In the previous post I summarized how attention to an apparent detail in the VM Gemini led me into the realm of chivalric romance. The investigation will continue in this post. To properly understand where I’m going with this, it is important to keep in mind that I treated three separate “layers”: the wedding type, Alsace and Willehalm.
I first demonstrated that the VM Gemini’s pose is part of a type that exists mostly outside the realm of astrology. The pair is drawn as a pure example of a wedding or betrothal pose. There are rare instances of this type in astronomy manuscripts, but it is far more common in genres that treat courtly life and love. Additionally, true examples of the wedding pose in astro/calendar imagery use naked figures, which led to the conclusion that the VM Gemini have more in common with courtly imagery.
Then, digging around a bit, I found out that the wedding pose was particularly popular in two workshops that were in the Alsatian city Haguenau (currently in France but historically German): the 1418 Werkstatt and its successor, Diebold Lauber’s workshop.
These Haguenau workshops were precursors of book printing shops and they mass-produced a large number of (often secular) manuscripts. Paradoxically, the artists were very creative in stretching the boundaries of their uncreative method . They continuously adapted and recycled a set of example images. Draw the marrying couple with sad faces and you’ve got a man and woman meeting under dire circumstances. Draw the woman with a modified dress and a monk’s face and you’ve got a man cordially greeting a monk. Draw the pair a bit apart and you’ve got a man meeting a woman from a distance. Copy-paste the bride and you’ve got a man greeting two women.
Add another man behind the groom and put a man’s face on the woman and you’ve got Achilles cross-dressing to blend in at court. Yeah, leave the weird breasts and narrow waist on, nobody will notice.
This copy-pasting and slightly adapting of examples was done pragmatically and continuously, also with other scenes. Here, they blended a horse, a woman and a man into a centaur; I assume there was no real centaur model at hand. The best analogy might be playing with a limited collection of LEGO figures and rearranging their parts as needed.
I would not dwell so long on the 1418 workshop and Lauber if it weren’t for Willehalm.
Willehalm is an unfinished Middle High German poem from the early 13th century, written by the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. The poem’s subject matter is in both the chivalric romance genre and the chanson de geste genre.
The poem survives in a number of manuscripts, among which three Alsatian ones:
It was in the Den Haag MS (from Lauber) that I found the most remarkable parallel for our Gemini so far.
Additionally, a comparison of the three Alsatian Willehalm MSS reveals a complex web of transmission.
Unfortunately the usual lovers’ image is missing in B, so I had to use a different scene. Still, comparing the three manuscripts with each other and the VM, one gets the impression that they are all related in some way. There is no doubt that Lauber’s version (C) descends from Werkstatt von 1418 examples.
But where does our Voynich pair fit in? It is not an exact copy of either Lauber’s or 1418’s version, yet it shares an unparalleled amount of properties with the Alsatian Willehalms as a whole
So what’s up with that? Where did the combination of a pair in this pose with a green turban, green tunic, laced boots, blue dress with dagged sleeves… come from? Why can all of those elements be found spread over half a century of Alsatian Willehalm manuscripts? Here are some possibilities:
- Is it Alsace? 1418 and Lauber produced dozens upon dozens of manuscripts with a lot of repetition. If they reused this model regularly, we might find more parallels in their manuscripts.
- Is it Willehalm? Was there an illustrative tradition of Willehalm manuscripts which carried this model along with it?
- Is it Alsatian Willehalm? If both (1) and (2) yield no results, one (untestable) explanation would be that the VM image was taken from a now lost Alsatian Willehalm manuscript.
- Do the VM image and Lauber’s Willehalm figures have a common ancestor? This again is hard to test.
This leaves us with two somewhat testable hypotheses. If the pair is proper to the Alsatian workshops’ stock, then it should appear in more of their manuscripts (1). If, however, it traveled along with illustrated Willehalm manuscripts, it should be found in non-Alsatian Willehalms as well (2).
