Skies above: elevated souls Pt.2b (base bodies)

Two previous

Header image (left) upper register, detail from the ‘October’ diagram lower register, image of Barbara of Cilli, (centre) detail of a tombstone from 11thC Sicily, inscribed in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic; (right) Byzantine-style crown of Constantina, wife of Frederick II, king of Sicily.

Note – Between my publishing the first, and this second section of ‘Elevated souls Pt.2’,  JK Petersen has posted about the range of body-types depicted in the month-folios. His noting their wide range  in terms of apparent age appears to me to be a genuinely new observation and one potentially of great interest. One hopes he may find time in future to research it, but in his  post of December 10th, Petersen immediately turned aside to present an illustrated history for  the  ‘Ages of Man’  in European art.


Base bodies.

THIS, the second part of  ‘Elevated souls’, addresses again Latin ideas about  forms for depicting ‘elevated souls’ as against  ‘base’ earthly bodies.

The question at issue is whether the figures in the month-folios do, or don’t reflect the norms of Latin European thought during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

How the ‘elevated soul’ had been envisaged in Christian art has been illustrated in the post of October 12th. (2019), but here’s a link to one illustration – from Oxford, Bodleian Junius 11.  The basic idea is ‘purity’. The soul in heaven is a  ‘pure’ character, and continues to be depicted in this way in formal art until centuries after the Voynich manuscript was made.  It presents an interesting problem, therefore, that within the Voynich month folios are figures not merely unclothed, or made ugly, but which are manifestly to be read as base, or ‘carnal’ despite the probability that they represent stars.  In medieval Christian thought, the stars, or more exactly stars of the northern hemisphere, served as agents and mediators of divine power to all that lived on earth.

Among the most ‘carnal’ of these is a figure from the October diagram, whose loins are drawn with an exaggerated pelt beginning just below the navel and closely similar to that given the figure for ‘Venus’ in Milan, Ambrosianus H.57.sup., (below, right)

(detail) Milan, Ambrosianus H.57.sup. f.112v. Venus – on which see Pingree (1982) p.32

According to David Pingree, the main text of the Ambrosianus manuscript was copied in the Byzantine sphere in 1358 or so and (he argues) within Constantinople –  after which a series of later owners added material over the following century (i.e. to c.1458) and only then – later still than 1458 as it seems to Pingree – its miniatures were added ‘in western style’.   The miniatures are thus dated to the 1460s or later.  We may also date  addition of the crown and pelt to the Voynich figure so late in my opinion –  given that Pelling has already noticed that these details were added by a later hand, the same who added a second breast to the originally one-breasted figures.

Pelling himself saw this as a ‘second pass’ by the earlier draughtsman,  a point  – among numerous others 🙂 –  on which Pelling and I differ.

Pingree described the Ambrosianus ms’ miniatures as  “basically Western..  with an admixture of Byzantine elements” and further that “Islamic tradition lies behind this curious iconography”.*

*for more information about Ambrosianus H.57 sup., see previous post and references given there. The holding library’s catalogue entry has the manuscript completed by 1453.

I should make clear that by ‘curious iconography’ in that passage, Pingree was not speaking about details, but in terms of imagery depicting the planets’ astrological exultation and depression.  I doubt any historian of art would attribute the inclusion of such a pelt, for a female figure,  to any but a Latin. Drawings of a such a sort do not occur in Islamic astronomical texts, nor in Jewish ones.  And if, today, even the modern viewer feels distaste at the drawing’s including pubic hair, one must try to imagine how much more offensive it would have seemed to an ordinary European Christian of six centuries ago.

In the Ambrosianus manuscript, the intention was probably just that –  to make the viewer recoil, but we cannot explain it so for that ‘second-level’ draughtsman who added that together with  a crown to the ‘October’ diagram,

To offensiveness of the one addition, the second added an overt act of lèse-majesté if – as is often asserted –  the crown is meant for the ‘Holy Crown‘ of Hungary.

two views of Constance’s crown. Palermo.

