Skies above 5b: Star and basket

Header: detail from Madrid [ms] VITR/26.2 image/page 30.  Ionannes Scylitzes, [Synopsis historiarum] (1126 – 1150?).. 

Two preceding:



Précis of previous post.

The depiction of C.Sergius Orata in a fifteenth-century French manuscript provides him with seemingly inappropriate ‘oriental.Asiatic’ dress.  In the previous post, I argued that this was no arbitrary decision on the painter’s part and, further, that while the immediate cause was a misreading of  Pliny, it  owed something too to a broader impression among Romans of that era  (1stC BC – 2ndC AD) that an ‘oriental’ character affected certain men in Campania  engaged in large-scale fish-breeding – and all the more when it involved building large pools or a re-working the landscape in a way evocative of Byzantion, renowned for its abundance.

Byzantion’s coins reflect its reputation with an emblem of ‘two – or more – fishes’.

Fish ≈ Star: ‘Oriental’ character in Byzantion.

British Library Cartographic Items Cotton MS. Vespasian

The drawing (left) is dated to 1422 which, as most readers will know, is near enough to the mid-point of the radiocarbon range (1404-1438 AD) obtained by the University of Arizona from samples of vellum taken from the Voynich manuscript.

portrait of Isabella of Castile from Rimado de la Conquista de Granada. Painted 1482-1502.  Note retention of that custom traditional in Iberia and in Byzantine art of putting bright ‘roses’ in the cheek – a custom also present in the Voynich month-diagrams.

In that linked article about the radiocarbon dating, a caption describes the date range (1404-1438) as “the beginning of the Renaissance”- an unfortunate addition to the scientific matter.  “The Renaissance” is not a chronological epoch with a set date as beginning and end, and to employ it in connection with the Voynich manuscript’s date-range was ill-advised.  Whether or not the scientists (or article-writer) knew it, to use that term for those years is to imply the content and imagery in the Voynich manuscript was first formed in Flanders, France or Italy.  Though such ideas are part of certain speculative theories,  they are not a matter of fact.  Even by the end of that range – 1438 – the  term ‘Renaissance’ is to be applied  with care, and on a case by case basis, if describing objects. images or script.   What  one writer might call a work of the  ‘early French Renaissance’ – such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – another  writer (perhaps better informed) would describe as  ‘late International Gothic’.   The image at right, for example,  is described as a ‘product of the Spanish Renaissance’ but still carries more of the medieval Spanish than what is generally envisaged as ‘Renaissance’ style.  It was painted between 1482-1502. 

Pace Pelling and others – the mages in the Voynich manuscript are not expressions of  ‘Renaissance’ style – not in attitude to depiction, nor admiration for the human form, nor drive towards literalism, nor use of perspective, nor techniques of drawing.  No matter when he lived, the first enunciator was unaffected by the ideas and practices of the European ‘renaissance’.

The drawing shows Pera (north/top) and Constantinople (south/below) as they appeared in 1422 when the Florentine Franciscan,  Cristoforo Buondelmonti, visited the region, the account of his travels entitled Liber Insularum Archipelagi (“A Book on the Islands of the Archipelago”),.

  • Thomas Thomov, ‘New Information about Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Drawings of Constantinople’, Byzantion Vol. 66, No.2 (1996) pp..431-453.


IN the days when Orata, Strabo and Pliny lived, Byzantion used a second emblem on its coins as  alternative – effectively as synonym – for its ‘two fishes’, and this other certainly implied at that time a connection to  ‘oriental’ ways. It was formed as a Syrian star on a crescent. As you see from the insets (left, above), the motif continued to be used and to carry significance for the city  long after its Christianisation.  But – as we’ll see again in speaking of fishpools in Syria – a practice may survive changes of rule and of religion.

 Syrian Stars.

As distinct from the Mesopotamian custom of depicting a star with eight rays, or the invariable practice of the Egyptians in having a star of five points, the most usual custom in Syria was to have a star of six points.  This customary regional distinction was never part of Latin thought, but may appear in Latin works when a text or an object is closely copied  from some older and non-indigenous work – whether at one or more remove.   In any case, the six-pointed star on these coins for pre-Christian Byzantion was consciously ‘Syrian’.