1. Does the figure from Willehalm appear in other Alsatian manuscripts?
I went through a few dozen manuscripts from the Werkstatt von 1418 and Lauber, but was unable to find a decent match. It looks like the Alsatians adapted or adopted the Willehalm character specifically for Willehalm manuscripts. There are, however, some clear echos of the image. In a few instances, the pose is approached:
So just when I thought I could close the lid on Lauber for now, I came across a manuscript made tentatively dated to 1442-1448: Cod. Pal. germ. 300 (Konrad von Megenberg: Das Buch der Natur).
Time for a comparison between the three manuscripts. Remember that Lauber’s Willehalm (Den Haag, KB, 76 E 1, pictured on the right) was dated to 1448-1450, so it is either contemporaneous with or a few years later than Lauber’s Buch der Natur (left). This is about a decade after the late end of the VM’s date range.
Now you will notice that despite a difference in style (different artist?) the male figures in both of Lauber’s MSS are nearly identical down to details like the shoelaces. They are married now because the woman had taken to wearing his hat.
But there’s something else. Compare the woman’s blue dress in the three pictures. Colors, shading, “technique”… Ever notice how ugly the paint job is on the VM dress, even for Voynich standards? What’s with those vertical blue stripes, the white spots…? That’s right, it’s an attempt at shading! Just so badly executed that you wouldn’t recognize it unless you had an in-your-face obvious parallel next to it. Like this:
What this suggests is that the VM painter was trying to faithfully follow an example, even though the required techniques surpassed his skill. The execution was so bad we can’t even recognize how he was trying to shade the folds in the fabric.
Conclusion: the pose and figures to appear in other Alsatian manuscripts, but not very frequently. However, an additional “artistic” factor tightens the link between Lauber and the VM Gemini.
2. Did the image reach Alsace through an illustrated Willehalm tradition?
To answer this question, we must look for illustrated Willehalm manuscripts and see if there is any kind of pattern in the depiction of Willehalm and his lady. The wonderful handschriftencensus.de lists 79 entries, but only a few are both illustrated and digitized.
BSB Cgm 193,III, dated to the early 13th century (or 1270-1275 alternatively) is likely the oldest illustrated Willehalm fragment. Readers who are familiar with the Sachsenspiegel manuscripts might want to check it out and note the similarities. We are lucky that one of the remaining illustrations shows Willehalm with a woman. This manuscript is way too early to be of direct relevance, but might we see here the seed of the Alsatian Willehalm illustrations?
BSB Cgm 63 (13th century); This richly illustrated manuscript appears to have little in common with our objects of study. Note the difference in men’s clothing: instead of half long tunics, they are wearing long, loose dresses like those of the women.
Berlin, Ms. germ. fol. 746 (14th century); fragmentary, and the few remaining illustrations don’t reveal much of interest.
Wien, Österr. Nationalbibl., Cod. Ser. nova 2643 (1387, Prague). A manuscript of a much richer kind than the ones I’ve seen so far. Strangely, there are not many decent scans to be found online. Below is the best I could find; is it somehow related to our image? There are a few interesting properties: the man is stepping forward and wearing a flat, round hat. They are holding both hands, though I don’t think they are crossed?
Unfortunately, many illustrated Willehalms remain undigitized. One example is Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibl., Cod. 30.12 Aug. 2°, second half of the 14th century. The one decent image I found reveals a stunning composition of Willehalm taking on the 13 kings. It would be interesting to see a man+woman illustration from this manuscript.
There are some minor indications that the Alsatian Willehalms were influenced by earlier examples, which was to be expected with such a popular tradition. However, it is only in the Werkstatt von 1418’s manuscripts that we start to see clear elements of the VM Gemini. This culminates in Lauber’s Willehalm.
On the other hand, I found evidence that the pair of figures features in other Lauber manuscripts as well. Additionally, further similarity between Lauber’s painting technique and the Voynich image was demonstrated.
Various possibilities remain open; I wonder what lies between 1418’s manuscripts and Lauber, because that’s where I would expect the strongest match with the VM. Alternatively, a common ancestor image is not excluded, and a number of threads remain to be explored.