I am 99% certain that a number of “large plants” in the Voynich manuscript have been consciously shaped to look like menorahs. This certainty is the result of accumulating insights, a number of consecutive finds by myself and others. I will present the pieces of the puzzle in chronological order, hoping you might understand why I feel this surpasses your average one-off resemblance.
But first… what exactly is a menorah? I did not know much about this subject, so here’s what I learned from some introductory research.
Two main types
There are at least two main types of menorah: those with seven candles and those with nine. In modern society, the nine-candled type might be the most common one. It is also called a Hanukkah menora or hanukkiah. As the name suggests, it is exclusively associated with the festival of Hanukkah. Of both types, this one is much less ancient, as it did not exist yet during the first centuries CE.
The other, more original type is the “temple” menorah. Whether in a drawing or physical object, these always refer to the Biblical “lampstand made of pure gold and used in the portable sanctuary set up by Moses in the wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem”. As such, it might be better to call them images of the menorah. Exodus 25:31–40 lists precise instructions on how God wanted the menorah to be constructed – but more on that later.
The Temple menorah is famously depicted on the 1stC CE arch of Titus (see above), in a scene showing the plundering of the Temple. It is on this image of the menorah that the modern symbol of Israel is based.
When you see a menorah in a medieval manuscript, it is most likely a depiction of the Temple menorah, which (unlike the hanukkiah) is mentioned in the Old Testament. Hence, it appears in Hebrew and Latin manuscripts alike.
Islamic tradition favored five-armed menorahs. And although clear instructions are present in the Bible, Latin copyists would regularly produce menorahs with strange shapes or an incorrect number of arms (which should always be seven).
1. Voynich menorahs – the first spark
In December 2017 I posted a very speculative thread to the Voynich Ninja forum titled “f22v – menorah?”, pointing out superficial resemblances between this plant and a branched candelabra (as commenters pointed out, the general candelabra might be a safer description than menorah specifically).
What set me onto the comparison was the image of a menorah found in a Roman catacomb. The lamps of the candelabra in this particular image don’t sit on the same line, which reinforced the resemblance with the plant.
Take note of the two lion heads at the very bottom, they will come back later. This is a standard funerary scene. Usually the roundel would contain a likeness of the deceased, but in this case the Jewish customer had chosen a menorah. The rest of the image is standard sarcophagus stuff – including the two lions as guardians of the tomb.
I also noted that the seemingly architectural base of the plant’s stem might be meant to bring to mind a lamp stand’s base, as in these examples:
And the following comparison with a menorah in the Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (1296) reveals how in some cases the spaces between the lamp stand’s feet were even imagined as portals.
If we take the plant drawing and simplify it into what would be the candelabra’s shape, it becomes increasingly clear that there is a major difference with the vast majority of “proper” menorahs: the seven “lamps” are placed on four tiers instead of one or two.
Lamps on different tiers are found either in Christian candelabra (which still clearly reference the OT menorah) or in relatively crude Jewish imagery. It also looks like space constraints, as in the early Roman example above, could force the lamps out of line.
In both Hebrew and Latin examples it does happen that the central lamp is higher and/or larger.
Finally there is this example from a late 13th century Swiss Pentateuch, showing not a literal menorah but rather the harvesting of olives and making of oil for the Temple menorah. It is of note because it merges a candelabra shape with that of a tree, in a similar layout as the VM does.
2. More menorahs
A bit later, I noticed that the plant on the recto side of this very folio (f22) is also shaped like a candelabra. Its lower stem clearly brings to mind the squarish decoration often worked into a menorah’s base. Since this was during my Lauber period, it was a menorah in a 1430 Alsatian MS which first made this parallel apparent.
It does not require too much imagination to see how the plant’s base looks much more architectural than botanical, with the way the branches split and regrow. Furthermore, the red growths on top are arranged in the shape of a candelabra’s arms, and the blue fruits/flowers may reference a menorah’s cup-shaped oil lamps.
3. A third menorah folio
A recent blog post by Yulia May pointed towards yet another parallel between a Voynich plant and menorah imagery: f34v and the famous Rothschild Pentateuch. While her focus is on the alchemists’ tree of life, I would like to explore in greater depth the plant’s parallel with the actual menorah.
The crucial (and wonderfully clear) factor in Yulia’s linking of the images is the presence of a pair of animals sharing one head. In the Rothschild menorah, a pair of lions is placed beneath the base, while in the Voynich, the root is shaped like two animals, apparently merged at the head.