In the 12thC AD illustration shown in the header, the message was that the person being crowned was secondary ruler of ‘all below the moon’ – in other words, of matters mundane, though simultaneously elevated to serve as the ‘shield’ of those below him and to become an intermediary between humanity and deity.    For other proposals see:

  • Christopher Walter, ‘Raising on a shield in Byzantine iconography’, Revue des études byzantines Vol,33 (1975), pp. 133-176.


IN earlier times, the crescent shape could evoke any number of well established associations – the physical moon, of course,  and various deities such as Isis, Selene or the Roman Luna. But it would have suggested, too,  the horns of a bull, and that ’round  ship’ which served throughout the classical Greek and Roman periods as the quintessential cargo-vessel for people or for goods.

To depict the ’round ship’  then became a convention  of  Mediterranean art, and in this way its form survived in both Byzantine and Latin works to as late as the fourteenth century.  To envisage the night skies as the shield of the world, or as a sea on which the moon and stars sailed were other natural metaphors, none exclusive of any other. In Egypt, the ‘star-ship’ was envisaged instead as a shallow-draught reed-boat.*

*The ’round ship’ was developed by the Syro-Palestinian seamen over the period from 1500BC-1200BC, the design proving so practical it remained in use for at least two millennia more than three and a half thousand years.

Artemis with Aphrodite at Pera.

Of the two coins shown (above, right), the earlier  maintains Hellenistic style, and pairs the  ‘star-on-crescent’ with a deity.  In this case we may identify that figure with one or both of those worshipped at Pera until at least the second century AD.  If you missed the previous post, that precinct lay at Bolos, on the eastern side of Pera.* and though dedicated to Artemis Phosphoros, it was where ‘mild Aphrodite’ was honoured too.   The cult was active during Claudius Ptolemy‘s lifetime.

* Bolos “on the east part of Galatea (Pera)” according to Richard J.A.Talbert (ed.), Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Map-by-map Directory, Volume 1  Map 53. Key p.801.

  •  Stella Chrysochoou, in her paper ‘Ptolemy’s Geography in Byzantium’ (} comments on the fact in Byzantium from the ninth century to the twelfth “there was a tendency to comment on the writings of Strabo and Ptolemy jointly, treating them as complementary to each other other.”

Just in passing, here, I’ll mention that when the earlier of those ‘star in crescent’ coins was made, Ephesus in Asia minor was still showing on its coins  the type of ornate baskets known as ‘cistophorus’ or ‘cista’.  The type was first disseminated from Pergamon, and issued between c.170 BC  until 140 BC  – which overlaps with (e.g.) the composition of PolybiusThe Histories. When the Voynich manuscript was made, Polybius’ work was known to only a few among the literati of Florence – but among them was  Leonardo Bruni. For more on that last matter see e.g.

  • Gary Ianziti, ‘Between Livy and Polybius: Leonardo Bruni on the First Punic War’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 51/52 (2006/2007), pp. 173-197.
emblems on two coins for Tralles in Lydia. (BC 155-145).
Cistophoric tetradrachams

The cistophorus (Ancient Greek: κιστοφόρος, kistophoros) was a coin of ancient Pergamum. It was introduced sometime in the years 175–160 BC at that city to provide the Attalid kingdom with a substitute for Seleucid coins and the tetradrachms of Philetairos.”

Scholars in classical and ancient studies may not need the next two posts.


For the convenience of Voynicheros I’ll be treating as briefly as possible the equation of Artemis Phosphoros with aspects of the Syrian goddess, before turning to mentions of Artemis with  kanephorai and then tracking in outline the shifting sense and significance  of  kan[e]on and kaniskos –   those objects into which  were placed a variety of things for the continuing protection of a city.  The outline will  cover (lightly) the centuries from the pre-Roman period to the fourteenth century. Thereafter, we turn to re-consider the implications of the so-far unparalleled combination of star (aster), ‘string’, patterned container and anthropoform figures in the Voynich month-diagrams, found chiefly in its ‘March’ diagram.




The following should have been listed in the previous post:

  • Thomas James Russell, Dionysius (of Byzantium), Byzantium and the Bosporus: A Historical Study, from the Seventh Century BC Until the Foundation of Constantinople (OUP; 2017). The two ‘Hierons’ see p. 41
  • on the eastern and greater ‘Hieron’ see Alfonso Moreno, ‘Hieron: The Ancient Sanctuary at the Mouth of the Black Sea’, Hisperia, 77 (2008) pp. 655-709.