It is often believed that the hypothetical “author” or “artist” of the Voynich manuscript possessed average to awful drawing skills. This is an understandable first impression when confronted with things like this:
The nymphs, as the naked female figures are conventionally called, do look rather different than what we are used to. However, after the first impression has faded, it is possible to have a closer look. In this post, we will examine one peculiar aspect of the Voynich nymphs: their strange body proportions.
This study has two goals:
- Find out to what extent the nymphs’ body proportions are consistent throughout the manuscript.
- Determine the nymphs’ average body proportions and illustrate how they can be used in comparative studies of the imagery.
I decided to focus on the proportions of the human body since unusual proportions are quickly noticed by viewers as “wrong”. Draw a figure with an overly small or large head, or too short legs, and it will look weird – at least of your aim was to make a realistic portrait. That is why proportions have been an important consideration in art since ancient times.
Let’s start by having a look at modern practice. In current art forms, the height of the head is the standard, measured from the chin to the top, ignoring of course added height by hats or elaborate hair. The following image from this tutorial gives an idea of the system and how it can be used to achieve a desired effect.
Note that the proportions of the average real person, at 7,5 heads tall, are considered a minimum here. Most modern (and classical) art will prefer the body to be at least half a head larger. The fashion industry accepts people whose full length is about eight and a half times their head, while nine heads is reserved for exaggeratedly heroic figures. More just looks silly.
A complete aside: wearing high heels manipulates the proportions of the body, effectively making the legs larger compared to the head. Cara Delevingne is 8.7 heads tall in this picture, placing her halfway between “runway” and “ridiculous”:
We know that Egyptian artists used a similar system: they drew a grid on the bare surface to help them maintain the exact same proportions throughout copies, though they used different anchor points. For example, they would select the hair line or upper eyelid as the highest point, since elaborate wigs and hats often made it hard to locate the top of the head. This was not only necessary from an artistic point of view: the Egyptians believed that tomb decorations had to be reproduced accurately to ensure their proper working. Simply put, if an artisan messed up the proportions of a holy scene, the deceased would have a harder time passing into the afterlife. This connection of Egyptian art to their core belief system was one of the reasons why their art style remained virtually unchanged until the Late Period.
The British Museum holds a wonderful wooden drawing-board with a grid remaining on the left half. This image of a king is believed to have been transferred to the board first, before being copied again onto a wall. The right half of the board has been erased and used for hieroglyph practice by a less competent scribe.
Now we have illustrated the importance of proportions throughout the ages, it is time to turn to the Voynich nymphs.
Since I did not know in advance whether the nymphs adhere to some standard of proportions – and if so, which proportions were used – I decided to use the height of the head from the top of the skull to the chin as a point of reference. Obviously absolute lengths are irrelevant when measuring proportions since one can draw to different scales. What matters is the relation between a figure’s head size and the total length of that same person’s body.
Then, I compared the head size to:
- the distance from the top to the navel
- the distance from the top to the knee of the straight leg
- the full length
First, I collected a number of measurements for comparison, both from classical art and real life.
Top left - Kouros - 7.5 heads tall Top right - Isis - 8.7 heads Bot. left - Aphrodite - 7.1 heads (but curved stance) Bot.right - Cleopatra - 8 heads
These results confirm well what we know so far about standard proportions. The Kouros, as an archaic Greek statue, measures a very standard 7.5 heads. Cleopatra and Isis, a queen and a goddess, have been given idealistic and “heroic” proportions respectively. Aphrodite falls a bit under the average proportions, which may be explained bu the S-curve of her torso.
While researching this post I happened to see renowned Voynich researcher Nick Pelling’s Kickstarter video, so I decided to measure him as well. Pelling stands at an impressive 8 heads tall, putting him in the idealistic category reserved for kings. Nice proportions, Nick!
I’ll end this post here so we can get close and personal with the Voynich nymphs right away in the next one, which should appear soon.
 D.N. O’Donovan often cites the nymphs’ relatively large heads as a meaningful cultural indicator.
 See Gay Robins, Composition and the Artist’s Squared Grid. Journal of the America Research Center in Egypt Vol. 28 (1991), pp. 41-54.
 Exceptions aside. A break with tradition was very obvious in the infamous Amarna period. There are a number of additional examples where the type and amount of grids used results in a recognizably different style. See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/art/artgrids.html.