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.
Did you expect anything less? 😉
I wasn’t sure what to expect 😉
Koen, The bodily proportions – including the attenuated shanks combined with healthy thighs; the proportion of the head to the body, *and* the marred faces – together convince me that the culture informing these ‘nymph’ images cannot have been that of Latin Europe.
But this is interesting work. I’ll follow it with interest.
I agree, but there are some partial parallels, and I like to find those.
My current feeling is that the marred faces may have been added in a different layer than the rest – probably a later one. My reasoning is that all other properties can be found in Hellenistic and definitely Roman-Egyptian imagery.
I may be mistaken, but I think you see those things as “one package”, which is reasonable given your arguments. However, since I have not yet seen a parallel for this “package treatment”, I favor the “two different layers” analysis at the moment.
Not exactly. I see the designs as characteristic of Hellenistic attitudes, but whoever adopted the Hellenistic forms may have been the first to draw them in that very un-Greek way. I assume it due to some philosophy which prohibited attempts to replicate the work of the (?) creator-deity, but that sort of philosophy exists even in Hellenistic times among some groups, so it is difficult to say whether the alteration was made earlier or later. The closest models of which I know for the “big-head, bone-thin shanks, full thighs” convention are those found around Kiev, statues believed discarded at the time it was converted to Christianity in about the tenth century.
It is true that we find not-dissimilar conventions in the old Greco-Bactrian region, and for this and other reasons (including the fact that the heart of astronomical study in was the old region around Khurasan), I attribute the form of all the “ladies” imagery to that line between the Black Sea and Bactria. I’m not sure that the post-Hellenistic affects can be more surely dated. It would be lovely to know what the Khazars thought about imagery, or what others had thought who inhabited that road before the ‘clean sweep’ perpetrated by the Mongols, and subsequent arrival of plague.
The language of Khorasan (so it is said) was Bactrian until as late as the tenth century, and the tenth century is the date of the statues from Kiev… so continuity is feasible – just unproveable.
The date range for those statues, called ‘pagan statues’ is 980- 1015 AD
It looks as if the thin shanks are meant to indicate someone who never needs to walk, but is perhaps “carried along” … or on the other hand thought unmoving. No way to be sure, but the stars also have attenuated limbs in the Vms, and again I think as sign that they are carried about and do not move of their own volition.
Not as cute as the Voynich nymphs, but women are given bellies.
Here, by the way is an inscription which is represented in a way suggesting it dates to the same period, and it is carved in stone:
(I do hope this is not very badly TMI and OT)
The inscription reads:
“Otsiuda poshla russkaia zemlia” (From here sprang forth the land of Rus)]
Info, pics from University of Oregon website
Getting more clarity for myself about these matters is one of the reasons why I felt the need to compile a little overview.
I think we are in agreement at least about there being Hellenistic and Egyptian components in the nymphs. It does seem likely that this is a non-classical form of Egyptian imagery, which, as you say, does not need to have been made in Egypt.
From what I’ve learned recently, I would argue that these bodily features find their origin in the ancient Egyptian association of dwarfs with the scarab that carries the sun. The scarab also had thin, curved limbs, causing these features to become emphasized in anthropomorphic representations of celestial concepts. Not so much in dynastic art, but in objects made for everyday use, like amulets.
In this example from the Nubian period, it’s clear that the human torso and limbs are meant to mirror the shape of the scarab that carries the sun disk. The ram head of course also refers to the sun god.
Such proportions are mostly found in amulets, household objects, as well as in “provincial” work 🙂
The use of dwarf-like body types would hence be appropriate in all situations where one wished to evoke a property or concept associated with the sun, which was quite a lot: fertility, rebirth, immortality, the heavens….
It might be so that the Kiev sculptures are somehow related, but I’m not sure that they are more connected to the VM imagery than the Egyptian precedents. The figures are seated and do convey an air of static unmovingness, as if they are trapped on their chairs.
This while the nymphs are often quite dynamic. I don’t think the walking posture of many of them can be seen as simple contrapost. And at least a couple of them appear to be running , fighting, moving violently…
So I’d call them cyclic rather than static.
I think I may see where we are talking at cross-purposes. When I say “Egyptian” my base reference is geography.
So for me, something from the tenth Dynasty is Egyptian, and something from tenth-century AD Cairo under Islamic rule is “Egyptian” and something from Alexandria in the 2ndC BC is also Egyptian. I don’t think Baresch was any more particular, either.
I suppose that’s why I don’t find it at all strange that the basic dimensions of one papyrus dating to the 2ndC BC should be comparable to that of a Christian codex produced in Egypt in the 2nd-3rdC AD, nor that the dimensions of those works should appear as sheets of paper in medieval Cairo, or even that they should be exactly he same dimensions as the Voynich folios… which are quite unusual for Latin European works, as I’ve demonstrated.
I think, though, that you are looking at a different avenue of research, and it appears to be yielding very interesting results. While I’ve made the point about bodily proportions often enough, your approach has really got through to people, and instead of the usual round of sneering etc., the “line-up” style has made it intelligible and clear.
Well done indeed.