Certain measures 3b Preface – addendum

A reader has asked me to expand on a couple of points left obscure (as she says) in the previous post. I’m a bit reluctant to spend much time on this, because it deals only with medieval Latin imagery and culture – to which, in my opinion, the Voynich manuscript’s images bear little relation – but since this blog is intended to serve researchers, here we go.

The reader has asked that I explain more fully (a) the ‘cautionary’ tone that I find in the image from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275; (b) why I speculated that the black-shod figure might imply criticism of Albertus Magnus and finally (c) what makes me link these with that image from a copy of Nicole Oresme’s treatise [BNF 1355] first introduced to Voynicheros by Ellie Velinska.

Before going further, I want to be quite clear that I do not consider the image from Burney 275 which I showed in the previous post, or Ellie’s image from BNF 1355 have any direct relevance to material now in Beinecke MS 408.

What the two French medieval images have in common is a style, the makers’ visual codes, and a particular attitude to astronomical studies characteristic of certain works made for Latin Christians in late medieval France.

from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275.

So – concerning my speculation that the black shod figure (in the detail above from Brit.Lib. MS Burney 275), with his hidden left arm, might be an allusion to Albertus Magnus, here’s what I added as a comment under the previous post.

Because it must be classed as speculation, I add as a comment that I suspect the ‘transgressing-a-bit’ figure, with its sinister hand in his sleeve, might be a Francophile’s allusion to Albertus Magnus. I add two easily accessible sources to indicate why this idea occurs and why I find this image reflects the same cautions which occur in a copy of Oresme’s text – itself older and strongly cautionary in tone despite its being about astronomical learning.
On the Paris universities’ attempt to restrict readings from Aristotle see e.g. the wiki article,
and on Albertus’ being earlier considered a bit dubious on the same matter see e.g.


There are, of course, many more and more detailed studies of this matter.


Denoting the non-orthodox.

To this I’d add that the same figure is represented by a conventional code for the dubious-to-heretical ruler or teacher, viz. ‘crossed-over limbs’.

This is no place to deliver a lecture on the history and uses of this item of visual code (where, when and by whom it was used) but I will offer another example of that usage, from a work that has not only been popular with straight-down-the line conservatives, but which actually does help elucidate one detail at least from the Voynich manuscript.

The well-known work is often called the ‘Manfredus Herbal’ (BNF Lat.6823) and its frontispiece(s) show, after the manner of late Roman and of Byzantine manuscripts, the best-known ‘names’ as authorities whose matter is contained within or widely associated with the subject matter.

While our view of how to depict classical characters and costumes differs considerably from the customs of medieval artisans, the reader must keep in mind that the medieval workers, like their audiences, were acutely conscious of costume as expressive of social and cultural distinctions, to the point we may describe depictions of clothing, bodily stance and more as elements in a common visual ‘code’ within a given cultural area.

Indeed, the analyst is wise to first interpret imagery [of costume in medieval Latin manuscripts] first as it contains ‘code’ and only then as literal depiction, though literalism is more common when the subject was a member of the European aristocracy. Something of this was touched on when discussing an image of C. Sergius Orata.

*see: https://voynichrevisionist.com/2019/09/12/the-skies-above-pt-5-bodies-in-baskets/

Here’s one page of portraits from the ‘Manfredus’ fronticepiece(s).

We’ll need to see some small details up close so the picture-file is large – I hope it won’t break your phone.

The two figures at the bottom of that page are Hippocrates (ypocras) and ‘Galienus’ – the latter an interesting evidence of contemporary confusion about Galen. As would later happen with the works of Ptolemy, we find an apparent confusion between the medical writer Galen, and Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus (co-emperor with his father Valerian from 253 to 260 AD and sole emperor from 260 to 268AD).

Note also that the works of this ‘Galienus’ are understood to be owned and taught – or at least preserved and translated – by Jewish scholars under western rule. Notice the ‘eastern eyes’ on that figure, and the sign of continuing use of the scroll, rather than the codex.

In the upper register, the figure to our left has his name erased, while the figure to our right has his name entirely omitted. Those who are acceptable (lower register) have their feet on the ground (proverbially and here graphically). Not all are Latins. In the upper register, though, the one who ‘transgresses’ a little is distinguished from the other who is considered both heretical and ‘inverted’ – or as we might say, has things totally back-to-front. The worst, by these marks, is obviously the one on the upper right, whom I managed to identify as ‘Johannitus’ thanks to the fact that most medieval scholars still memorised their texts and each of these figures speaks their incipit.

When first publishing this item from my Voynich research, I quoted the first sentences from ‘Johannitus’, and reproduce them here – in translation of course from his Isagogue.

Medicine is divided into two parts, namely, theory and practice. And of these, theory is further divided into three, that is to say the consideration of things that are natural, and of things that are non-natural (whence comes knowledge of health, disease, and the neutral state), and when these natural things depart from the course of nature – that is, when the four humours depart from the course of nature; and from what cause or symptoms disease may arise.

The Nestorian physician known to the west as ‘Johannitus’ was Hunayn ibn Ishâq (809-887), one of the Mesue dynasty of physicians that served as physicians to the Caliphs of Baghdad for generations.  Whether he ever wrote in Syriac, the liturgical language of the Church of the East (the so-called ‘Nestorian’ church) is not known, but some have made the mistake of supposing that anyone whose work appeared in Arabic was necessarily a Muslim, and this idea needs correction.