Byzantine crown – Sicilian crown -Hungarian crown etc.

IN its basic design, this type of crown derives from the orthodox Greek bishop’s mitre, the crown then surmounted by a cross to say that the ruler’s domain was Christian.  The twelfth-century example shown at right was worn in Sicily by  Constance of Aragon,  wife of Frederick II.  It is now in the Cathedral of Palermo.  In Sicily of that time Byzantine Greek influence remained very strong.

from ‘Best of Sicily’ magazine

.If one accepts that the Voynich figure’s crown and pelt are additions to the basic text and both made by the same hand, then the form given the latter and its close similarity to that on the Ambrosianus ms’ Venus surely suggests that these additions belong to the later part of the fifteenth century and very possibly to the same environment as that in which the Ambrosianus’ miniatures were made.  Unfortunately, while Pingree posits a southern Italian locus for the miniatures, the issue is not sufficiently settled to be adopted in our present case. ‘Somewhere in the western side of the Mediterranean’ is the most likely region, but even that can’t be said with certainty.

Nor can we know whether, before those additions, the Voynich figure had been intended as a  ‘queen of heaven’ (Cassiopeia, or some star in that figure would be expected in such a case. Cassiopeia was an ‘Ethiop’ queen, as had been Penthesilea).

What seems manifestly obvious is that only a person of extraordinary insensitivity could imagine that imagery of this sort would be appropriate to present to any monarch, even as a gift, the insult of such a gift being magnified should be bearer demand payment, and a sum so staggering as six hundred ducats.

Added to Mnishovsky’s assertion that the work had been written by Roger Bacon ( an assertion discarded by most conservatives), the impossible price (also an embarrassment to the conservatives), we should also consider now discarding Mnishovsky’s third assertion – viz. that the work had been accepted and purchased by Rudolf II.  Who would dare offer him any work of such inferior quality and in which a Queen of (supposedly) Hungary is represented so scurrilously?

However,  maintenance of  the ‘Rudolf rumour’ is the shared birth-mark of core-conservatives so I daresay some excuse will be fashioned to suit.

Hungarian Cown?  Hungarian ’empress’?

I cannot name the person who first suggested that the crown on the ‘October’ figure was intended to depict the Holy Crown of Hungary.  Like many appealing notions, this seems to have been accepted by repeating the idea, rather than repeating the name and argument of the person responsible.

If, for the time being, we credit the possibility, fifteenth-century Hungary certainly does present us with the figure of a Queen (more exactly a Queen consort) who being repudiated by her king and reviled by the commoners, lost the usual immunity of medieval royalty from gross caricature. Barbara of Cilli, known as the ‘Messalina of Germany’ is one whose reputation as ‘shameless’ might result in gross caricature as  ‘shameful’.

It is not so much the way in which her ‘Hungarian crown’ is depicted in near-contemporary images, but her date and personal history which allow this possibility.

She was crowned Queen of Hungary in 1408, Queen of Germany in 1414; She served as regent (delegated executive) for her husband in 1412, 1414, 1416, and 1418. Her descent began when, on the day before her husband’s death in December of 1437, her son-in-law accused her of  subversion and had her imprisoned as prelude to taking possession of her lands and goods, not excluding her own dowry. Left with nothing she  sought refuge in Poland (1438 to 1441) returning in 1441 on the death of her son-in-law, to Mělník in Bohemia where her daughter now reigned.  A link to the figure of Cassiopeia might be posited, since it is as ‘Queen Barbara’ or Barbota (lit. ‘the bearded’) that she appears in the Gesta Czechorum according to its translator, Norman Lockridge.

Bawdy versus scurrilous

There is a very different air to the caricatures we find in medieval Books of Hours from France, England or Italy to the mid- fifteenth century.   You might describe that humour as rustic, schoolboy- or openly bawdy but there were still lines which were not crossed, and one of those lines was that one didn’t depict an empress as sexually indiscriminate, nor show a human female with body-hair.

