europe, among certain Franciscans at least, as an acceptable form for Scorpio – its presence in Beinecke MS 408 is not a mistake or the result of the maker’s being ignorant.

Thirdly, that because the drawing in Douce 313 is part of a ‘labours and months’ series of which the remainder is entirely conventional – one might even say ‘classical’ – it suggests the existence of some model regarded as equally conventional in which also a crocodile was drawn for November, despite this being the earliest noted so far in medieval Latin art. Prior to this, we’ve seen November associated with Egypt only in much older works – a Roman-era mosaic calendar from north Africa and the Chronology of 354.

Otherwise, the series of month-emblems in Douce 313 is unlike that of Beiencke MS 408. For Sagittarius it has the Centaur-with-bow, not the fully-human archer seen in the Voynich calendar and first attested among eastern Jews. The emblem for July is a simple Crab, not the ‘locusta’ which, paired, serve as the Voynich calendar’s emblem for July.

While medieval Latin manuscripts often show confusion about the proper form for Scorpius, sometimes drawing it as a crustacean; as an insect; in various lizard-like forms and like forms of dragon similar to those labelled ‘crocodrill’ in the bestiaries, what we have in Douce 313 is recognisably a crocodile, and a beast associated in the medieval imagination with Egypt and more specifically with the Nile.

Thus, Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 are certainly not ‘sister’ manuscripts, but this fairly literal image of a crocodile as November’s emblem makes the context which produced Bodleian, Douce 313 worth looking at more closely.

Where and when?

The writer JK Petersen included the crocodile from Douce 313 in a montage, describing it as difficult to explain. Acknowledging no precedent, he implies originality, so we credit him with first introducing Douce 313 to Voynich studies.

Mr. Petersen did not explain why he supposed the manuscript made in Paris. The holding library speaks of van Dijk having linked it, albeit tentatively, to the Franciscan priory in Brive (since 1919 Brieve-la-Gaillarde), Corrèze – several hundred kilometers4 south of the capital, in a region where dialects of Occitan were spoken in medieval times. (see map HERE).

4. The French wiki article gives distance to Paris by road as 483  km. or 300 miles. St. Anthony of Padua founded a monastery there in 1226.

If, as many have argued (first, if I recall, Jorge Stolfi), the Voynich month-names reflect the form of an Occitan dialect, then we might say that link to an ‘Occitan-speaking region’ is another point in common between Beinecke 408 and Douce 313. [for more information see further below]

In Brieve, in 1226, one of the first generation of Franciscans, a Portuguese called Anthony of Padua had founded a monastery. Because – as said above – a Franciscan was named for the house in which he joined the order, (e.g. John of Fiesole) or, if he had led an itinerant life as Anthony did, where he died, so Anthony is called ‘of Padua’ by reason of having died there in 1231, at the age of just 36 years and, incidentally, while both Roger Bacon and Michael Scot both still lived.

In the calendar of Douce 313, Anthony is commemorated on 13th. June.*

*”the feast of St. Anthony of Padua (13 June) has no octave but is entered as: S. pastris nosti Antonii conf.” – Bodleian catalogue description.

As I’ve attempted before to explain for Voynich researchers, it makes more sense to consider the physical and community networks along which people, goods, ideas, and fashions travelled than to define a subject in terms of modern notions of nationality or national character. Together with topography, it permits us to include in ‘southern’ Europe not only Italy and Spain, but France, and England.

The matter is easily demonstrated by considering that technique of ‘greyscale’ drawing (grisaille) though it is not employed anywhere in Beinecke MS 408. Some scholars also distinguish ‘brown-scale’ (bruneille). Modern English scholars tend, instead, to describe the technique as ‘tinted line drawing’.


NOTE – re Occitan for the month-names – this not the only language or dialect proposed for the Voynich calendar’s month-names. Panofsky spoke of ‘regional French’. Others have suggested Judeo-Catalan, or Norman French (of England), Picard and (so I’ve heard as rumour) even one of the ‘Allemannic’ dialects, the author of the last idea evidently not yet having published his argument (?) – (if you know better, or know the person’s name, do leave a comment).

However, as Nick Pelling earlier noted and Don of Talahassee discovered and explained in detail, quite independently, posting to his own site and in communications to voynich ninja (the last largely ignored as he said), the Voynich month-names’ orthography is close to that found on an astronomical instrument believed made in Picardy. (for more, see references below)

  • The Picard instrument is illustrated as Plate 6 in D.A. King, ‘A medieval astrolabe from Picardy’, book chapter available separately as a pdf though academia.edu.
  • Nick Pelling, crediting Joge Stolfi, had earlier formed an idea that the month names were “probably written in an Occitan dialect close to the Provencal spoken in Toulon, a busy medieval port near Marseilles.” (Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.23. He refers again, rather later, to those early and repeated hints of links to the Franciscan order in ‘The Franciscan Voynich hypothesis – Roger Bacon Redux!ciphermysteries (blog) April 12th., 2012.
  • Don of Talahassee also briefly outlined his findings later in a comment to ciphermysteries ( June 9th, 2015), though I’m unable to find any geared astrolabe whose manufacture is credited to Picardy. This may be due to my failure to find it rather than any error by Don.
  • David A. King (2001), The Ciphers of the Monks: A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages.

Yet another line of connection between England, France and Italy is presented by the grisaille.

England – Paris – Italy. Grisaille. (13thC – mid-14thC).

The technique had been common in England from Anglo-Saxon times, and the first person to make it a special feature of his own work and so inspire in its dissemination in the Continent was an Englishman known as ‘Matthew [of] Paris’ (c. 1200 – 1259).

Fifty years later, in c.1304, it is employed by Giotto in Padua, in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Very shortly after we find it adopted in Paris by a near contemporary, Jean Pucelle, who flourished c. 1320–1350.

And in c.1350, as we know, it is employed in a southern French Franciscan missal – Bodleian Douce 313.

(Northern Europe would take it up rather later, and it would not become really popular in that region until the later sixteenth- through to the seventeenth centuries).

Sculptural and literal. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artists use the technique, quite specifically, to imitate sculpture, and by this time Latin art in Italy and France was moving towards a revival of classical-era literalism. In Douce 313, the ‘labours and months’ drawings don’t quite give the sense of depth seen in other cases, nor do they attempt any trompe l’oeil, but they do allow a possibility that the series copies one of those found carved in reflief on the exterior of medieval churches and cathedrals, from the twelfth century onwards. The example shown below was carved in Amiens, capital of Picardy, in 1220-1270 AD. close to when the monastery in Brieve was founded by Antony. These constellations and labours, however, use forms consistent with what we find in Latin manuscripts from as early as the 8th and 9th centuries.

Amiens Cathedral. 13thC. Amiens the administrative capital of Picardy

It is possible that the calendar series in Douce 313 copies one since lost which has passed unremarked. What we can say is that by 1350 AD, some Franciscans in southern France (at least) found no objection to having a crocodile for November’s emblem, and had by then acquired that style of drawing gained from older England and currently popular among some painters in Italy and in France.

The Voynich drawings appear to have been at first simple line and wash before some heavier hand added heavier pigments to some. The line work does not approach the sophistication of Douce 313 and the two use very different methods to indicate curves and volume. That contrast between the ‘line and wash’ and additions by the heavy painter* is especially noticeable in the Voynich calendar.