Now, animals sharing a head are not unheard of in all kinds of medieval imagery, but to see them in this context feels relevant. Are they purely for decoration, or is there a reason for their inclusion? It is certainly not an isolated case. Some examples, like the 1470 Kennicott Bible have one lion at the base. And beneath this menorah (1399, Italy) there are two lions looking away from each other. More common still are two (separate) lions flanking religious objects, like in below mosaic from Beth Alpha (6th century CE).
On the pairing of lions and menorahs, Rāḥēl Ḥa̱klîlî writes that lions seem to have been “persistently selected in their capacity as motifs of power or images of vigil to adorn synagogal and funerary art”. Lions are the symbol of Judah, the guardian and protector, and “lions flanking the menorah have the same significance”. Remember the Roman era sarcophagus I mentioned earlier in this post – it’s the same principle.
Apart from the Rothschild Pentateuch, there are these charming fellows from the probably related JTS MS Rab. 350. Both are from Germany/France and late 13th century. Since they are larger, the parallel with the VM plant becomes even more apparent.
You might have noticed the incredibly long and straight back of the VM animal on the left. It almost looks as if it is meant to reflect the shape of the candelabra’s base as well. Also notice the intentional asymmetry between both animals. Let’s zoom in:
In the Voynich there is a difference in size, while the Pentateuch uses a difference in color. In both cases, the tail is different. And finally, the leftmost animal in both manuscripts has a more marked coat than its counterpart on the right.
If I understand correctly, Yulia May sees the alchemists’ “tree of life” motif as a link between menorahs and the appearance of the VM plant. While this may be true, my opinion is that we don’t need alchemical imagery (which is often later than the VM) but can stay closer to the menorah.
Let’s analyze the structure of the f34v plant. It’s got six side branches, three on each side. Three circles in the middle. One circle at the end of each branch. Three cicles hanging from most branches, but two branches have four circles.
The branches might bring to mind the six side branches of the menorah, although these are horizontal instead of bending upwards (as is the case in one of the other menorah-like plants). But the careful observer may have noticed that menorahs also tend to bear a series of round ornaments on their arms. Here’s a quick selection from 14th and 15th century manuscripts:
What are those? Why does every somewhat informed menorah image put knobs on the arms? Simple candelabra fashion? No, the answer is in the scripture, Exodus 25:
31 And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knops, and its flowers, shall be of one piece with it. 32 And there shall be six branches going out of the sides thereof: three branches of the candlestick out of the one side thereof, and three branches of the candle-stick out of the other side thereof; 33 three cups made like almond-blossoms in one branch, a knop and a flower; and three cups made like almond-blossoms in the other branch, a knop and a flower; so for the six branches going out of the candlestick. 34 And in the candlestick four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knops thereof, and the flowers thereof. And a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of the candlestick. 36 Their knops and their branches shall be of one piece with it; the whole of it one beaten work of pure gold. 37 And thou shalt make the lamps thereof, seven; and they shall light the lamps thereof, to give light over against it.
In summary, the candlestick must be adorned with golden blossoms and knobs of almond trees. In practice, these threefold structures are often represented as one (sectioned) spherical decoration. Each arm must bear three of these almond-clusters (plus one lamp at the end), and there must be four on the central stem, for a total of 22. This plus seven lamps is 29 total items. There are 29 circles on the Voynich plant. Their arrangement is a bit puzzling, but their number is accurate – much more so than that of many medieval menorah images.
Next, let’s compare the fruits and flowers of the almond tree with the VM drawing.
I believe this plant might refer to the almond tree, and the resemblance with the menorah (which, by divine decree, is decorated with golden almond tree parts) is intentional.
It may be impossible to tell whether these plants refer to “the” menorah or rather more general candelabra. I have, however, attempted to demonstrate that at least f34v betrays familiarity with Exodus, and the description of the menorah therein. The fact that the menorah-like structure is found in not one, but at least three plants seems significant as well. Each of these three folios provided additional clues in the structure of the base.
I have attempted to limit my analysis mostly to comparing imagery, trying to avoid conclusions about possible cultural implications. Researchers like Diane O’Donovan have studied potential Jewish influences in the VM and know more about the matter than I do.
On the one hand, the horizontal branch structure (where the lamps don’t line up on top) is found more often in Latin works. But on the other hand, we have references here to one of the most important objects in Judaism, while generally religious symbolism in the VM is sparse. If my thoughts about the almond tree are true, then those references go deeper than a casual formal similarity.