As Latin was the language of diplomacy, education and higher scholarship in western Christian Europe (so that we speak of ‘Latin Europe’), so throughout the Islamic empire, Arabic was the shared language. More – in Islamic scholarship, still, the custom was and is to call ‘an Arab’ anyone for whom Arabic is a primary language, written or spoken. So many have assumed that Hunayn was an Arab and a Muslim.

To add to the confusion, those noting that the way his name was rendered in Arabic indicates an original form meaning ‘John, son of Isaac’ imagined him a Christianised Jew.

It is easily forgotten today, but was not unknown to later medieval Europe that the Church of the East represented the original Christian church and existed from long before the rise of Islam being by the tenth century established from as far west as Constantinople and Egypt to as far east as China. Together with the ‘star-worshippers’ of Haran, the Nestorians (so called) are credited with having brought most works of classical science and scholarship to the knowledge of the first few generations of Muslim rulers, especially those in Baghdad. Part of their religious belief was that the Christian minister was expected to imitate Christ by ministering to body (medicine), mind (education) and soul (pastoral care). The western or ‘Roman’ tradition was strongly opposed to the first and the reason for Ficino’s being burned as a heretic was his becoming enamoured of that ‘ancient’ and original priesthood. This is the substance of his first (much misunderstood) legal defence. Canon law had initially accepted that the eastern church had chronological precedence and thus merited the description as ‘apostolic’. But by the time of Ficino’s second accusation, that argument was no longer enough. Ficino was a priest and was accused of practicing medicine. His own book proves that he had, and imitated specific recipes known to us from the ‘Nestorians’ Syriac Book of Medicines.

However – back to the main point.

Translation of Johannitus’ work into Latin is credited, by tradition, to a trader whose name on conversion to Christianity was Constantine, called ‘the African’, who brought with him from North Africa many medical texts, in Arabic copy, first to the court in Palermo (not Salerno) in Sicily.

He began translating the collection in Palermo, but soon passed on to the mainland, eventually to become a monk and end his days in Montecassino.

So the book being abjured according to this frontispiece to the Sicilan ‘Manfredus’ herbal is the Isagogue, some of whose content must have offended Sicily’s pluralistic society when it became known there. Among other things, Johannitus’ theory of the humors has it that all eye-colours save blue, and all hair-colours save yellow are the result of disease, or more exactly of humoral imbalance.

Selected excerpts from the Isagogue were still retained and taught but as with many such ‘dubious’ sources, maintained through collected extracts, in this case through a work called the Articella, and were further disguised by terming the whole of that collection “Greek” medicine.

Sicily was, and for centuries remained, far more culturally mixed and diverse than anywhere in western Europe and its Christianity stayed largely Byzantine well into the Norman period, making the word “Greek” a definition of orthodoxy. As usual, too, the frontispiece reflects western Christianity’s greater abhorrence towards other sects of Christianity than towards quite other religions. The ‘Manfredus’ herbal is dated by the BNF 1301-1350 AD. MS Burney 275 by the British Library 1309 and 1316 AD.

And you see how Johannitus’ ‘crossed limbs’ are depicted – with an improper amount of bare leg above the ankle. So we read ‘transgression’ for the figure on the upper left, but ‘heretic’ for Johannitus.

Not all historians make the link between ‘Johannitus’ and the Nestorian physicians. See e.g.

  • Behnam Dalfardi, Babak Daneshfard, Golnoush Sadat Mahmoudi Nezhad,  ‘Johannitius (809-873 AD), a medieval physician, translator and author’, Journal of Medical Biography, 2016 Aug;24(3):328-30. doi: 10.1177/0967772014532890. Epub 2014 Jun 9.

Connection between that image and Beinecke MS 408 is offered by the peculiar headwear given Johannitus, though apparently not quite understood by the painter, who has made a curl of hair from what appears to be a head-dress of horn. The validity of the underlying drawing is, however, confirmed for this same era, and again for peoples living in hither Asia, because a picture of Mongols’ captives shows it on them, together with dress that is typically Asian, and Mongol. It was not the custom, in Asian art, to encode images of costume, so we may take that image literally, and so too the dress seen in a late-stratum diagram (added to the back of the map) in the Voynich manuscript.

detail from Beinecke MS 408, folio 85v.

The Voynich detail shows that the ‘Nestorian’ figure (as we’ll call him for convenience) is used to mark the point of ‘east’; the diagram being a schematic representation of the world’s four quarters. Unlike most of the Voynich drawings, this one was almost certainly drawn by a European or, perhaps, an Armenian.

The motif upheld by the figure is not (as might first suggest itself to a modern viewer) a Norman or French ‘fleur de lys’ – as you’ll see if you make the necessary comparisons.

A truer match is the form given the tamgar for a certain Mongol ruler and while it has proven impossible so far to precisely identify a geographic reference for this ‘east’, the coins so adorned are fairly rare. Pace Kolbas, I’m strongly inclined to identify it with Amaligh and not Fars, though for reasons too many, and technical, to trouble readers with here.