*’heavy painter’ – first recognised and the term first coined, I believe, by Nick Pelling. *Note added 17th.December 2022 – although I first saw the term in one of Pelling’s posts, he had earlier credited Stolfi, writing, “Jorge Stolfi pointed out the disparity between the Voynich’s various paints (in terms both of the range of painting materials used, and of the degree of skill employed) and suggested that a “heavy painter” may have added his/her paint much later (say, a century or more), there has been significant doubt about how much paint the manuscript originally had – really, which paints were (deliberately) original, and which were (speculatively) added later?” [note by D.N. O’D – I would agree that the heavy painter came into the history of the drawings quite late, but not necessarily later than the last pre-binding stage of the present manuscript’s evolution. The aim of the heavy painter seems to have been, not least, to make the unclothed figures more ‘decent’ according to a fairly strict western standard, and he appears to me to have also served as overseer and monitor of the work in its last stage, because the majority of drawings are still quite remarkably clear in revealing their earlier roots and the non-Latin environment. For imported images not to have been ‘translated’ into Latin forms is most unusual. I attribute this exactness, which I’ve described as ‘near facsimile’ exactness, to an original direction by the person commissioning the work that the images should be simply copied, not made more compatible with Latin conventions – as done routinely when foreign matter entered Latin horizons. One might consider the way images in the ‘Tacuinum Sanitatis’ are changed, copy by copy. The ‘heavy painter’s agenda was not that of the person who first engaged the copyists].

The passage just quoted above – in italics – is taken from N.Pelling, ‘ Voynich Colour Inference. A Sure Path to Madness…’, ciphermysteries, December 20th., 2011.

St. Anthony of Padua – by Giotto

Lines of connection – Giotto.

In the same way that we associate Fra Angelico’s paintings with a Dominican context, so in a more general way Giotto is associated with the Franciscans. He is another of those important thirteenth-century figures, having been born in 1267 AD or 1277 AD.

Before being commissioned for work in Padua’s Scrovegni chapel in c.1305 he had already worked on the Basilica built in Padua for St. Anthony (yes, the Portuguese one), and before that for the Franciscan friars of Assisi and of Rimini.

In Douce 313 bishop Gaudentius of Rimini is commemorated – an inclusion difficult to explain in terms of the usual French liturgical roster but easily understood in terms of the Franciscan network.

Gaudentius had come to Rimini from Asia minor about the time the Chronography of 354 was made with its ‘Egyptian’ November and while memory was still fresh of what is called ‘The Plague of Cyprian’ (c.251–270 AD).

Other Times and other Places – define ‘Egyptian’.

One thing which Europe in general, and the preaching orders and the Italian mercantile cities in particular, did have in common was a keen interest in regions lying to the east of Europe.

Christian Europe was well aware that it had been from the east that their religion had come. In the east, too, lay the holy land, the chief point of orientation for Latins’ mappamundi.

Models of monasticism were presented in the form of early Egyptian ascetics, such as Antony of the desert – whose relics arrived in France after being carried first from Alexandria to Constantinople, and rather later from Constantinople to France, at times when theach of the first two cities was in peril.

Eventually (in 1297) the saint’s relics were given a church which soon became a centre of pilgrimage: Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye.

The Life of Antony, translated into Latin as early as the 4thC, was “one of the best known works of literature in the Christian world, a status it would hold through the Middle Ages”.

Fra Angelico pictured that early ascetic in a rather curious garment. The usual reading of the ‘Life’ says Antony had only a couple of rough skin robes – of the sort which Latin Europe gave John the Baptist or Mary Magdalen. One possible explanation is that, living only six kilometers from Florence, Fra Angelico had heard tell of a certain ‘primordial’ robe left there by a Franciscan friar named John de’Marignolli in 1353. de’Marignolli was not the first Franciscan to go to China. He also believed that along the maritime route he had seen the original Paradise and for reasons I won’t go into here, he may have been right.

Before being sent east, however, de’Marignolli had taught theology at the University of Bologna, and we about that ‘primordial’ robe he brought back because years later, in Prague and being given the rather dreary task of re-writing the Annals of Bohemia, he interspersed that narrative with occasional reminiscence.

In one passage he wrote, first quoting Genesis 3:21:

“And the Lord made for Adam and his wife coats of skins or fur, and clothed them therewith. …” [Gen. 3:21]. Now then I say, without however meaning to dogmatize, that for coats of fur we should read coats of fibre. For among the fronds of the Nargil, of which I have spoken above, there grows a sort of fibrous web forming an open network of coarse dry filaments. … A garment such as I mean, of this cannall cloth (and not camel cloth), I wore till I got to Florence, and I left it in the sacristy of the Minor Friars there. No doubt the raiment of John Baptist was of this kind.

from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China VOL. II. pp. 240-242 ‘ The Travels of John de Marignolli 1339-1353’.

This is repeated in another passage, with the Latin terms included the Yule translation reading: “And he made them coats of skins: so at least we com­monly have it, pelliceas,”of fur,” but we should do better to read filiceas,”of fibre”; because they were no doubt of a certain fibrous substance which grows like net-work between the shoots of the coco-palm; I wore one of these myself till I got to Florence, where I left it. ibid. p.227.

John the Baptist was certainly another desert ascetic like Antony, but te conventions of western Christian art meant that the Baptist could not be dressed so unconventionally, so instead – as it seems to me – Fra Angelico has put the ‘paradiscal’ ascetic robe on Antony. He has had to use his imagination or some other eastern souvenir as his model, though, because the natural fibre de’Marigolli meant was coir, and what Fra Angelico painted is more like Asian basketry, rush-matting or a type of woven cape known from parts of India.

Whether there exists, or ever existed, an earlier written account of de’Marignolli’s journey, we know that on his return he had to report to his superiors, and make a formal report to the papal court in Avignon. We may reasonably suppose that he would also have had to answer the usual raft of questions from his fellows, explaining the curious garment left in Florence and speaking about those far-off ‘pagans’ who members hoped one day to convert.

In the European imagination, all eastern peoples were of Egyptian origin and this was so even so late as 1636, when Athanasius Kircher used that to argue that Chinese characters descended from Egyptian hieroglyphic (hieratic) writing. The belief was gained from the Bible, which said that after the Flood, the world had been repopulated by Noah’s sons, one seeing to Africa exclusive of Egypt, another given Europe and the third ‘Asia’, ‘Asia’ defined as beginning from Egypt and the Bosphorus. Because this belief was still current belief among even learned European Christians so lateas the 1630s, we describe the comments made to Kircher by Baresch as meaning that he thought manuscript’s content in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’ – though in my own opinion, when he says the plants are exotics, we may believe him.

  • Kircher argued, initially, that Chinese characters evolved from Egypt’s hieroglyphic (hieratic) script, but would later believe the Chinese to be ‘Adamites’. cf. Wang Haili, ‘Chinese Approaches to Egyptian Hieroglyphs: liushu and bushou’, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 165, No. 2 (2015), pp. 279-302.

Other forms of book (and other crocodiles).

Another detail from praedella shows the interest felt in early fifteenth century Italy in distant peoples and places. Below, a Dominican friar is included in a group which otherwise consists of St. Thomas, best known as Christ’s apostle to India, and two foreign-looking men who wear pink, with no hint of that censure we saw in Bonaiuti’s depiction of Michael Scot.

St. Thomas was one of Christ’s apostles, best known as the apostle to India. There, a community known as the ‘Community of Thomas’ attribute their founding to that apostle and say they were founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD.

St. Thomas didn’t dress as he’s represented here, of course, but his bones had eventually been moved from southern India to Syria and (so it is said) later to Chios, from which another Florentine, a member of the Acciaiuoli family, carried them in 1258 to Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they remain.

That detail in the praedella is not entirely clear, but among the easterners associated with Thomas, one holds what I believe is a set of inscribed palm-leaf books, palm-leaves having once been a common medium used from north Africa through Arabia and the east. The quill which Fra Angelico gives that figure signifies, in the visual language of Latin Europe, a scribe.

We may again cite de’Marignolli though a good number of westerners had seen these things before him and he himself had a guide from India, a friar named Peter. But he says, of people in Sri Lanka [Seyllan] “they teach boys to form their letters, first by writing with the finger on sand, and afterwards with an iron style upon leaves of paper, or rather I should say upon leaves of a certain tree”.

And there, for the moment, we pause.