In  bas-de-page or marginal illustrations what we find is a combination of the moralistic and a very simple humour –  not always amiable –  expressing folk-beliefs, commoners’ ideas, and word-play.  There is much of  bottoms, farts, male genitals, the social hierarchy, and marginalised persons.  It is, in effect, Chaucerian humour.

As example, the illustration shown at right, where we see a male ‘hag-ridden’ or what we’d call in English, ‘hen-pecked’. He is  unable to satisfy or be satisfied despite ‘bending over backwards’.   Even when depicting a shameless woman, the imagery maintains the basic rules for depiction of an unclothed female body.

The same is true even for the frankly pronographic images with which copies of the  pedestrian Balneis Puteolanis are often afflicted.  Yet even these do not  depict the female body with marred and distorted face, or with ‘broken’ arms and shoulders – let alone with a pelt beginning just below the belly-button and formed like an apron.

Scholars cannot decide, as yet, just where the Ambrosianus manuscript’s illustrations were made, but if they should settle that question, we might posit the same time (late fifteenth century) and the same context for these late additions  to the Voynich month-folios.

On the subject of astronomical sources, texts and studies in Byzantium during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Voynich researchers should know that we enter deep waters.  To give an idea of how complex the subject is, here’s a paragraph from Jean Lempier:.

Greek manuscripts in the 14th and 15th centuries are evidence of an intense intellectual activity in Byzantium. Many learned figures – Theodore Metochites, Nicephorus Gregoras, Isaac Argyrus, Theodore Meliteniotes, John Chortasmenos, George Gemistus Plethon, Cardinal Bessarion – are associated with this prolific period and are relatively well known (intellectual profiles, works, writings in manuscripts). But their precise role in the teaching and transmission of astronomy remains poorly explained. In particular, it is difficult to assess the astronomical work of Isaac Argyrus (third quarter of 14th c.): there is no critical edition and, in the manuscripts, his original work is mixed with subsequent revisions and additions. There is also a scientific gap around the Jewish-influenced astronomical texts in 15th-century Byzantine manuscripts and the importation to Byzantium of Jewish astronomy.

Perhaps I might add here that the detailed (and first) analysis of the Voynich map, which required more than a year’s research and still more time to explain with the necessary historical and iconological matters explained for a Voynich audience, concluded that the so-called ‘castle’ was schematic representation of Constantinople and/or Pera, with the ‘merloned’ wall indicating, as ever, an imperial enclave. The Genoese built their walls in Pera in despite of the authorities in Constantinople and (to judge from those they built about their enclave in Caffa) may have been in fact  as in spirit, of the same ‘imperial’ type.

 

and for those willing to brave deep waters:

  • Alexander Jones. An Eleventh-Century Manual of Arabo-Byzantine Astronomy, (Corpus des Astronomes Byzantins, 3. 1987). Photo-offset from typescript.
  • Maria Mavroudi, ‘Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic during the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition’ Speculum, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Jan. 2015), pp. 28-59.
  • S. Mohammad Mozaffari and Georg Zotti, ‘Ghāzān Khān’s Astronomical Innovations at Marāgha Observatory’, Journal of the American Oriental Society
    Vol. 132, No. 3 (July-September 2012), pp. 395-425
  • David Pingree, The Astrological School of John Abramius’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 25 (1971), pp. 189-215.
  • _______________, ‘Gregory Chioniades and Palaeologan Astronomy’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 18 (1964), pp. 133+135-160.
  • _______________(ed.), The Astronomical Works of Gregory Chioniades. Volume I: The Zīj al-‘Alāi’. Part I: Text, Translation, Commentary. Part II: Tables. (Corpus des Astronomes Byzantins, 2.) 1985, 1986.
  • Anne Tihon and A. Duhoux-Tihon, ‘Les Tables Astronomiques Persanes à Constantinople dans la Première Moitié du XIVe siècle’, Byzantion, Vol. 57, No. 2 (1987), pp. 471-487.

 

minor typo corrected – 11th Jan 2020