Still, Kolbas is a numismatist and I’ll quote her again as I did in a post published in 2015 through voynichimagery.

On pages 149-150 of Judith Kolbas’ The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu 1220–1309)   we read:

Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. [1253 AD] All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …

Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …To which I added – and still add – a demur

I add my original demur, too:

[this] ‘graceful fleur de lys’ is really a version of a much older Persian motif – and if it is the design Kolbas means this specific example [used in my illustration above] doesn’t appear to have been made for Fars, but more probably for Amaligh.

Other indications of eastern and Asian influence in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery certainly exist, some like this evidently first-hand and more at greater remove, but I’ve treated many in detail over the past years, and we must move on to the ‘Oresme’ issue.

Ellie Velinska’s comparison – BNF ms

Oresme (1328-82 AD) Which manuscript?

In 2014, in a blog now deleted, Ellie Velinska made a loose comparison of the image shown above with a detail from the Voynich manuscript, putting the two side by side without analytical commentary, leading readers to infer that only ‘common sense’ was needed to know what, if anything, might constitute a commonality between them.

Ellie’s chief interest was the Duc de Berry, and her Voynich theory was woven around that interest. If this sounds dismissive, it shouldn’t. For a person with no background or formal study of medieval imagery, her natural clarity of vision often made for interesting observations and flashes of insight, but the limited amount of time she had to spare for her hobby, as well as apparent ignorance of formal academic methods and standards, seemed often to see her at a loss to know, herself, just what to do with those observations, or how to test her own ideas against the historical record. But the same is true of the great majority of ‘Voynicheros’ online and Ellie’s pleasant and accommodating manner made her a very popular member of the self-styled online ‘Voynich community’.

Cross-checking my references today, I cannot think her original description of the source correct. My notes say she listed it as BNF 1355, but I rather think it was from

BNF fr.565, f.23r

Three years afterwards, and after properly citing Ellie’s post (as you can trust Pelling always to do), Pelling himself labeled a detail “BNF 565” (see further below).

The determined checker is welcome to go through all references to Oresme from the BNF’s Gallica portal.


Oresme was not yet Bishop of Lisieux when he composed his ‘Treatise on the Sphere’ but already had his Doctorate in Theology from the University of Paris and had been appointed Grand Master over the College of Navarre where he’d had his own undergraduate accommodation and tutoring.

His credentials suggest, and his writings confirm, that whatever Oresme wrote would be absolutely sound from any western theologians’ point of view, and indeed, his Treatise was meant as much for the king’s good Christian guidance as to provide him with a reference text about astronomical theory.

Like his earlier work entitled Livre de Divinations, the Treatise shows Oresme to have been well aware of other ideas and traditions, but as time went on his ‘orthodoxy’ or theological rectitude becomes as strongly in evidence as his erudition.

In his earlier writings, especially the Livre des Divinationes, he is is plain when criticising Jews and of Arabic-speakers for their indulging in ‘divination’ including astrological divination, and these are seen to be identical to what he terms “the astrologers” or “the scientists.” But as time goes on, Oresme omits any but generic allusions to those groups, and even as early as the Livre.. when he considers the information, and its source, likely to serve as temptation for the curious.

Nonetheless, it is clear that he knew matter not only just non-Christian like Aristotle, but which derives from traditional lore, and some items that today we’d normally suppose Kabbalist. Oresme livedwhile Kabbalist teaching was flourishing near the border between modern day France and Spain, some of that border belonging to the Kingdom of Majorca until 1375. Living in the College of Navarre, one may suppose Oresme was unusually well situated to learn about ideas current in the south.

Here as illustration, a passage in translation from his Livre…

That he dismisses such ideas as ‘speculation’ is added indication of a non-orthodox (non-Christian) source. Had that ‘throne’ been described Christ’s rather than Solomon’s, Oresme might still have set the matter aside, but not as “speculation”. It would have been called a matter to be apprehended only by the eyes of faith, and not appropriate for earthly studies such as philosophy or astronomy. Just the same message, at much the same time, and environment, as that detail seen in the previous post and illustrated first in the present one.


The cautions were evidently not always heeded by persons who wore a crown, and in that detail from BNF fr.565, f.23r (Ellie’s find, I think) the ‘doubtful’ characters are included, and are defined by the usual codes – headwear, clothing, posture, hair and facial hair or lack thereof.

I won’t provide any more detailed analytical commentary about it. This post is already longer than I’d like and the codes used in those images from fourteenth century France are not shared by the Voynich manuscript save in a very few details over no more than half a dozen folios.


Assimilating Aristotle and comparisons made to images in the Voynich manuscript.

Not so long before, only students of Theology had been permitted to read Aristotle at the University of Paris, the most desirable of all study-centres in those days unless you wanted to study medicine.

A degree in Theology was the highest and most demanding of the University degrees, since one had to know all other disciplines before admission into that Faculty. The reasoning here was not a new idea; it was that any authority which appeared to be incompatible with Christian doctrine and Biblical literature should not be taught verbatim to the uneducated, or even to the less educated, except it were provided with learned commentary which edited or ameliorated the ‘wrong’ by e.g. excusing pagan writers on the grounds that they had been permitted only a ‘dim’ apprehension of any truth, given that the fulness of truth had been vouchsafed to humankind only with the coming of Christ (as western Christianity believed).