Additional note –

As antidote to the wiki article on de’ Marignolli (which attempts to make him a person of high social consequence, ties him chiefly to Prague, and quite omits to mention that he was an Italian Franciscan, I provide the following – from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

“John de’ Marignolli. Born at Florence about 1290; place and date of death unknown. When quite a youth he received the Franciscan habit at the convent of Santa Croce, Florence; later on, as he himself tells us, he held the chair of theology at the University of Bologna. Nothing more is known of his religious life until Benedict XII sent him with other Franciscans on a mission to the Emperor of China”… etc. It is evident to anyone who has actually read the Franciscans’ accounts of their own travels that wiki writers err who attempt to make of those friars personages of high social status travelling with pomp and circumstance. They carried letters and messages but were not ‘diplomats’ in the modern sense.


NOTICE TO READERS: I regret that, in order to refer in these posts to my own work, while avoiding readers’ wondering if they’ve not seen something similar elsewhere in Voyich-land, I must be clear that no precedent existed when I contributed the following texts and topics (among numerous others) to Voynich studies:

Italian mercantile handbooks other than Milanese cipher-books; the history of imported goods; the history of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries and accounts of their journeys; the astronomical studies conducted in Constantinople, Trebizond, as in Maragha and Tabriz under under Mongol rule; detailed historical studies of the overland ‘silk’ routes and maritime ‘spice routes’; the Armenians in the east and in Europe; the question of perfumes and incense ingredients; accounts of and by secular travellers (other than vague allusions made earlier, by some, to Marco Polo); I introduced matters relating to cartography and cartographers of the period from the early 14thC to mid-fifteenth century, (including Abraham Creques’ Catalan Atlas and Genoese and Venetian chartmakers of the period); celestial navigation and its calculations; compass-roses named by winds, stars, or both; handbooks of navigation; the type of notebooks and guides which emerged from Genoa, from Venice and from the House of Datini (in Prato and in Avignon); other travellers whose accounts of the world beyond western Christian Europe relate to the period before the 1450s, the idea of mnemonic devices and their relevance – for the pre-Renaissance period and introducing in that context the works of Mary Carruthers. Note and comment on Greek and ‘a form of Jewish’ influence noted in certain drawings. Other than Jorge Stolfi I know of no earlier Voynich research which investigated eastern routes or artefacts, or indeed considered any non-Latin-European origin for anything in BeineckeMS 408. Those matters and texts are just some of the material first introduced to Voynich studies by the present writer in the course of sharing research explaining my analytical studies and their conclusions about one and then another, section of Beinecke MS 408 – from 2008 to the present. The habit of some Voynich writers in re-using research, and even attempting to publish it or copyright it to themselves, while neglecting to name the source – and some quite deliberately and systematically re-assigning such credits and thus misdirecting other researchers – would finally lead to my closing Voynichimagery from the public in 2017. That these things are all simple statements of fact is something that the few other Voynich “old boys” know well enough.

India too has its crocodiles, of course.

‘Mugger’ crocodile – India

The following image relates to the Comment I’ve left below.

O’Donovan notes. Calendar emblems 6.3: of ‘Ausonian verses’ and Scythian bows.

2400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

To the best of my knowledge, all precedents are correctly acknowledged in what follows. If none is cited then, to the best of my knowledge, that item had not been considered in connection with Beinecke MS 408 before it was brought to notice in essays and research summaries published by the present writer from 2009 onwards. If you know better (and you may do) by all means email or leave a comment with the details.

From now on, there’ll be no more quotation marks around the phase Voynich calendar in these posts.

The mail has now brought a copy of Faith Wallis’ English translation of de Temporum ratione and in a note Wallis confirms that verses Bede attributes to “one of the ancients” are those of Ausonius – the same verses used as tags in a twelfth-century mosaic calendar in San Savino in Piacenza.

Here are those verses again, in a nicer font.

More than twenty years ago, in the first Voynich mailing list, Jim Reeds’ referred to San Savino’s charter document as an example of those elongated letters (mis-called “gallows letters”) which have been noted in the Voynich script. Strange to say, no one looked at the monastery’s art to see if it had anything useful to add – so I did, a while ago but the link to computus – and thus to Ausonius – now returns us to Piacenza by a different route.

San Savino’s 12thC charter. cited by Jim Reeds before 2002.

During the earlier exploration and thanks to Jonathan Jarretts kindly responding to emailed queries, I showed several more such charters with similarly elongated ascenders, concluding that the custom had become rare in the Latin west by the end of the twelfth century, and that in any case it is typically found there only in documents of the charter type written on the authority of the pope or ancillary authorities, but that isn’t our focus now.

San Savino’s twelfth-century mosaic did not survive the centuries entire. Its July roundel survived, but those for November and December did not fare so well.

We’ve seen that the July emblem offers a nice specimen of a locusta– Cancer and one with a three-point head, like those in the Voynich emblem for July.

Here (below) the image on the left shows what remained of the November emblem in 1836 when a careful drawing in ink and watercolour was made of what remained.

(left) detail from the 1836 drawing and watercolour record; (right) the November roundel after recent restoration-reconstruction.

Following the making of the 1836 record, a century and a half evidently saw more lost by attrition. A recent effort at reconstruction and restoration, observing best practice, has kept very clear the distinction between what remained of the original by 2010 and what the restorers added, since they have used sympathetic materials, colours and forms but kept it very clear what is newly added and what was there when they began. I’ve put orange rings over the left-hand detail (above) to show all that remained for the restorers to work with.

It is clear that the roundel had shown a creature whose tail ended with a hook-spike, and though one does not know what other historical information was available to the restorers and their clients, some uncertainty must remain about the original form for that figure.

Attrition must have removed even more of the December emblem, because certain noteworthy discrepancies are evident between the recent reconstruction and details still visible, and carefully recorded, in 1836.

It is worth taking the time to consider those differences with care. As we’ll see, it is not impossible that the figure had not been, originally, of the Centaur type but, like the Voynich archer, a standing human figure of the kind I term – following Cicero and Ausonius – “Arcitenens”.

Of the December figure nothing remained even in 1836 but part of the bow, the hands on that bow, a forearm and a hat. Between each of those details as shown by the drawing, and their appearance in the recent restoration, a number of important differences are evident.

Compare – the form taken by the top of the bow, by the line of its curves; the bow’s position relative to the last letter of “Sagittarius” – and especially the position of the human hands on the bow and on the bowstring.

It is true that the roundel was always labelled as Sagittarius and not with Ausonius’ term, adopted from Cicero*, but we have other instances of Sagittarius’ being represented with just two legs, including in some copies of Aratus that are in Latin, but are found in what were at the time the outer fringes of the Carolingian sphere.

*Ausonius’ use of the term Arcitenens (archaised as “Arquitenens”) is very rare, and the word appears to have been employed first by Cicero in his translation of Aratus’ poem. The Greek term he rendered so is usually found only as an epithet for Artemis or for Apollo and thus implies a human and not half-animal body for the figure.


A Scythian Bow – history and inferences.

The original form for the Piacenzan archer’s bow had it a recurved bow of the sort called Scythian. Above (left) is an example of that type in an early copy of the Latin Aratus, and (right) another whose bow and stance suggests the Parthian, but who is again given goat-like legs, which in the language of most northern Latin medieval art signifies the devil.

Yet that same form for Sagittarius’ bow is attested in what was then Scythian territory, on a coin produced about fifty years after Eudoxus’ death, for a town called Παντικάπαιον (Pantikapaion). The town had been founded by speakers of Ionian Greek; its name would later be rendered in Roman form as Panticapaeum.

One side of that coin shows a Pan-like figure and the other a Scythian bow. To the best of my knowledge, the second motif had not been been recognised as an allusion to the constellation Sagittarius before an essay published, by the present author, on the subject of the Voynich archer. Since then I have seen the second part of the following illustration re-used online by a number of writers, chiefly those interested in astrology.

reprinted from D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Not a Centaur. Sagittarius fol 73v’ voynichimagery, June 24th., 2015, from an earlier article which the author had published elsewhere in October 2013. coin by permission, Wildwinds.


