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).
- Stars above 5c: Proportion and desire in folio 70v (September 27, 2019)
- Skies above 5b: Star and basket (September 21, 2019)
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:
- the star-flowers may have seven points;
- a faint trace of ‘roses’ appears even in that altered figure from the ‘light April’ diagram.
- ( 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?
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.
- 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.
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).
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)’.
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’.
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”.