By how much, and in what way they had fallen short, or where passages in older works were to be interpreted as allegorical and so on, was duly explained and/or the texts redacted or simply summarised by the theologians, with those acceptable summaries and extracts taught to the people.

In short, before the Italian renaissance, such ‘old works’ were treated like valuable but slightly out-of-date school texts today. Living exponents of unorthodox traditions were more sternly regarded, as we’ve seen.

That prohibition against Aristotle’s works didn’t apply beyond the University of Paris; It was not supported by any Papal pronouncement so far as I know, and even within the University of Paris didn’t last in practice more than (perhaps) three or four decades, but as mentioned earlier, it was serious enough that for a time the German Albertus (called ‘the great’) had been much exercised to defend his own, and others’ study of Aristotle.

One is usually told that Aristotle’s texts reached Europe from some long distance, and had to be especially translated at some royal court, but this isn’t necessarily so.

It is recorded by a Muslim military man at the time of the Muslim conquest of Sicily that he found the works of Aristotle being treated as if they were holy writ in Sicily, with readings aloud in the various niches within cathedral and the mummified body of that ‘saint’ suspended from the ceiling as its leading light. We don’t know what language they read it in, though Sicilian Greek is most probable and for reasons that can’t be fairly treated here, the practices as he reported them suggest connections to a ‘star-worshipping’ religion recorded in association with Haran and with north Africa and which was as old as, if not older, than Alexander the Great. Aristotle himself had died in 322BC.

When dealing with Oresme’s Treatise, then, it must be kept in mind that it was made – probably commissioned – of a person whose religious orthodoxy was beyond question, and whose use of Aristotle and other mathematical and scientific information could be regarded, by his authorship alone, as acceptable to any good western Christian – that is (as yet), a good Catholic.

Biographies that blur, or ignore, or misrepresent Oresme by calling him ‘a clergyman’ or which ‘politely’ omit reference to any medieval scholar’s religious views and/or standing ignore something that was an essential part of the person’s scholarly, as well as their personal character.

Ellie’s comparison was conveyed by inference, not argument or evidence, and appealed simply to her audience’s expectations of all-European content for the Voynich manuscript. Points of difference in form and all else were simply ignored but this is also usual in Voynich writings.

So when Pelling, who has a degree in modern historical studies, later revisited Ellie’s idea (naturally, with all due credit given), he omitted most of Ellie’s illustration, narrowing the whole tacit argument still further.

As I see it, the numerous points of difference are more telling than the few which are sort-of, more-or-less, similar. You will find no kings, no thrones, no flowing ermine robes, no kneeling suppliants, no armillary spheres, no ornate tapestry-pattern backgrounds in the Voynich manuscript and in neither the full Oresme illumination nor the small detail shown above is there the detail that I see as being the most telling of the Voynich diagram’s significance – I mean those eight curved ‘arms’ of which four are seen to emerge from the foreground and four apparently from below that visible surface ..

I think – I hope – that covers the three items I was asked to expand on.

Sorry about the length.

Skies above Pt 6a: Adding and removing layers

Header.  details from an Apulian terracotta, showing ten-rayed star; seven-rayed ‘star-flowers’, sun of night as fire-basket; clothed female figures.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art,. Dated third quarter of the 4thC BC;  inset – detail from an Attic krater, black figure ware.  Rape of Cassandra by Aias (Ajax) before the image of Athena.  (Met. Museum of Art, New York. Dated 6thC BC).

Two previous:


ALREADY, by this stage, a possible explanation had presented itself for the apparently deliberate avoidance of representing living things too realistically/literally.  The logs show that after noting a second exception (on f.116v)  I moved on to two more questions after putting notes in the margin to remind myself where to pick up later this matter of the  ‘boneless’ ladies** 

** vis: “Job 31:22.   Ezekiel 27:19; 29:6; 40:5-8; 41:8, 16-19.”

The two subsequent questions were 1. “Why female? why unclothed?” and 2. ‘why baskets? – March diagram. Significance?’. 

In fact I treated the second matter first, but will reverse the order here.  


“Why female? Why unclothed?”

Initial jottings:   ok. in Egypt.  Earlier Gk examples but in Mediterranean chiefly from c.2ndC BC. vide Pompeii; North Africa… Syria;  Black Sea, northern India and further). Western revival late – Renaissance latter half 15thC [cf. Panofsky and keeper of mss]. Female still  later.  Venice-Florence. .  

It was evident to me that the ladies’  first enunciation could not have occurred in an environment that was monotheist, aniconic or anti-iconic, nor within Latin Europe until a couple of generations later than the Voynich manuscript had been made.

It was equally clear that at some later stage they had been affected by such an environment. Logically, this indicated an impact during the period of transmission from when depiction of unclothed females might be of the generic sort (in the Mediterranean c. 2nd C BC – 5thC AD) to Europe where, early in the fifteenth-century, the present manuscript is thought to have been made but where depiction of unclothed female forms was still relatively rare and of ‘shapely’ ladies very rare indeed. Just as Panofsky observed in 1932. 

It not difficult to imagine a context in which an astronomical diagram of this type might have been first enunciated in medieval Latin Europe. But  I should think that imagination would be its only support.