Scythopolis/Beth Shean in Galilee

Fifty years later still, in what is now Israel, and upon the ruined foundations of an earlier town occupied by Egyptians and Canaanites, the Macedonian-Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r.282-246 BC), established a new town, naming it Scythopolis.

Scholars suppose the choice of name may be due to the new town’s being first occupied by former mercenaries in the Hellenistic armies, following a practice often observed in ancient as in more rent times, by which unwanted mercenaries are given homes and land and so turned into useful settlers rather than becoming lordless marauding bands.

Scythopolis grew to be a substantial walled city before being taken by Pompey, and though the Romans re-named it, the older name persisted. As late as the sixth century AD, a Byzantine-Greek Christian, a scholar and bishop for that area, is referred to as John Scythopolita (ca. 536–550 AD) or “the Scholasticus.”

The same town is now called Beth Shean or Bet She’an. There, a mosaic dated to the sixth century provides our earliest-known example of a Roman zodiac in which Sagittarius is made a fully human, standing or striding archer. This rota is inscribed with Hebrew letters and, quite apart from the town’s association with Scythians, this form avoids any suggestion of human-and-animal combined, which concept was always abhorrent to the Jews, and at that time equally distasteful to eastern Christians of that region.

website of Beth Alpha, Beit She’an.

Another mosaic floor from Beth Shean, again from the 6thC AD, formed a floor open to the sky and was part of a Christian monastery. This eschews altogether any use of the Roman zodiac, maintaining the much older custom of dividing the year by seasonal activities and (optionally), religious observances. Interestingly, there was apparently no objection to showing personifications of sun and moon, these each representing half of the night-and-day of 24 hours as well as the division between warmer and cooler months and possibly the circuit of stars on the solar, and the lunar paths, respectively.

Monastery of the Lady Mary Beth Shean (6thC).


Those two figures may remind some readers of how sun and moon are represented on ivory tabulae recovered from Grand in the High Vosges, and dated variously between the 1st-3rdC AD. Others, more familiar with Roman artefacts may be reminded instead of a peg-calendar (or parapegma) scratched into the walls of a public baths that had been built in imperial Rome, though this example is again dated to the 6thC AD. (sorry about the poor quality image).

from a private copy.

A nice blogpost (in Spanish) about peg-calendars.

*Hilario Mendiaga, ‘Parapegma‘, debreves (Blogger blog), (April 24th., 2012)

Beth Shean would be deserted and destroyed in the following (7th) century, so we can be sure both these mosaics date to no later than the sixth century.

upper and lower images from old posts *20010-2013) in Dennis Aubrey’s Via Lucis

The earliest remaining western example of a fully human standing archer for Sagittarius appears in glass. First, an example from Aisne (Braisne) abbey, later taken to Soissons according to the late Dennis Aubrey, who took the photo shown (right, upper register).

That window used red glass of a kind which, by the 9thC, only a few families still knew how to produce, and all lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, with glass tesserae being found in great heaps near Lake Tiberius and exported widely during the Medieval centuries. It is possible, therefore, that the appearance of the “Beth Shean” type, which appears unheralded in the Latin west was because not only materials, but workers, were imported, and as early as the 9th and 10th centuries, for a new style developing in French architecture and which in its fullest form became known as the “Opus Francigenum”. It was later despised by some Italian humanists, Giorgio Vasari calling it “gothic” – meaning barbaric – but as so often, the label stuck and all derogatory overtones were eventually forgotten, from which arose another mistaken idea that there had been something uniquely Germanic about it.

A thirteenth-century example in the cathedral of Lausanne shows that along with adopting the architectural elements of Opus Francigenum, efforts were made to introduce similar forms for the coloured glass windows. (above, lower register).

The earlier, French, example evinces a stronger suggestion of Pan-like legs, though now covered with a hairy fabric rather than a hairy pelt. The bow was soon made more like that familiar to a medieval Latin audience – a change which makes even more interesting the original form for the archer’s bow in the Piacenzan mosaic.

Between what we find in publicly accessible images such as these, and images used in medieval manuscripts – private possessions by definition – the interactions are certainly fascinating and tempting to explore, but that is more than our present topic permits. It is, however, interesting to note that the Lausanne window as it is now is uses “Arcitenens” and not “Sagittarius” as the label.

One would dearly like to know whether there was once circulating an illustrated copy of Ausionius’ Eclogues as school-room verses, and if so whether those had been replaced as a basic text by the Poeticon astronomicon – and when – and whether (if such a change occurred) this was only because the latter was ascribed, probably erroneously, to the more eminent figure of Hyginus? Fascinating as it would be to investigate such questions, they too must be left aside here.

What we can say is that it would appear the Piacenzan mosaic originally showed a Scythian (recurved) bow and – for all that was left of it by 1836 – might have shown a standing human figure. It is significant, I think, that the original shows the figure not as about to shoot, but simply nocking the arrow – preparing to make the weapon ready, as is also true of the Voynich bowman, though his bow has been formed as a crossbow, and his appearance now presents a curious combination of the Spanish, the Dalmatian-Greek and possibly the Genoese. We can also say that a Scythian bow for Sagittarius suggests Hellenistic or eastern Greek precedents.

In my opinion, one is meant to read in the present form for the Voynich figure a punning allusion to the kingdom of the Archipelago: ‘Arci-tenens’. However… that is not an idea appropriate before the thirteenth-to-fifteenth centuries, when I suggest the Voynich archer figure was ‘modernised’.

Here again is what had remained of the roundel in Piacenza by 1836.


Bede’s source for the “Ausonian verses”

Bede knew the zodiac signs should begin in the middle of one month and finish in the middle of the next – but Ausonius says nothing of that. He assigns the fishes to March, the Crab (= langouste) to July and the Archer for December, as the Voynich calendar does. No crocodile is mentioned, but in his verse for November “bids.. go headlong” which might suggest something of the kind.

Wallis identifies Bede’s source for the verses:

“Bede derived the Eclogue and its introduction from a text entitled ‘De causis quibus nomina acceperunt duodecim signa‘ edited by Jones in BOD 665-667. This edition omits the poem proper. but it is included in Jones’ earlier transcription in Bedae psudepigrapha 103. This same text was the primary source for [Bede’s] ‘On the Nature of Things[pt] 17. Its presence in the “Bobbio computus” (Milan, Ambrosiana H. 150 inf ) suggests an Irish origin

Faith Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning… pp.54-55
  • Faith Wallis, Bede (trans.), Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated with introduction, notes and commentary by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press, 1988 (Translated texts for Historians series Vol. 29)
  • re ‘De causis quibus nomina acceperunt duodecim signa’ – It seems there was an edition (or thesis) with that title issued in 2010; copy listed by the Favey Library of Villanova University. The book(?) has been digitised but is accessible only to ‘alum’ (alumnus?) accounts.

I’ll leave you with a few things to think over. A map of the old Irish foundations in Europe, and two more details from the Piacenza mosaic.

In the next post, I’ll begin with Cicero’s advice to a friend about his son’s education.

Bobbio the Irish and Piacenza.

Nicklies speaks, a little vaguely, of possible or probable links between the Piacenza mosaic and one made a century earlier for Bobbio.

Bobbio was certainly an Irish foundation and Piacenza’s mosaic has some plainly Irish motifs, including one often mistaken for the later and romantic Latin figure of ‘Melusine’, or a type termed a ‘mermaid’ though it carries neither mirror nor comb.

It had arisen as an Irish, and occasionally an Anglo-Saxon image for the ship or coracle, represented in a style deriving from that of late Roman-North Africa, where they are called by art-historians “triton-” figures.

Most of the Latin versions extant are, however, made as grotesques and date from the the 12thC though occasionally, as with the two shown above, a more faithful version survived. That shown on the right (above) is from San Savino. The other is from an English church built in the 12thC, but on an Anglo-Saxon foundation. Whether the older block were re-used, or clerics in this church felt more sympathy for pre-Norman tradition, one cannot say.

