In a post I wrote over a year ago (time flies), I compared one of the containers in the small-plants section to the Pharos of Alexandria, noting that many of these containers look suspiciously like towers. This seemed not too crazy to me, since I thought the “containers” might actually symbolize landmarks related to a region where the plants could be found.
The Pharos was a widely known and influential building, inspiring the design of later lighthouses as well, though historical depictions of the tower vary considerably.
The Venetian mosaic in the image above shows Mark the Evangelist arriving in Egypt to found the Church of Alexandria. My point is that the architectural landmark functions here as the location’s emblem. It alone is enough to tell the viewer where St Mark has just arrived. Similarly, my reasoning went, the Voynich “containers” may have had the (additional) function of communicating a location to the viewer – whether it be a specific harbor or an entire associated region.
Even though I had liked to expand on this topic at the time, I didn’t because everybody else seemed to think that the idea was stupid. I was still new to the whole Voynich thing so I just decided to store the rest of my “ambiguous containers” ideas in the freezer for a while. But today I will continue the story.
The main thing arguing against the Voynich containers being actual images of towers and other architectural landmarks, is the fact that many of them are standing on legs or a narrower base, which is a feature generally missing from towers due to basic construction rules. If there are variations in the width of a tall building, the wider part will always be the base and it will get narrower towards the top. This is completely logical, since the more stones you have in the bottom, the more stones to carry the top weight. And the fewer stones you have on top, the less weight the bottom stones have to carry.
The most obvious example of this construction rule is of course the pyramid, which is also the reason why several cultures built them independently. It’s the most basic way to make a tall pile of stones that won’t fall over. Even when building techniques and materials improved, the rule remained that if you want to build really high, you go from wide to narrow.
Just to say, if the “containers” in the small-plants section were really literal depictions of towers or other buildings, those probably wouldn’t have stood for long before collapsing under their own weight.
But are they really all literal depictions of containers, though? Look at the one pictured above. Has such a thing ever existed? How do you use it? Of how many parts is it made? Where does the lid end?
Full-size stupas are of course regional landmarks just like a lighthouse or other tower. Here, the difference is that miniature versions existed, which were used as containers for offerings of food or precious materials.
Now the stupa shape does explain the top of quite a number of the Voynich containers, but I have been unable to find one which simultaneously explains the bottom. These miniature stupas were usually placed on a wider round or rectangular base, not on the kind of narrow, legged standard seen in the Voynich.
Comparing a number of these vessels, it almost looks like they have been placed on a green table. The part above the blue line I drew can be explained as a (miniature) stupa, but I have not yet seen any satisfactory explanation for the part below the line.
The sections beneath the line almost look like small tables or display stands. So shortly after I suggested the similarity between some of these “containers” and lighthouse design, I stated wondering whether these may not represent containers at all, but rather architectural models, optionally placed on pedestals. When I later read about the miniature stupas, I considered this a possible “bridging context”. If the makers were familiar with containers shaped like architectural landmarks, they might expand this to other types of towers as well.
At this point, the reader might think that I am complicating things for no reason. Why can’t they just be fanciful containers with some over the top shapes and ornaments? Is there anything at all in the manuscript which suggests a blurring of the boundaries between container and architecture, apart from my imagination?
Well yes, there is.
Faulty Towers (1)
There are six towers on the infamous rosettes foldout, which is generally assumed to depict architectural and natural features.
On the same foldout, there is a clear image of a castle, which I’ll place in exact scale next to the rightmost tower:
I’d certainly agree with the objection that the objects on the rosettes foldout are not drawn to a consistent scale. If the towers in the central rosettes were really this much taller than castle walls, they would collapse under their own weight (especially this one). Yet still, no objections are raised against these things representing some kind of towers, whether real or imaginary.
The next image is just the central rosette’s towers overlaid with some of the containers. Apart from the coloration, which on the foldout is limited to blue and faded yellow, I don’t see many differences. The overall shape and construction, the top decoration, the waviness of the feet, thick rings around the narrower segments…
Keep in mind that I am not just comparing two random things. These images are in the same manuscript, just a few folios removed from each other.
What does it mean?
The Voynich imagery is ambiguous, or rather layered, by design. My personal opinion at the moment is that each of the vessels is intended to be read as both a type of container and a tower.
But whichever way one wishes to look at this, an explanation must be given. So far, the resemblance between the vessels and the towers is usually brushed aside or just ignored. I’m not aware of any plausible explanations that have been provided in the past, but please let me know if they exist.
The options are:
- The containers are actually miniature towers (on pedestals).
- The towers on the foldout are actually containers, turning the central rosette into some (metaphorical?) kind of table.
- It’s just a coincidence.
- The boundaries between containers and towers are blurred by design.
Like I said, my preferred explanation is the fourth one: there is a lot of ambiguity. For example, again from the central rosette, what are these things?
Tubes? Towers? Containers?
Well, they surely don’t look like containers! Don’t they? They kinda do, if you ask me…
If anything, the object on the right looks more like a tower than the ones on the left…
Faulty Towers (2)
Back when I was researching my original post, there were a number of images I had set aside as possible references for the Voynich “containers”. One of those was a map of Constantinople made by one Cristoforo Buondelmonti. This Florentine mapmaker was an “Italian Franciscan priest and traveler, and a pioneer in promoting first-hand knowledge of Greece and its antiquities throughout the Western world.” His 1420 Liber insularum Archipelagi is “a combination of geographical information and contemporary charts and sailing directions [and] contains the oldest surviving map of Constantinople, and the only one which antedates the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.
There are many versions of this map, and it’s not clear which ones are most faithful Buondelmonti’s original drawing.
The map also includes an oversized depiction of Pera (Greek for across), the district where Italian merchants would find residence. One version I particularly liked was the following, unfortunately undated but in all appearances relatively faithful to the original:
The reason why I had noted this map is that some of its domed buildings, including the Hagia Sophia (obviously still sans minarets) are reminiscent of Voynich objects.
There’s also something funky going on with the perspective of some towers, making them appear as if they have swallowtail merlons.
Finally, in a recent post, Diane O’Donovan recaps her views on the map, and she has come to believe that the “castle” represents Constantinople or Pera. This is surely the most likely explanation I have read so far. Some of the more prominent buildings on both maps do show similarities, though perhaps more those from Pera than Constantinople.