So by lifting aside the intervening accretions (that is to say, the chronological strata), the figures in the month-diagrams can be seen again as shapely ladies with arms and shoulders whole, though without the still-later overlays of dress and heavy paint which a number of the deformed bodies now bear.

That the Voynich ‘ladies’ were originally unclothed, and their covering due to a relatively late sequence of additions is quite clear, the stages are exemplified below by details on folio 71v-ii.

In the first stage some additional lines were drawn,  details of breast and groin omitted or erased, and the body covered by a light wash. (below, left)

Heavier pigment was then applied, unevenly and not in all diagrams nor in every case.  The example (below, right) is again from f. 71v-ii. 

It seems to me that this heavier pigment which is consistently applied for the central emblems, was applied to the ladies as much in an effort to cover up their boneless limbs and ‘normalise’ the body as it was to render them more modest. 

 (The head wear is not peculiar to the western Mediterranean,  nor to the medieval centuries). 

But what this must imply is that the copy upon which those ‘improvers’ worked already showed the ladies with those boneless limbs – and so that the work had only recently entered their own horizons if the work was indeed done within western Europe.  In Latin Europe the usual practice was to eliminate or ‘correct’ images inconsistent with Latin customs or theology, and within a short time – an act of translation as the copies were made. 

In some few other folios we do see efforts at improvement/translation of the drawings per se, but it is noticeable that when such changes are very marked – as where a ruler was taken up to draw elements in the ‘bathy-‘ section – that hand does not remain present long.  The implication in that case, and where such details occur in other sections of this manuscript, is that the aim was to reproduce with near-facsimile exactitude, matter gained from one or more exemplars.  And then these drawings were ‘improved’ as if now under other guidance. The first wanted a precisely copied work; the other (whose effect is seen only in these month-diagrams) wanted something less awkward-looking.

Overall, I can only conclude that our present copy can be no original composition, nor any traditional product of medieval Latin culture.

Other items to be considered in connection with these figures (as I noted in the log) are that:

  1. the star-flowers may have seven points;
  2. a faint trace of ‘roses’ appears even in that altered figure from the ‘light April’ diagram. 
  3. ( certain of the baskets are drawn with a side-seam and in the detail from f. 71v shown above left, the basket might have two side-seams. A person doesn’t imagine such structural elements for an object if every object of that type they’ve ever seen lacks them.  So here the inclusion of a seam in the drawing is another technical detail, and another limiting factor, and all the more if these ‘baskets’ really came waist high: for ancient and medieval peoples say about 2’5″ (c. 62-63 cm).  [As it happened, that detail proved important]. 

A further question: Was the star itself identified only with the centre of these flower-like forms? To take the example of the aster, was it identified only with the disk flowers –  while the ray-flowers (‘petals’) were supposed… rays (Lat. radii)?  Implications for Q.20?


Why ladies?

The question  arises because, if the material had been transmitted through a community averse to realistic depiction of living things, surely they might have just omitted the ladies altogether, at very least from the month-diagrams. On the other hand, if their way had been informed by an idea that it was only a realistic or ‘workable’ likeness which was prohibited then the form itself and not the subject-matter was the focus of that prohibition.  In other words, their view was not that ‘you shall not make an  image in the likeness of any thing’ but ‘you shall not make an image as the likeness of any living thing’. So long as it did not actually imitate a living thing, you could make, or keep as many images as you liked.  This is also an attitude that speaks to an earlier time, when it was not uncommon to believe that a physical image and a living thing, both, had their animation or soul from the stars.  The soul was the star-soul, and it was drawn down into a perfected body – hence at birth.  Death saw that soul return to whence it came.  Something of this ancient belief remains today in the location imagined for a heaven of souls.  But there isn’t time to explain so much here, except to say that within the Mediterranean this idea was at least as old as the pyramids in Egypt.

That the figures weren’t omitted, but merely distorted might also, or alternatively, imply that the information was perceived as so important that only superficial changes were permitted.  Supposing them simply astronomical types in some sense, however, isn’t enough.  We have the model provided by some Hebrew- and Arabic-inscribed astrolabes to prove  that astronomical types could well be omitted without altering content.  But if each represented a personality (cf the Jerusalem Astrology, Sortes Sangalensis,  or the late ‘angels of the day’ in Agrippa) then they might be irreplaceable.  Or if each also was the token of a place and important for that reason when the original had been made.   But then why associate the stars predominantly with ‘ladies’?   One obvious possibility is that link of star-and place; with the tyche or other ‘patron’ – and some of the ladies in the month-diagrams and the bathy- section do wear battlemented crowns – technically ‘mural crowns’.  (This last was a matter which  I investigated a few months later than the work being discussed now. After I’d published some of my conclusions on that point, Koen Gheuns kindly cited my work when considering the same). Other Voynich writers have since referred to the same illustrations.

Below is a detail showing a star-holder, from an instrument probably made in Diyabakir, east of the Mediterranean coast. It was made during the lifetime of Roger Bacon and of an embassy which came to Europe representing both the Mongols and the Church of the East (‘the Nestorians’).  Diyabakir had been long been one of two major seats for the Nestorian patriarch (=pope), and remained so until 1402, when possession of the city and its surrounding lands was summarily handed over to the  Aq Qoyunlu  (the ‘white sheep’ Turcomans).   Eastern Greeks had  the astrolabe by c.200 BC



The ‘March’ diagram (f.70v) and the ‘classical nude’.