Another variation on the triton type appears, evidently by way of iconography of Basilidean gnosticism, in this highly eclectic Late Roman relief found in Trier and dated to the 3rdC AD.

A water-monster in the Piacenza mosaic is oddly reminiscent of our crocodile-Ammit type. It has an unnervingly wide grin as it bears away an unfortunate soul.

It was a custom of the pre-Christian Irish and Celtic peoples to carry off the head of enemy, but faces are given many watery creatures in medieval constellation-drawings, as we’ve seen.

In the next post, I’ll be considering the calendars of the Labours type and how an association with the Roman zodiac appears relatively late in the history of such rosters. It looks as if what we may have in the Voynich series is an intersection of the two – something which is found during the late Roman-early Christian period and chiefly between the c.3rdC -6th C AD.

The post will have its line assisted thanks, indirectly, to Mr. JK. Petersen’s having once mentioned a certain fourteenth-century French manuscript.

From the website of San Savino

O’Donovan notes #8.2. Compare and contrast f.67v-1 and f.85r (part).

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

Because the drawing on folio 67v-1 is a diagram, we may expect that its structure will speak to the type of information it was designed to convey.

Like the diagram on folio 85r, it is organised by two fourfold divisions.

We’ll consider now what is inside its larger circle, leaving aside for the present the four peripheral emblems (below).


The centre of folio 85r (part) shows a ‘leonine’ sun in a field that isn’t simply coloured, but formed as swirling lines. As we now have the drawing, those lines are coloured blue, but since we don’t yet know when the ‘heavy painter’ added that pigment, we focus on the basic line drawing.

These two central emblems tell us two important things: first, that the person(s) who first gave each drawing its form did not think of the heavens as a smooth dome, solid or crystalline, nor as as a tent, but chiefly in terms of this swirling movement or perhaps by comparison with some other form composed of a circuit of repeating lines/curves.

If we were considering the history of Mediterranean art, we might liken the centre in folio 67v-1 to a form of omphalos motif, but more about the drawing must be taken into account before trying to explain it.

Since we know the winds were a principal reference in the first diagram (folio 85r) and that the usual way to describe the circuit of direction during daylight hours was by naming the wind from that direction, the fact that the centre of 67v-1 shows a comparable swirling pattern but now has a six-point star at its centre, makes it reasonable to test as one possibility that it might describe how the directions were determined at night.

It’s just a possibility, one worth exploring but – as regular readers will know – our aim is not to come up with some novel or merely plausible theoretical explanation , but to correctly understand and explain what the original maker had intended.

Another axiom which applies here is that when there is an easier way to do something, but the first maker of an image chose a less convenient way, there’s usually some good reason for it – it’s usually meaningful. And, as you’ll probably tire of hearing before too long…

Differences really matter!

In this case, when a circle or a square is to be divided by two four-fold divisions, the easy way to do it, and the way one would expect it done in the symmetry-loving art of western Europe, would be like this:

In that case, if you wanted to associate wind-names with the points of sunrise and sunset, as they change through the year, your schematic diagram would look rather like this (below) whether the names were in Greek, in Latin or in some European vernacular:

adapted from ‘the Aristotelian winds’ illustration in an excellent wiki article ‘Classical Compass Winds‘.

But that isn’t how these two diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 were designed.

(detail) 85r (part)

In both diagrams, the main four-fold division has its lines offset. That is, the lines might ‘box’ the centre, but they aren’t made as two lines that intersect at the centre. Euclidian, it isn’t.

If this had occurred in just one of the two diagrams, we might shrug it off, but the same is done in both. So it’s purposeful.

(detail f.67v-1)

Details of this kind are what a novice instinctively turns their eye and mind away from, or tries immediately to invent some excuse for as they struggle to maintain our natural and deep-seated belief that “our ways are the right and normal”.

Throughout the history of this manuscript’s study, that habit of shying away and trying to ignore uncomfortable differences from Latin norms (or, still more narrowly from one’s pet theory) has resulted in unjustified assertions that the fifteenth-century copyists or the original draughtsmen were incompetent or devious. We don’t need to resort to such excuses because our ‘norm’ must be whatever was customary for those people by whom, and for whom, a drawing was first given form.

Our task is to understand the drawings, not to decide what habits and ideas ‘ought’ to have informed them.

And from such indications of how the original maker thought and what was normal in his/her time and place, we may identify where and when a given drawing was first formed.

It may seem strange at first to have no preliminary theory, but it does allow the researcher a much more impartial approach and a more relaxed response to unexpected phenomena, such as these offset lines of division.



I think it is now generally accepted, as it was not a few years ago, that what we have in Beinecke MS 408 is a compilation, not a single homogenous work.

That means we can’t just assume that the time and place in which one drawing was formed will be the same for all, or for any other unless expressing similar forms, stylistics and what we might call cultural attitudes.

In both these diagrams, for example, we find a form for the sun which has it flame-haired rather than – as it might be – surrounded by spiked rays.

A diagram adjacent to our second example adds the remarkable information (folio 67v-2) that the ‘flaming’ corona is not simply a stylistic but is meaningful; that we are to consider those flaming locks artificial, with the beard (at least) tied about the face and perhaps also the head’s wild-looking curls.

(detail) folio 67v-2

That it is meant for the sun, not any such figure as Medusa or an alchemical character is evidenced by the fact that we find the same flame-haired form for the sun used throughout the manuscript’s diagrams and with it a repeated view that the sun’s daily emergence is associated with a flower.

In the Voynich map, that flower is included in the emblem marking the map’s ‘west’; the sun falls into a surface very economically shown as under water; from the water-marked mud there emerges the flower through which the sun will re-emerge next morning in the east.

Note – The Voynich map is drawn on one side of a single sheet of vellum. It was originally numbered ‘folio 86v‘ although it is certainly the first drawing placed on that sheet. The Beinecke’s subsequent re-foliation splits the map’s description in a way that reads as if it half the map had been drawn of the back of one bifolio and half on the front of another – but in is a single drawing, on one side of a single sheet.

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

This detail is now so faint that I’ve had to use a data-rich image. Hope it doesn’t crash anyone’s phone. Even so, it is so very faded that it’s extremely difficult to read – though an XRF scan for iron (in the iron-gall ink) might one day make the form clear.

The same concept, though very differently drawn, informs these emblems in folio 67v-1, and that marked difference in stylistic habits as well as the existence of different attitudes to defining the directions mean that here we cannot assume assignment to sunrise or to sunset. My reason for saying so should be explained.

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

The question we must ask now is whether we can assume for folio 67v-1 that the ‘sun+flower’ means West there, simply because the map includes the flower in its west emblem.

I expect most readers habitually take ‘north-up’ as their default, and will assume without much pause for thought that if you stand facing North, East must lie on your right.

But “North orientation means east-right” is a convention, not a fact however much a modern person of European heritage might suppose it commonsensical.

Think of it this way:

Instead of imagining that you stand looking north, imagine yourself lying on the ground with your head towards the North.

Now, if you lie face-down, East will be on your right hand, but if you roll to lie on your back, looking up into the sky then East will be to your left-hand side.

Suppose now you’re able to do the same things, but hovering several feet or metres above ground. By daylight your bird’s eye view, looking down, would produce a map of the land which had East to your right, but when you rolled over to map the night sky, East will be on the left.

The point is that you can have an ‘east-left’ even if your primary direction is to the North. It can depend on whether you’re actually or conceptually defining directions by where you are, and then whether you’re turning towards the earth, or the sky.

Latin Europe only accepted this ‘east-left’ idea within the limited topic of representing the constellations (and then only occasionally) and for some instruments like our planispheres.

Since we already suspect a non-Latin origin for the diagram on folio 67v-1, thanks to those offset lines and adjacency to the curious sun on folio 67v-2, we can’t presume the same norms or limits will apply to this drawing as would if a drawing spoke the graphic language of medieval Latin Europe.

