The Voynich manuscript is traditionally divided into a number of sections: one about plants, one about the cosmos, one full of naked women in pools… You know, the usual. But apart from that, it is typically regarded as one “block”, a coherent unit, and there are good reasons to do so:
- The folios are all made of the same kind of material and, apart from the foldouts, have the same dimensions.
- The foldout pages, which are so very unusual in a bound medieval manuscript, appear in various sections.
- The script is the same, which implies that at least the material was created, collected or transcribed by the same person or group. This is a major uniting factor.
- The drawing style appears more or less consistent. Consistently unusual.
The first two points relate to the physical object, and I don’t see any objection to such arguments. It seems clear that those pages we have left were intended to form a unit.
The third point, about the script, is an important one as well. We must keep in mind though, that the script unifies the manuscript on the one hand, but divides it on the other. Various scribal hands have been distinguished in the manuscript, as well as different patterns of text behavior. These were the main discoveries made by captain Prescott Currier when he examined the manuscript back in the seventies:
The two most important findings that I think I have made are the identification of more than one hand and the identification of more than one ‘‘language.’’ The reason they are important is that, if the manuscript were to be considered a hoax as it is by some, it’s much more difficult to explain this if you consider that there was more than one individual involved, and that there is more than one ‘‘language’’ involved. These findings also make it seem much less likely that the manuscript itself is meaningless.[…]
This gives us a total of two ‘‘languages’’ and six to eight scribes (copyists, encipherers, call them what you will)
– Currier in a 1976 seminar (source)
Many current researchers prefer to think of the manuscript as the brain child of one 15th century individual. It is remarkable then that Currier, whose work is generally respected, describes the manuscript as a group effort of up to eight people, and even uses the dreaded c-word: copyists.
In conclusion, if we look at the text in isolation we see unification on the one hand (same unknown script) but a remarkable fragmentation on the other. For this post, it is important to remember that Currier’s conservative estimate was still six (!) different people to do the writing alone.
Of course, to make an illuminated manuscript, you also need illuminations, which must be drawn and painted. Generally a scriptorium would employ several specialists for different parts of the process. If any historian would want to look into the kind of place in which a manuscript like this could have been manufactured, I would be more than interested. But I don’t think it would be an easy task.
So for the text, we’re looking at six to eight people. How about the painting? In a recent post, J.K. Petersen argued that there would have been at least two different painters involved. Generalizing a bit, one paints smoothly and carefully while the other has a courser style. Additionally, the course painter seems more inclined to use different colors instead of just one shade of green.
In the examples below, the smooth painter would have done the leaf top left. The paint is carefully applied even in the complex edges, and the color is relatively smooth and uniform. The work of the course painter can be admired in the leaves top right.Two or three quick strokes, and the job is done, but on the other hand more different shades are used.
I actually believe that there may be at least one additional distinct style, which is exemplified in the section of a green pool bottom left. This is definitely not the work of the smooth painter, but also not quite that of the course painter. I’d rather call this one the angry painter, since it looks like he attacked the page with a green marker. The picture bottom right shows that also the water has been painted in different styles.
These styles are not intentional “art” choices made by one person. “This water needs to look scratchy, and that water must be smooth”. No, I share JKP’s analysis that these are two – I’d say rather three – different hands. The fact that a same style is usually maintained on the same bifolio indicates to me that it is a result of task division between various persons, not subject-dependent artistic variation by the same person.
So with Currier’s eight different scribes, and let’s say three painters, does that mean eleven people worked on the manuscript? Well I’m not sure. Not all of the painting looks like it’s the work of a specialist – which is something we would expect if separate people did the painting. It’s impossible to tell at this point. An interesting next step would be to see whether different scribal hands match different painter’s hands, but that would take us too far in this post.
All of this was an introduction to what I thought would be a short post about imagery. If there are different hands in the text and different hands in the paint, then what about the drawings?
Comparing drawing styles is tricky. There are two main problems, of which the first one is easy to demonstrate. Consider the following set of details from various sections of the manuscript.
Are those things drawn by the same person? Would you even put them in the same manuscript together if you didn’t know? That’s the first problem: how can we know if hundreds of plants and hundreds of weird naked ladies are drawn by the same person? And what about the many round charts? That is the first problem when comparing drawing style, the matter in the manuscript is just too different.
The second problem is a bit more complex. I personally follow Diane O’Donovan’s argument that the imagery in the manuscript has Hellenistic roots, and that the various sections reached medieval Europe through different routes. This means that the copyists who first unified the material were confronted with a range of art styles. But even if one believes the images in the manuscript are medieval European creations, the standard would still be that at least part of them were copied from various sources rather than invented on the spot. In other words, no matter how we look at it, there would have been stylistic variation in the “input” imagery, possibly resulting in stylistic variation in the artefact we have at our disposal.
We must keep this in mind: any stylistic variation might be the result of different source material, different draughtsmen, or both. Let’s have a look at some examples.
Compare the following faces. The first row consists of faces of various celestial bodies from the Cosmological section.Even though one is drawn at a different angle, we see a very similar style. A bit of a snub nose, eyes are drawn with separate pupils, mouth consists of two lines. These faces are larger than the other ones in the manuscript though, so some of this may be the result of the available space.
The second row consists of all the human figures in the central emblems of the Zodiac section. Mouths are colored red and a blush has been applied on the cheeks, though this may have been the work of a different person. And finally the third row, these are faces from some of the circular diagrams. I would be inclined to see a difference here, especially in the shape of the face, but it is hard to be certain.
However, if we compare a delegation of these first faces to some new ones from quire 13b, a clear difference emerges. The first row is from the Zodiac and Cosmological sections, the second and third row from quire 13b:
Especially in row two, the figures have been made ugly and deformed. It still remains unclear whether this is really because of a different hand, or a different kind of source image, or a different purpose…. but one thing is certain: the style is different. Similar enough to know that they are from the same manuscript, but different enough to know that something is going on. If one still wishes to argue that all figures have been drawn by the same person without copying sources, then one must explain why so many nymphs in quire 13b have horribly deformed faces.
Finally, there are two large faces in the roots of a plant on f33r. They look again as if they were drawn by a different hand, perhaps the same one that drew the faces on the suns and moons, but definitely not the one that drew the nymphs’ faces. The flat S-curve of the nose, the way the pupils and eyes are drawn, two lines for the mouth. The hair is drawn in a more basic, crude way than is the case in the other sections.
Much more can be said about variation in the drawing, but this post is getting a bit too long for my liking. I will just add two more examples.
What I find the most remarkable is that often the animal shapes hidden in plants are drawn more accurately than the “normal” animals in the manuscript. I have often mentioned that there is a wonderful elephant head hidden in one of the leaves, for example:
Or an anatomically correct octopus – for being a plant, that is:
A decent squid:
A rearing cobra:
And so on. If we compare this to the “overt” animals in the manuscript, it’s a bit of a hit and miss situation, depending on the section. There are some decent birds in the cosmological section, but it’s all downhill from there.
And it doesn’t stop with the animal shapes. For example, one of the small plants has a hand for a root. Yeah just that. The thing is, this hand is actually anatomically correct and even somewhat elongated, unlike any other hand in the manuscript. A quick comparison:
So it seems like especially the hidden images in the small-plants section have been drawn with more accuracy than their overt counterparts in other sections. Add to that the different overall stylistics, like an elongated hand compared to stumpy pseudo-hands, and the case for different artists becomes stronger. Though here, again, one might argue that different sources caused the differences in stylistics. Or both. But we must stop considering the manuscript the invention of one man, because it clearly isn’t.