Reconsidering the ‘ladies’ on folio 70v as if with limbs restored to  “classical” form, the Mediterranean world provides only a  limited period for first enunciation of such figures and effectively excludes Greek art of the classical period – or rather that of indigenous origin.

Such a usage is commonplace in the Near East in the person of Astarte or Tanit, as well as in Egypt where it is quite normal for a fully frontal naked female to display her charms, but not in Greek art. In the 6th century [BC] it is only in extremis that women are portrayed naked or semi-naked, but this rule is broken in the case of hetairai, notably in two-dimensional art. Not until the end of the 5th century BC does mature female nudity begin to be emphasized.By contrast, it [was] acceptable in the minor arts imported from outside Greece to show the naked female form…

  • Alexandra Villing et.al, ‘Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt’ paper published by the British Museum.

While the Greeks happily drew male figures without clothing, there are very few exceptions to the rule that the female body is clothed, whether it represents a divine or a mortal being. Four exceptions are (i) Aphrodite (ii) Cassandra (ii) bathing women (iv) heterai. We see no multiplicity of unclothed female forms depicted in these cases.

The Kneeling Bather.

Robert F. Sutton, Jr. has argued that in Greek art true ‘nudes’ occur from the  5thC BC with the type he calls the  ‘kneeling bather’.  However, as you may be able to see from the examples shown below, certain of his illustrations appear to show instead a  figure dressed in a short, wide-necked garment of about knee-length and even in these cases the loins are effectively covered.

  • Robert F. Sutton, Jr., The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance.(2009). Includes a section entitled ‘Female Bathers And The Emergence Of The Female Nude In Greek Art’. 

Otherwise, the ‘untainted’ nude is usually dated from Praxiteles’ execution of his now-lost Aphrodite of Cos.  (I won’t include the controversial Ludovici throne).


The ‘tainted’ naked woman: Helen and Cassandra types.

Where Greek imagery does show a female naked, the implication is of a reduction in social status and/or moral standing.. or that the woman is bathing as preparation for marriage. The usual subjects are Helen (later of Troy) or Cassandra, who was raped by Aias (Ajax) in Athena’s sanctuary.  A woman was considered degraded by rape almost to the status of slave-prostitute. Volition had little bearing on that perception. And despite Augustine’s spirited theological argument to the contrary in his City of God (composed in the 5thC AD), the same ideas were characteristic of medieval Latin Europe.

In the first of the two examples shown below, you also see a characteristic that will later become rare, where figures are drawn with exaggerated buttocks but calves extremely slender: almost bone-thin.  Just a couple of images of Akhenaten and some statues recovered in Kiev ((10thC AD terminus ad quem) show comparable practice, but in the Egyptian and Kiev examples, the persons are clothed.

The Roman era saw Roman goddesses generally clothed, though a number of  Greek and foreign deities and ancillary figures (such as the Karites or Charites and followers of Dionysos) were divested of their garments, and we find various examples of the frankly pronographic within some frescos in Pompeii. Of the deities Aphrodite/Venus remains the exception to that general rule against full frontal nudiry.

The next image (below) dates to the 1stC AD, and is from Pompeii.  It shows a scene which by then had a long history in Mediterranean art, and with which many of the Roman military would be familiar.  After a ten-year siege, the Greeks entered Troy. At left, Menelaus reclaims his wife by raping her. The gesture of clutching a woman’s hair expresses both contempt and aggressive sexual desire and is maintained as a convention in art from the older Greek tradition.  On the right, the aged Priam watches helplessly as Aias (Ajax) rapes his daughter, Cassandra, within Athena’s temple.  The Romans believed their own capital city had been founded by the Trojans.  As you see, the form here given Cassandra’s body has much in common with the conventions of medieval Latin art  – a long slender torso and small, high-set breasts.

Erwin Panofsky rightly noted in 1932 that ‘shapely ladies’ do not appear in Latin art before c.1450. Even by that time,  the ‘renaissance’ movement involved only a small number of artists in a small region of Europe.  In that sense, the older historians of art were justified in considering the Renaissance a sixteenth-century phenomenon in art as distinct from a revial of interest in classical texts.

Michelangelo and Raphael are credited, for example, with having “initiated the practice of making preparatory studies of the nude prior to painting the figure fully clothed, in order to better understand the underlying structure of the body.”.   The opposite has occurred in the Voynich manuscript, where the clothing is added to obscure the drawing’s points of divergence from a perceived norm,  presumably the medieval Latin.   Michelangelo was not born until perhaps fifty years and more after the Voynich manuscript was made. He was born in 1475 and Raphael  in 1483. Both reached their maturity in the sixteenth century.

It is entirely usual – it has been usual for decades – that comparisons offered for imagery in the Voynich manuscript date to as much as half a century later than it was made.

As with a cat who brings only the mouse-tail, the evidence adduced to support most Eurocentric Voynich theories is  too slender, and too late.


Aphrodite: the nude bather type.