There’s a possibility, therefore, that though when turned North-up, the diagram on folio 85r had its East on the diagram’s right side, this may not. The diagram on folio 85r has the sun as its central emblem, and in daylight the directions were commonly named by winds, but this diagram has a star in its centre and so may be referring to divisions of the night-sky. Which means that whether or not originally designed North-up, it might have its East on the left. (With me so far?)

I understand that it’s tempting for some students of this manuscript, as they begin feeling confused or bewildered by its drawings, to brush aside both the ‘oddities’ and their investigation, resorting instead to adopting impatience as excuse for returning to an easier and more familiar cultural context. But it won’t do. The sun’s being reborn from a flower each day is no expression of medieval western Christian culture, whose nearest approach was the rite of baptism, once the font had replaced the river.

And, if this weren’t enough to cope with, the Voynich map’s east-west placements are the reverse of a European norm yet it is clearly a map showing part of the physical world and not the night sky.

Lotus and rebirth.

Some readers may know how widely the lotus was (and is) identified with re-birth, but might associate the source of that idea only Buddhism, with Hinduism, with ancient Egypt or with some other body of knowledge according to their own background.

So far as I can discover, none but the Egyptians ever actually believed that the sun was re-born daily from a lotus, or believed as if it had been true, that every lotus sinks into the mud at night yet rises fresh and clean each morning.

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

It was believed that a giant lotus blossom came out of the primeval waters of Nun, and out of which the sun-god emerged. The Egyptian text whose transliterated name (rw nw prt m hrw), is translated as ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ or as ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’ has come to be mis-named ‘Book of the Dead’ in English. It includes a spell to transform the deceased into a lotus, ensuring rebirth during the day for the deceased.

CAUTION: religious and cultural beliefs naturally influence how images are formed by a given community, but it is a mistake to imagine that every reflection of such ideas means that either the image or its accompanying text must be all about religion.

So when we find, in Persepolis, an image of the lotus with two buds, we need not suppose the figure holding them was a convert to the religion of Egypt.

An idea which one people regards as speaking to immortality can easily be translated, there or elsewhere, into a promise of never-ending power – ‘horizon to horizon’ – and this latter I take to be the sense of the lotus image (illustrated below) from Achaemenid Persepolis.

Buddhism took another message from the lotus, one not greatly different from the idea of emerging bright and unscathed despite immersion in mud and water – but now that idea of re-emergence was expressed in terms of the person’s soul and not their physical body. To quote a label written by the Art Institute of Chicago for an artefact made in China between 618 CE–906 AD:

From the time Buddhism came to China, the lotus—which emerges unstained from muddy water and therefore carries associations of purity and non-attachment to worldly concerns—had become a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art.

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

It is usual for those three major traditions of the pre- and non-Roman world: the Egyptian, the Buddhist and the Hindu – to be discussed as if each was wholly independent of the other two, but there was a time when all three ways flourished in close proximity.

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

In the region about Gandhara, where Buddhism would first flourish, lay the easternmost borderlands of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

The Persians evidently had a custom (also seen in pre-Roman Egypt) where dangerous border-lands were peopled with foreign communities who were brought, or who came voluntarily, from elsewhere.

The Persians had populated this borderland with, among others, communities taken from Asia minor and from Greek-speakers in Egypt, both Carians and Phoenicians and peoples who had earlier been settled by Egypt along its own southern and western borders.

When Alexander of Macedon conquered and took the Persian empire, the same eastern border region which had marked the limit of that empire now became the eastern limit of his own, and after his death, remained as the eastern border of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom.

It is an amusing side-light to Voynich studies, that a mention of the Hellenistic kingdoms elicits snorts of derision from hard-core Voynich traditionalists, though the same persons will happily refer to Aristotle, who lived even earlier and was one of Alexander’s tutors. 🙂

it was during the period of closest interaction between the eastern ‘Greeks’ and India that the early Buddhist art of Gandhara developed and Buddhism came into its own. Taking with them the skill of paper-making, Buddhist teachers then carried their message throughout India and to as far as the east China sea, their own vision of the lotus with it.


With literally half the world aware of the lotus as a symbol of re-emergence, how can one decide whether our debt is to one, or some combination of those traditions or (as Isidore is indebted to classical Roman poets) whether we’re looking at some later maintenance of the conceptual image quite divorced from the society which first expressed that image?

Consider that stylistic difference:

In the Voynich map, the flower is formed in a way that agrees with one among the long-enduring conventions found in Egyptian art. The following example is from a tomb-painting but other instances would have appeared in classical and in medieval times as carvings and paintings in publicly accessible areas. Here the lotus is drawn fan-like, the petals topped with dots as (or with) a narrow band. Notice also that the open flower is flanked by two others, not yet opened.

Here is how the lotus is drawn on the Voynich map – again with its petals topped by dots to form an upper boundary.

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

Before anyone becomes heated with some Egyptian theory, I must point out that an artefact made in China during the Northern Song period (618-907 AD) also shows this way of depicting the lotus. The object was, admittedly, probably for export and was made during a period when there were diplomatic and trading ties between Persia, Baghdad, India and China.

detail from a vessel made during the time of the Northern Song. This image and associated research summary first published through Voynichimagery in, ‘Emblems of Direction – ‘West’ (July 29th., 2012).

Also found in common between ancient Egyptian, Achaemenid and later Asian representations is a type which does not show literally the flower’s physical appearance, but makes it resemble a cup.

Below, in the left column, one example from ancient Egypt and one from Achaemenid Persepolis. On the right side, illustrations to show that the cup-like form for ‘sunrise’/rebirth on folio 67v-1 has been drawn in a way that permits comparison with Chinese artefacts from (a) the 12th-13thC Yuan period and even much earlier (see further below) – from the 3rdC AD Jun [Jin] period.

The Jun period had seen the height of Indo-Greek fusion, with the flourishing of Buddhist culture in India.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), relations between the Islamic world and China had been developing well. Baghdad was the Abbasid capital, and Siraf in the Persian Gulf was the chief terminus for the east-west trade.

Two separate incidents, costing the lives of resident foreign traders saw formal relations wither andfor some long time, trade was chiefly conducted by land.

incidents…’ massacres in Yangzhou in 760 AD, when a thousand ‘Arabs and Persians’ are said to have been massacred; Guangzhou in 878–879 AD when tens of thousands are reported massacred – including Arabs, Persians and Christians, the last presumably members of the Church of the East (Nestorians). No reference is made to Manichaeans though perhaps the historian classed them as Persian.

  • Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery, Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān, (NYU: 2014)

We know that by the end of the twelfth (thirteenth – sorry, missed that misprint) century, relations had been restored – because when John of Montecorvino travelled east as Europe’s first ambassador-missionary, he found Italians already resident and established there as trading families.

From all the above, we may fairly conclude that the drawing on folio 67v-1 was not first formed as any expression of western Christian culture and that the face emerging from that type of cup-shaped flower – or flower-shaped cup if you like – must signify East.

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

Though the emerging face here is turned to one side, where on the map it emerges full-face, does not appear to have been considered a significant change.

But between this image and that on the Voynich map, the style of drawing is very different and in my opinion the diagram on folio 67v-1 had a much later origin.

It is not impossible that as lines from Isidore’s Etymologies informed the final appearance of the drawing on folio 85r, so the final form for this drawing may be informed by lines from Hafiz who flourished at just the time of most interest to us – the mid-fourteenth century. (1325–1390):

Cupbearer, it is morning, fill my cup with wine.
Make haste, the heavenly sphere knows no delay.

The sun of the wine dawns in the east of the goblet.

Hafez (also seen as ‘Hafiz’ lived 1325-1390). translation by Bernard Lewis. For the spiritual interpretation of Hafiz’ work as a Sufi poem see e.g. commentary (here) by Ivan M. Granger.

