In one of my previous posts, I asked the question of how many visible shoes there are in the Voynich manuscript, and the answer was surprisingly low: eight shoes, on well over a thousand potential feet. In addition to that, I noted that almost all nymphs were placed on a horizontal line, with only one or two exceptions. The nymph could either be placed completely above the line (like a normal person standing on the floor) or “sunk” to some degree behind it, hiding the feet and/or a portion of the legs. Interestingly, the degrees of visibility formed clusters, excluding the possibility of random placement.
Following such observations, I spent some time working together with Sam G. in an attempt to come to a better understanding of the Zodiac nymphs. This project is still ongoing, but this post is based on one of our observations already.
There’s something about the way nymphs… walk.
Or rather, how they don’t walk.
Let me explain.
The human figures in the manuscript are generally either standing or walking, optionally in water. In some cases their pose is close to classical or renaissance contrapposto, where the weight of the body rests on one leg and the other is in a relaxed state, with the knee slightly bent. This pose allowed for the shoulders to be slightly twisted compared to the hips, resulting in a more dynamic and natural pose.
On the left, a Greek bronze in contrapposto, but the upper body still rigid. On the right, Michelangelo’s David (1504). In David it’s very clear how the contrapposto is used to turn the shoulders so we see the torso in 3/4 view from this angle, just like in the nymphs.
The use of this pose in itself doesn’t tell us much, since it was known and used since antiquity. However, as others have noted before, it is exceptional for a 15th century work to feature over five hundred human figures in such a limited amount of poses.
Now, if it were just contrapposto, things would be easy to explain. It’s a common pose in art, so it’s possible that the draughtsman was used to drawing figures this way, or did so for convenience. But it wouldn’t be the Voynich if something strange weren’t going on. While working on the Zodiac section, we noticed a few things about the way both legs of a figure relate to each other.
To explain this, I won’t use “left” and “right” since those terms are confusing when talking about human body parts (proper right versus viewer’s right). Instead, I will talk about the far leg and the close leg. One leg is always closest to the viewer, the other furthest. So the male figure in the image above has his close leg stretched, while the leg furthest from the viewer is bent.
One remarkable feature is that the close leg is always the supporting leg. It doesn’t matter what the far leg does, the close leg is planted on the ground like a pillar. The nymphs in the Zodiac section always have one leg fully stretched, and this leg is always the one closest to the viewer!
Or just compare the three “queens” for three different examples. The leg closest to the viewer always carries the weight. In the first queen, the free leg is raised dramatically off the ground, with the knee in an almost 90 degree angle. In the middle one, the free leg is lifted behind the front leg. Finally, the nymph on the right shows a standard contrapposto, where the close leg is still the supporting one.
This is a radically different way of looking at these figures. There is something mathematical about them, something technical, almost like there legs are meant to show a specific angle. That, taken together with the fact that there is always a horizontal reference line and a varying altitude of the nymph towards it, should allow one with the proper knowledge to deduce various values, measurements or coordinates from the nymphs – maybe about the star they are holding?
This should become clearer if I demonstrate it visually. Using Photoshop, I marked the circle in black, the close leg in blue and the far leg in red.
Note how the blue lines (the close leg) are relatively consistent, while the red lines (far leg) appear to describe a varying set of angles compared to it.
At this point I would proceed to compare these findings to other sources, but I can’t really think of any image that does things like this. Any suggestions are welcome. There is one manuscript that comes to mind which also features walking nudes on circular bands, noted by Ellie Velinska here.
One must admit that this illustration shows an intriguing similarity to the Voynich Zodiac section in that it uses circles of nude figures in an astronomical context. However, somehow the Voynich is much more rigid in the poses it allows. In the The Hague manuscript, the supporting leg is often bent, and both the close and the far leg can carry the weight of the body.
This rigidity in the poses that are allowed on these folios is something that must be addressed. One cannot say that “the author” knew only one way of drawing walking figures, because there is a great variety in the position of the “free” leg, which in the VM is always the one furthest from the viewer. So there is variation in the poses, but they always obey certain rules.
One could hypothesize that these images derived from a tradition with formal rules on how to depict human figures, and that the VM imagery retained more of these rules than usual. So how do our nymphs compare to poses used in such a tradition? Have a look at the example below, from the Papyrus of Ani. This is a normal, well behaved piece of Egyptian art.
Generally, ignoring certain exceptions, Egyptian human figures have both feet planted on the ground, unless they are dead. This is clearly not the case in the VM zodiac section, where only the leg closest to the viewer is always on the ground. The other leg can be in the same position, but also lifted behind or in front of the other leg.