Even the Greeks’ Aphrodite was usually provided some covering until the time of Praxiteles’ remarkable work. But we cannot explain the ‘ladies’ in the March diagram as a multiplicity of Aphrodites. More to the point, there is no link between Aphrodite and the star in the Greek tradition, and in the Roman tradition only via their equation between Aphrodite and Venus.

But…to cut the longer story short for the benefit of my readers…  we do find Artemis  associated with a circle of lights, and with a sequence- and a circle- of moving women.

Just so, the stars form a series and a circle of lights.. and in this case  of women.

Artemis and her women.

a type for Artemis phosphoros

Their being depicted unclothed indicates, in my opinion, that we have either the usual Roman attitude to the gods of conquered peoples, or the different attitudes expressed by art of the Hellenistic east, and particularly  what emerged among Greek, Carian and Ionian on the eastern border of what had been the Persian empire, but which Alexander reached and settled.

I’ll return to that eastern sphere later.  In the next post I’ll look further at the ‘women of Artemis’.


[this might be good point to take a break, have a cup of something and remember to breathe.. 🙂 ]



Foreign deities, Christian Fathers, and Augustine’s  City of God (5th and 15thC AD).


Some years after the research was done that I’m tracking again now,  Ellie Velinksa wrote a blogpost ( Sept. 1st., 2013. ) in which she focused on a fifteenth century French version and translation of  Augustine’s City of God (The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11).  Taking a detail from its fol. 435 (above) she suggested that those  tiered figures offer a comparison for what we see in the Voynich month-diagrams, or more exactly those in which the figures are plain and unclothed.  The Hague ms was made half a century after the Vms’ radiocarbon dates of 1404-1438. The Hague ms is dated 1475-1480.What it shows is more that even so late as the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and even in a work produced by a master in France,  the medieval body is still the norm. with its long torso, waist not emphasised and  small, high-set, round (‘apple-shaped’) breasts. The detail selected by Ellie illustrates Augustine’s explaining the irrationality of astrology and the inconsistency of the different systems.It happened that in September 2013, while I was explaining for my own readers a certain technique (‘sieving’) used to find useful comparisons for works about which some certainty already existed, I cited the following image from a text composed c.1430.  It is fairly described as both English and French as the following details explain.

from ‘Medicine and Physiognomy from 14th to Early 16th Century’ (2004).  The passage quoted below is also available in French, translated by  Marilyn Nicoud and Nicolas Weill-Parot for Médiévales, No. 46 (2004/1) pp. 89-108.

Roland was of Portuguese ancestry through his mother. He appears for the first time as a student in the registers of the University of Paris for the academic year 1419-1420. After completing his studies, he became a medical master in 1424 and dean of the faculty in 1424-25 and 1427-1430 during the English occupation. His presence in Paris in the 1430s is evidenced by several indices, the most significant being his participation in 1436 in a dispute over the days of the year 1437 favourable to phlebotomy [blood-letting] and administration of laxative medicines. From 1436 to 1442 he was regent master, and died at an uncertain date in the 1470s (1470-1477) . Among the treaties attributed to him  is a manual of Aggregatorium sive compendium artis arismetice . The latter borrows long passages from Jean de Murs’ Quadripartitum numerorum and, to a lesser extent, Nicole Oresme’s Algorismus proporcionum , so it can hardly be considered an original work. He also wrote a work on geomancy which is novel in several respects, particularly the place that Roland grants astrology in that context. His Physiognomy was one of many works which were compiled or translated by the French members of the house of the Duke of Bedford, from already existing texts. Many of these translators or compilers were graduates of the University of Paris and they probably used the funds of the Louvre library. Roland dedicated the  Reductorium phisonomie to Duke John of Bedford in the early 1430. His work has survived in three manuscripts of the fifteenth century and a copy of the seventeenth century.

This reminds us that the nearest comparison from a European work for the Voynich plants’ style of drawing occurs in a medical manuscript made in England between 1375-1425 Brit.Lib. Sloane MS 335)  and that for the first half-century of its study, the Voynich manuscript was also believed to have been written in England by the Franciscan, Roger Bacon, who had also studied in Paris.


In the excitement of finding something similar to the images of Beinecke MS 408 in works produced in Latin Europe, it is very easy to overlook the many and obvious differences between the style of the one and of the other.  The Hague manuscript even more than Roland’s work employ a different palette, shows clear evidence of ruling out and – unlike the Voynich images – manifest the usual patterns of western Christian ideas about the world and its organisation.


On a personal note, Ellie has a good eye and one wonders what she might have discovered had she not come to the study with a ‘European-Christian-Duc de Berry’ theory, which limited the range of her work from the beginning.  She has surveyed only medieval Latin manuscripts in her work, as again in her hunt for ‘dotted stars’ (September 9th., 2013) and so remained unaware that the custom had an unbroken tradition through several thousand years, even in the Mediterranean.  Just by way of example, I’ve shown in the header a detail from ceiling of ‘dotted stars’ in a recently-uncovered tomb from pre-Ptolemaic Egypt.


Augustine and polytheism in the 5thC AD

While Augustine lived, the Mediterranean’s polytheistic heritage was still a living culture, one with which he was entirely familiar having converted to Christianity only in his late maturity.