So far, surveying the sun-born-from-flower idea, as religious belief, as metaphor, as reflected in artefacts and in purely poetic images, we have defined the range of our subject in terms of time and geography. The sun-emerging-from-lotus might occur as a physical and/or conceptual image from ancient Egypt to fourteenth-century China, not excluding Persia, India and much of south-east Asia. 😀

But our being able to gain so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 is promising. This drawing looks as if it won’t be too difficult to understand.

(below) – Underside of a lotus bowl, Yuan period. The overlapping petals result in a ‘swirl’ of the type we’re looking for.

The list of works consulted during my research into this diagram is very long and far too long to be listed here even if any Voynicheros could find the time or interest to read them.

For references for any particular point, do email me.

For this post, I replaced an older image of the ‘Egyptian marshes’ detail with the brighter version in a delightful blog which I sincerely recommend to my readers:

  • Monica Bowen (ed.), ‘Marshes in Ancient Egyptian Art’, Alberti’s Window (blog), (Tuesday, March 11th, 2014). The blog has been running since 2007 and is still posting.

Concerning the lotus motif in Gandharan art, one paper I had not seen until recently deserves mention, despite its author’s being apparently unaware of Egyptian influence on Mediterranean thought, including upon the Greeks’, and failing to mention of the Ashokan embassy which sparked the medical traditions of Cos and possibly also its silk-making:

  • Kiran Shahid Siddiqui, ‘Significance of Lotus’ Depiction in Gandhara Art’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society (2012), unpaginated. Illustrations. available through academia.edu

Another interruption – sorry.

I’ve been asked by a certain scholar to provide another example of the interaction of literal with mnemonic elements in the Voynich plant pictures. This is one of the earliest I published – through a ‘Blogger’ blog where, for about three years, I published research-summaries before switching to wordpress.

Originally published in 2010 for a ‘Voynich’ audience then entirely and quite fiercely Eurocentric, I should be less terse if publishing now. By 2012 I did at least feel comfortable enough to publish more detailed information in two posts to voynichimagery, but here I’ll begin by reprinting that original post from 2010. The identification of Myrobalans as the subject of folio 22r* is the result of original research by the present author and had no precedent to that time in any Voynich author’s work. This is indicated in what follows by an asterisk added to the folio number.

The author’s rights are asserted.


D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A plant: Myrobalans folio 22r*’, Findings (blogger blog) July 26th., 2010

I should like to begin by recommending this link at muslimheritage, and in particular its reference to al-Dinawari’s work.

Al Dinawari was born in western Iran, studied in Kufa and Basra, and died in Dinawari. He is called the founder of Arabic botany – by which is meant the corpus of botanical works first composed in the Arabic language.  

al-Dinawari was not an Arab as such, and by the time he wrote – in the 9thC ce – some botanical works earlier produced by Greeks, Indians and Tamils had already been translated into the Arabic script and/or language: – The Ocean of Attainments notably among them.

This is the original work, not a later one called in translation the ‘Essence of…’

I realise that with the majority of Voynich research being focused on the manuscript’s script, codicology and likely transmission through Europe,* work on the origins of its content, and from a study of the imagery alone, may seem irrelevant.

*the sole pre-occupations of the Voynich community in 2010.

The pleasant part of Voynich research, though, is that it enables one to match areas of its study to those in which one is most interested and it is possible to go quite deeply into some of the questions raised by this manuscript without encroaching on others’ work to any noticeable extent.

.. I have already tried to demonstrate that a diagrammatic quality and mnemonic purpose is evident within these drawings: that they were not meant to be – as Pliny put it – ‘portraits’ of these plants. Their presentation tells us something more about the environment in which the drawings content had been first formulated.

Concerning such drawings,  and the mnemonic type generally –  in which religious painters of both west and east have long been expert – Mary Carruthers’ works are particularly helpful, and I’d (yet again) recommend all Voynich researchers read her Book of Memory as a cure for relying on an impression that medieval people had simplistic ways of thinking about the world..

I read the image on fol. 22r* as such a structured representation of the Myrobalans spp., with mnemonic elements included in the drawing. The nature of the mnemonic elements as well as the accuracy of the typically literal details in these plant-group images strongly suggest first origins in a region where the plants grew and not in mainland Europe.

In detail-

The form given these stems in the lower part of the plant is not unusual as it may seem to readers expecting to see an image produced in Latin Christian Europe.

If, instead, if you look at them as a product of the spice-routes which brought eastern plant-products into the Mediterranean you find a similar form alludes to Buddhist associations for the Myrobalans.

Below, for example, you see the same form as we here see given the stalk or stem of the plant in folio 22r* being echoed by the object which is commonly found with figures of the ‘healing Buddha’, where it is always held in the figure’s left hand.

To people in those regions, accustomed equally to the plants’ form and to Buddhist imagery, the formation given the lower stems in this drawing would be instantly evocative of the myrobalans as healing plants, especially with a ‘threefold’ way being associated with both Ayurvedic medicine and the Healing Buddha. I’ll speak of the medical Triphala below. The ‘threefold’ way of Buddhism is usually described as consisting of ethics, meditation, and wisdom.

In the Tibetan tradition, for example, as we see from the figure (below) the Healing Buddha is shown with the myrobalan, as a sprig – seen on the figure’s right – terminating in just such threefold cluster.

For modern Europeans, religious imagery is generally perceived as compartmentalised – occupying a niche independent of, and separate from, daily human activity and interactions, but in earlier centuries, whether in Islam, in the east, or in mainland Europe, religion was ‘nationality’ and indistinguishable from ordinary daily life and culture. Thus, to allude to conventions of religious art in a given region – in this case the region the plants grew – was not necessarily a religious comment or even a sign of religious allegiance in cultures as accepting of diverse religious views as much of the eastern world was.

In this case, an existing connection between iconography of the Healing Buddha and myrobalans made it natural, in regions where the plants grew, to use a device of that kind a as a memory-prompt.

The classifications and descriptions used by modern botanical science often differ from the perceptions of older peoples and it is the latter which inform the groupings seen in the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.

The three plants particularly referenced in this drawing as the ‘Myrobalans’ group are those we call now call

 Terminalia belerica, ‘Belleric’ myrobalans in medieval European works. Proper name in Indian tradition – Bibhitaki. Western writings sometimes call this the ‘lesser-‘, ‘inferior;’ or ‘bastard-‘ Myrobalan.

Emblica officinalis. Called Emblic myrobalans. Proper name in the Indian tradition – Amla or Amalaki
Terminalia chebula. Chebulic myrobalans. Proper name in the Indian tradition – Haritaki.

Returning now to folio 22r* and moving upwards we have the curiously down-turned pods characteristic of Terminalia belerica.

The drawing is not coloured perfectly but, considered only in terms of the line-work, its basic form is good.

I think the pods’ being given a scalloped edge is done to indicate that if fruits of T. bellerica are not available the dried fruits of Terminalia arjuna will do.

additional Image – April 16th., 2022

Above those pods are the racemes which I take to be those of ‘Arjuna’ myrobalans. (Terminalia arjuna) though an argument could be made for another.

In the manuscript these racemes are drawn upturned, as if towards the sun – a convention constant in the (non ring-in) Voynich plant- drawings whenever a ‘flowering fruit’ is shown. It is also a convention attested in some relics from early Buddhist India.

And at the top, we have the threefold form of myrobalans which I take to be fruit of the ‘official’ and best of them – Emblica officinalis.

Image added here April 16th., 2022 – from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r’, voynichimagery, June 29th., 2012

Its scientific descriptions are Emblica officianalis and Phyllanthus emblica, and was widely known before the time of Linnaeus as emblic myrobalans, Indian gooseberry, Malacca tree. Its name in the Indian tradition is Amla, from the Sanskrit amalaki.