On the other hand, on top of the papyrus there is a row of figures sitting on chairs, like normal people often tend to do. NO such sitting in the Voynich! When Voynich people “sit”, it’s some very awkward reclining – examples will follow. Similarly, Egyptian figures are allowed to kneel in a number of fixed poses, as demonstrated by Anubis in the middle of the papyrus. Again, NO kneeling for Voynich nymphs!
Remember that there are over five hundred figures in the manuscript and none of them sit like a normal person, and none of them kneel in any way. Egyptians are some of the stiffest fellows around, but if you look at the overall pose – sitting, kneeling, crouching, standing – they appear to have more options than Voynich nymphs. On the other hand, of course, the details of the pose and the construction of the body are much more rigid in Egyptian art. If you wanted to draw a kneeling man on a piece of official Egyptian art, you had to do so in one of a few very specific ways. But at least you could draw a kneeling man.
That is not to say that the nymphs can only stand or walk – let’s have a look at their options.
In the first Zodiac pages, nymphs can appear in “barrels” or “tubs”. Since their legs are not visible, it’s impossible to comment on their pose – for all we know they are standing or “walking” in there, so let us leave those examples aside.
In quire 13b the story continues. Nymphs are shown in or around the water, but always the leg closest to the viewer is stretched and supports the weight.
Some more variation in the general pose occurs, with some nymphs managing to lie on their backs. Still the close leg remains stretched in all cases!
Some can bend at the waist and sit down, but make no mistake. The legs remain stretched.
Picking up the soap? Leg stretched!
Touching each other awkwardly? No problem, as long as you keep your close leg stretched!
The list goes on, but I think my point is made.
Now let’s move to quire 13a, which is generally a bit less rigid than 13b. The large majority of the figures obeys the “close leg supporting/stretched” rule.
Even in this trio, with the two standing nymphs facing each other and one nymph lying down, the close legs are supporting and stretched.
Standing in the mouth of some kind of fish is no excuse – the leg closest to the viewer must support your weight:
EVEN THIS ONE ON THE GROUND BEING VIOLENTLY ASSAULTED REMEMBERS TO STRETCH THE CORRECT LEG!
By now the reader expects some exceptions, having grown bored of all nymphs obeying the leg rule. Quire 13a provides a few interesting examples, but not too many. I can easily list them all here.
First there is this nymph, the one on the right, whose close leg is obviously bent. It’s hard to say what’s going on with the far leg, which seems to be somewhat intertwined with the other one.
Now get this. On the same folio, in the same pool, there is another pair in almost the same pose! Here, too, the close leg of the nymph on the right is bent.
Now still on the same folio on top, there is another pair. The woman is fairly normal, standing on the close leg with a slight bend which might as well be the result of her curves. Much more interesting is the abductor behind her (I have reasons to believe that he is to be read as a malicious person). Not only is his close leg bent. Much worse, he is supporting his weight only on his far leg!
All other figures in quire 13 obey they standard leg rules. Only these three, found all on f80r, form obvious exceptions. The remarkable thing is that they all occur in pairs and in a situation of apparent conflict, aggression or subjugation.
So this covers all standard nymphs with visible legs. Apart from three exceptions, they all obey the rule that the leg closest to the viewer supports the weight and is extended.
That leaves the usual suspect: the crossbowman. We have seen in previous posts that he is an exception on many, many levels. For example, he is the only one gripping a single attribute with both hands. He wears two of the eight (!!) visible shoes in the manuscript. He is holding the only unambiguous weapon in the manuscript.
Surely he will compensate for all this by not being the fourth exception to the leg rule. His close leg will be straight under his body like a pillar!
It’s hard to see with the skirt, but the way I interpret this image is that the front leg is the furthest away from the viewer and that his weight rests on that. The sole of the front shoe is firmly planted on the ground, in a pose similar to the abductor from the previous picture. Diane O’Donovan once wrote – if I remember correctly – that the crossbowman was supposed to be read as one of dubious moral character. We’re not supposed to like this guy. Might the legs have something to do with that as well? Would this be connected to some idiom or complex visual code? Or does it have something to do with being a male in a nymphs’ world? I doubt it, since other men do follow the leg rules.
Finally, for the heck of it, let’s see what the two human figures in the marginalia are up to. This might teach us something about the extent to which they are “informed”, drawn with some knowledge of the rules.
The one on top in the picture, found on the last folio, is eerily accurate and certainly drawn by someone who knew damn well what they were doing. The leg close to us is stretched and, if the nymph were standing, would support the weight.
The one on the bottom looks, after what we have learned from the leg comparison, like the work of someone else. The hips and shoulders are twisted the wrong way, the legs are not defined at all, just some lines.
In conclusion, I have found only four figures who clearly violate the leg rules. Two are women subject to aggression – both of their legs are bent as if bound together or incapacitated. The other two are men in an aggressive role, one an abductor and the other wielding a weapon.
They stand on the wrong leg.