Augustine was a north African, Phoenician by descent. After having been interested in Manichaeism, which was then a widespread religion across the southern Mediterranean including Byzantine north Africa, Augustine became a Christian as his mother had long wished he would.  A thousand years before the Voynich manuscript, he composed a work entitled The City of God. In fifteenth-century Europe, its message gained renewed point; those complaints voiced by Romans of the 5thC AD about the loss of Rome to barbarians were being paralleled by the Byzantines now seeking refuge in the Latin west.  In each case, there was a suggestion that the city had been lost because the older ways in religion had been abandoned.

That argument, and Augustine’s reply, may have led to the work’s renewed popularity among the non-clerical class, but certainly a magnificent copy and translation into French was made in late fifteenth century. The painter is believed the same Maitre Francois who is credited with that image of Orata whose discussion began the present series of posts.

His City of God begins with reproaches to those Romans who, by pretending to be Christians and taingn refuge in Christian churches, had been spared by the Goths during the sack of Rome. Unlike Ajax, these ‘barbarians’ respected the right of sanctuary.  Augustine knows well the classical gods and classical poets.  Nor was he alone among those whose works preserved that knowledge within Latin Europe.

Tatian, an Assyrian Christian who wrote in Syriac, had addressed the Greeks in the 2ndC AD, saying:

Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phœnicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own. Orpheus, again, taught you poetry and song; from him, too, you learned the mysteries. The Tuscans taught you the plastic art; from the annals of the Egyptians you learned to write history;

  In the same century, Clement of Alexandria could discourse on the subject of human sacrifice, mentioning Tauric Artemis as he did:

The Taurians, the people who inhabit the Tauric Chersonese, sacrifice to the Tauric Artemis immediately whatever strangers they lay hands on on their coasts who have been east adrift on the sea. …  Monimus relates, in his treatise on marvels, that at Pella, in Thessaly, a man of Achaia was slain in sacrifice to Peleus and Chiron. That the Lyctii, who are a Cretan race, slew men in sacrifice to Zeus, Anticlides shows in his ‘Homeward Journeys’; and that the Lesbians offered the like sacrifice to Dionysus, is said by Dosidas. The Phocæans also (for I will not pass over such as they are), Pythocles informs us in his third book, ‘On Concord’, offer a man as a burnt-sacrifice to the Taurian Artemis.

The cult of Artemis in Tauris had been known to the Greeks as early as the 5thC BC, when Euripides told the story of Iphigenia in his plays.  Having been saved from becoming a sacrifice at the hands of her father, Menelaus, ‘Iphigenia was taken by Artemis to serve as priestess in the goddess’ temple among the Taureans, where as part of her office she was obliged to sacrifice strangers thrown up upon that shore.  The latter part of her story is in Euripides‘ ‘Iphigenia among the Taureans’ ( Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Ταύροις)’.

Chersonese Taurica: floor mosaic (3rd-2nd century BC) Encyc. of Ukraine
Chersonese Taurica: floor mosaic (3rd-2nd century BC) Encyc. of Ukraine

Contemporary with that mosaic is the small terracotta figure – findplace unstated – shown below.


In the mid-thirteenth century, still, a temple of some sort stood  on an island off the coast. In c.1245, it was mentioned by William of Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck), who said:

So we made sail for the province of Gazaria, or Cassaria, which is about triangular in shape, having on its west side a city called Kersona [ancient Chersonesos or Cherson; mod. Sevestopol] … And as we were sailing past Kersona we saw an island on which is a temple said to have been built by angelic hands.

The Tauric Chersonnese is now a UNESCO heritage site).

This might be a good place for images of those figures recovered from Kiev and certainly made before the mid-tenth century AD.

Nor was Augustine, in fifth-century North Africa unaware of how an unclothed woman looked.  Apart from his own experience – he had a long-term companion and several children – but from mosaics and other forms of imagery, of which a remarkable amount has survived until today from the time of Roman occupation.  Here again, however, the proportions of the body are much closer to those of medieval European art than to the Voynich manuscript’s ‘ladies’.

detail of a mosaic. Roman period. North Africa. Courtesy of theoi.com

naked, nude, un-clothed.  

I don’t describe the anthropoform figures in the month-diagrams as naked, or as nude.  The words carry overtones that I do not think can be applied yet to those figures.

Naked carries an implication of force, and chiefly of male force. A sword is naked, not nude; a body is found ‘naked’ not nude.  Unless the subject is an infant.

‘Nude’ implies a voluntary  disrobing, and a subject physically embodied.   Cassandra is naked; Helen is usually and Aphrodite invariably nude when depicted without clothing.  English doesn’t have a  neutral word for the situation we have here, where clothes may be irrelevant – so ‘unclothed’ will have to do.

The Romans’ interest in ‘shapely’ female forms ended as monotheism rose to dominate the Mediterranean.   A partial exception is found in some astronomical images, and in certain medical works which would emerge, in Latin Europe, from the schools of Paris during the 1400s.  But here again – as almost always – they offer no close comparison to what we find in the Voynich manuscript.  First enunciation of its ‘ladies’ occurred, in my opinion, during the Hellenistic period though derived ‘organically’ from earlier roots – and not necessarily Greek ones.


“They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”.