I read its hollowed fruit as again referring to a dried form – presumably with stone removed. Use of blue to colour it (the living fruit is gooseberry green) is enough to tell us that when dried, this fruit becomes black. Avoidance of colours in the range pink-purple-black is another constant in the Voynich drawings and is so consistent that I’ve described it as tabu on the part of that community which preserved and maintained the matter in these drawings until the time they entered the Latins’ horizons. For the darker end of that range, dark blue is the usual substitute in these pictures. In a number of cases when the purple-black is natural. that part of the plant may be omitted altogether but this wasn’t necessary for folio 22r.*

Emblica officinalis – dried fruits. Additional image – April 16th., 2022.

There is a preparation known as Triphala [with 3 types of myrobalans] which is widely prescribed for liver disorders and gastrointestinal problems Ayurdedic and Siddha medical tradition. The three fruits are those of Terminalia chebulia, Emblica officinalis (Phyllanthus emblica) and Terminalia bellirica. The seeds. however, were generally used only to treat wounds in ruminants.

Chebulic myrobalans – image added April 16th., 2022
Chebulic myrobalans – detail of a Thai image of the Healing Buddha.

The leaves were omitted from the image on fol.22r* because they were not needed, in this case, to identify the plants wanted, nor did they have any independent commercial value.  

The corpus of Auyrvedic medicine was finalised about five hundred years before Alexander reached the Indus and is current to this day. Tibet did not become officially a Buddhist kingdom for some centuries after the establishment of the Seleucid kingdom but it has proven impossible to date the beginning of that trade in medicinal plants for which the Tibetan-India route was so well known in earlier centuries..

More on T. bellerica – as ‘Bahira plant


Additional notes

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r*’ Parts 1 & 2 published through voynichimagery, June 2012.

The roots (on folio 22r*) appear to reflect uses associated with just one among the myrobalans: T. chebula, which both in Europe, and in the eastern medical tradition, was considered less important than the Emblic and the Beleric myrobalans.

T. chebula was noted rather as a source for tannins. These were used as inks, as leather-dyes and in textile work, functions which in Europe were typically by oak-galls and barks….Powdered (immature) fruit, and seeds, from T. chebula  provide a sizing-and-mordant for kalamkari work,  allowing the black dye (kasimi) to be applied without any mordanting agent being added to the ink itself….

According to a recent (2007) draft Standards paper published by the Indian government as a pdf, commercial ink production [still] includes tannin extracted from T. chebula. The same source reports that tannin extracted from the  seeds of T. chebula has been used from time beyond memory as “a tanning agent. for hides and skins. Known as HARRA (Hindi), HIRDA (Marathi), ANALE (Kannada), KADAKAI (Tamil), KARAKKAYA (Telugu), HARITAKI(Bengali)”.

Imported into the Mediterranean.

By not later than the end of the fourteenth century that is, and from at least fifty years before the Voynich manuscript’s vellum’s dating – several kinds of Myrobalans were being imported into Venice and Genoa through Acco and Tunis.

Added note (18th April 2022) – in 2010 I looked no further than the mercantile zibaldoni, it being necessary at that time to demonstrate that materials sourced from the east were relevant to the study of a fifteenth century manuscript which (in 2010) was still widely, and indeed almost universally, believed the work of a contemporary and western Christian (‘Latin’) European ‘author’. Since 2010, I’ve been able to refer, over time and with less ‘flak’ resulting to e.g. the role of medieval Jewish networks and to records of earlier centuries including those of the Cairo geniza. Here I’ll quote from just one study, for its reflecting the earlier medieval usage among the Jews and in Arabic. 

    • Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev, ‘The Significance of the Genizah’s Medical Documents for the Study of Medieval Mediterranean Trade’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2007), pp. 524-541.
    • Myrobalans in Cairo geniza

[back to the 2010 2012 post ..]

In this case, the only use to which they were put by Europeans seems to have been medicinal, though this impression may be due to our lack of documentation more than contemporary Europeans’ lack of information about these plants.

[According to lists in the later zibaldoni] Venice and Genoa imported the top two grades in larger quantities:-

the ‘Emblic’ as they called it (Emblica officinalis) and the ‘Beleric’ (Terminalia belerica) and only in very small quantities two more: the ‘Chebulic-‘ (Terminalia chebula) and the ‘Citron-‘ myrobalans (Terminalia arjuna).

So depending on which of these the reader associates with each level in fol.22r*, it is possible to see the whole images as describing the three grades or four. For example, the husks occupying the topmost position might be read as the ‘top’ grade – Emblic or as those of T. chebula.

My experience of working on these images is, however, that none of them save perhaps folio 1v (cloves) is a portrait of a single plant.



WordPress retains comments for only for 3 years, so I’m transcribing them here.

Note 1 re de-seeded fruits

“Triphala (“three fruits”) is an Ayurvedic herbal rasayana formula consisting of equal parts of three myrobalans, taken without seed:” – wiki. The same wiki article gives the three as: Amalaki (Phyllanthus emblica), Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellirica), and Haritaki (Terminalia chebula).

Note 2. topmost section of the drawing serving as memory prompt for Emblica officinalis and/or for the tannin-rich T. chebula, an early treatise in Arabic speaks of the ‘yellow’ myrobalans in a recipe for ink.

  • Martin Levey, ‘Mediaeval Arabic Bookmaking and Its Relation to Early Chemistry and Pharmacology’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 52, No. 4 (1962), pp. 1-79.

A note [n.301] from that paper includes information that may prove helpful for those working on the written text of Beinecke MS 408, so I quote it complete. From various studies it is clear that what is here (below) described as the ‘black and small’ type could as easily be referring to the dried form of E. officinalis as to T.chebula.

301 halilaj. There are four kinds of myrobalan, yellow, Indian (black and small), Chebulic (black and large), and the Chinese (I. B., 2261). Halilaj or ihlilaj comes from the Persian halilah which may come from the Sanskrit haritaki (al-Ghafiqi, 264). The yellow kind is probably Terminalia citrina Roxb. (hara nut). It is a stage in the growth of the Chebulic myrobalans as are the other myrobalans. The belleric myrobalan (T. bellerica Roxb.) is balilaj (al-Ghafiqi 123, Tuifat al-ahbab, 43, 122, 126). Emblic myrobalan, amlaj, is treated by al-Ghafiqi (13). These were unknown to the [western] Greeks but were known early in India (Ainslie 1: 236-241). The “three fruits” of the myrobalan are distinguished as follows: when very immature, it is called Indian, when half mature and still yellowish, Chinese, and when yellow and quite mature, Chebulic. The unripe fruits contain 20-30 per cent gallic and tannic acids and a greenish oleo resin, myrobalanin. The myrobalanins are still sold (Ducros, 13, 14, 15) as intestinal astringents and purgatives as well as tanning agents. According to Ducros, the Chebulic and Indian types come from Terminalia Chebula Retz. while the yellow is from T. citrina Roxb. Al-Kindi knew amlaj, the emblic myrobalan, in musk recipes. Meyerhof 81) says that this is the fruit of Phyllanthus Emblica L., a Euphorbiacea which has no relation to the Terminaliae.

So even that author appears impose modern taxonomic distinctions retrospectively on the perceptions of early medieval peoples – who certainly did regard all these myrobalans as related one to one another.

(where identifications differ from those given by Lev, the difference may be due to differences in the medieval documents, but in cases of doubt, Lev’s identifications are preferred).

Note 3. Simon of Genoa’s Synonyma (13thC) includes myrobalans, but as ‘Emblici’ and ‘Bellirici’.

Emblici et bellirici apud arabes inter mirabolanos non computantur, et ideo vides quod diversa facit capi. Avic. et Ser. et alii quamvis similis sint operationis, amblegi arabice dicuntur.

Note 4. European perspective.

Riddle wrote the seminal study, and is still essential reading. He approached the subject from a study of the western manuscripts dating to what he calls ‘pre-Salernitan’ Europe. Consideration of one 9thC antidotary led Riddle to observe:

From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper [white, long, and black] (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).
An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient.

John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.