There are a few examples in the VM of four figures placed around a circle. One would expect that these offer exceptional occasions for finding parallels with existing medieval imagery, since so many important concepts come in fours. Directions and winds, elements, seasons, humors, virtues, ages of Man, four rivers of Paradise, four mythical beasts, four evangelists. Some of those, like direction and the seasons, are inherently cyclical, making for ideal candidates to represent as a circle.
The circle I will address in this post is the one on f57v:
The four figures are surrounded by seven bands, of which four are completely filled with text. We will not focus on this outer part, but do keep in mind that it is there. Two of the figures are peculiar in the context of the Voynich, since they are facing away. This is extremely rare in the VM, where the vast majority of figures is depicted in three quarter view, but it is also relatively rare in medieval art in general. We might find some figures turning their backs on us in a crowded scene, but rarely is the posture so explicitly adopted in a diagram.
Let’s have a closer look at the figures one by one.
- The one on top is facing away, and his relatively short hair appears unkempt and standing up. He has his arms outstretched but does not appear to be facing any of his companions.
- The one on the right is holding aloft a circular object. He faces in the direction of the bottom one, though his eyes appear closed.
- The bottom figure also faces away, but in more of a three-quarter way than the top one (so I guess one-quarter?). He is facing the one on the right and also has both arms outstretched. His hair is of medium length and is not standing up.
- The figure on the right is the one that looks most like she might be female, though it’s hard to be certain from the shoulders up with those hair styles. She faces the figure on the bottom and reaches towards him.
One difficulty with this diagram is that there is only one attribute, and it is ambiguous. The figure on the left is holding a simple white disk or sphere. We can interpret this sphere in many ways, and each has a different implication for the figure and hence the rest of the diagram. All the following, and more, have been proposed before.
Glubus mundi – earthly power
The sphere could represent the globe often held by kings, a symbol of their reign over the world, or by Christ as the Salvator Mundi. However, this interpretation is problematic. First, within the Christian world, this orb is usually a Globus Cruciger, which means it should be topped by a cross. Still, plain versions are found as well, especially if the scene is supposed to represent pre-christian times. The example below on the right represents Old Testament kings David and Solomon.
A much greater problem than the plainness of the orb is the fact that it alone is not enough to signify kingship. The orb, as part of the royal regalia, is usually accompanied by a sceptre (or a sword in earlier examples) and a king wears a crown. The VM figure displays none of these things, nor any of the marks of a Salvator Mundi.
Conclusion: if the figure represents kingship, it does so in an extremely minimalist and ambiguous way.
Host – priestly class
It has been proposed that the white disk might be a host, the sacramental bread used in the Eucharist. At first glance, there is some merit to this idea, since the host is often held up high.
However, in all examples I could find, the host was raised with both hands. This implies that there was (and often still is) a proper way to hold this thing, and this is not being demonstrated in the VM. Additionally, there is little about the VM figure (who appears to be unclad) to signify his belonging to the clergy.
A snowball – Winter
One idea I found silly at first is that it might be a snowball. However, upon consideration, this not the worst proposal.
Above is the Allegory of Winter by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, fresco at the Palazzo Publico in Siena, c. 1338-1340. His attribute is a snowball. Interpreting the sphere as a snowball comes with a few advantages; there is no strong standard iconography or pose for the personification of winter, and snowballs are often raised in one hand. And winter would fit perfectly in a four-part cycle.
On the other hand, this would not explain the three other figures. Why the relatively uncommon snowball attribute, but not flower or branch for spring, fruit for summer, grain for autumn? Why the back-turning, reaching for some but not others?
A coin – riches
When a figure in a medieval manuscript is holding a (yellow) disk, this might represent gold or a gold coin. For example, below is Mansa Musa from the Catalan Atlas. The way he is holding up the gold, as if in adoration, is somewhat similar to the VM figure.
But as with all proposals, there are also counter indications. Why just a coin, and no other show of riches (like clothes, for starters), or a crown? Maybe not a king but a merchant?
We could see the back of a round mirror. Again the pose is problematic, though, unless the young man in the VM is attempting to view the top of his head.
In short, the sphere allows for many diverging interpretations; it alone will not help us understand the whole diagram.
Four men holding hands in a circle
As is usually the case in all things Voynich, there are no clear, complete parallels for the full diagram either. Let’s see what we have to work with. We find some similarities in these two related diagrams from Cava de’Tirreni, Bibl. della Badia, ms.3 S. Bedae, de temporibus, and BNE mss 19 (12th century). One of these was already pointed out by Marco Ponzi in 2015. The diagrams combine a number of elements that can be arranged in a quartered circle: elements, seasons, and cardinal directions. The figures are holding hands to show shared properties.
We easily find resemblances between this and the Voynich diagram: four busts inside circles of text, the hand-holding…
But upon further inspection, this diagram is again not enough to explain the one in the VM. What about the sphere? Okay, this could be Winter with his snowball. But why are two figures (would-be spring and autumn) facing away? And why the uneven arm-reaching scheme? One might object that this isn’t such a big deal, but figures seen from the back are a big deal in the VM. If the illustrator/copyist were presented with an example of four figures in three-quarter view, he would not change two of those without a good reason.
Wheel of Fortune
In a thread on the forum, JKP noted that figures facing away can sometimes be found in Wheel of Fortune imagery. I found this a promising avenue of investigation, since the Wheel is essentially a circular diagram, often with four figures. So let’s have a closer look at what this Wheel was all about.
The Roman historian Tacitus already complained about how the concept of “rotam Fortunae” was overused. But nobody loved a good cliché as much as the medieval Europeans did, and indeed wheels of fortune can be found in countless medieval manuscripts. The image became especially popular during the later Middle Ages, often illustrating Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae.
While during Roman times Fortuna already had an empty wheel as one of her attributes, it became populated with human figures during the Middle Ages. Initially, the Wheel was exclusively about the rise and fall of kings. Its four kings, in various states of power, were accompanied by the text Regnabo (I will rule), Regno (I am ruling), Regnavi (I ruled) and Sum sine regno (I am without a reign). The image below is a fine example of the prototype; each king is holding a scroll with his status.
Note how crowns are used as indicators. The figure at the bottom is without any clothing. The rising prince (left) is about to land the crown on his head, and the king on top is wearing his. Finally, the falling king is losing his crown to gravity. About the latter figure, note the way his hair is drawn “standing up” to go with his upside down orientation.
The implied direction is most often clockwise, though counter-clockwise examples are easy to find as well. The number of figures on the Wheel varies, though four is definitely the most common. Here is an example of a wheel with only two figures. And in the example below, high society as a whole storms the wheel, only to be tossed over to the other side.
As was noticed in the thread I linked above, wheels of Fortune are the only cases where we find examples of human figures facing away and hanging upside down. In several examples, the hair is drawn standing up like in the top VM figure.
The two examples where the figure is both facing away and upside down are Boccaccio, De casibus (Paris, c.1400-1425) BnF MS Français 226, fol.12v. and Hortus Deliciarum, Herrad of Landsburg (1130-1195), Hohenburg Abbey, Alsace.
A slight adaptation of the wheel of Fortune is the wheel of life, in which the “ages of Man” are merged with various positions on Fortuna’s wheel. The one below is from Wellcome library MS 49, early 15th century.
I am tempted to suggest that the VM diagram could be a compact version of this Wheel of Life with its eight figures. We have bottom left infans in the cradle, then clockwise Puericia riding a stick horse, Adolescencia with a finger raised, Iuventus with both hands raised and richly dressed, in the position of the crowned king. Then Virilitas holding a money bag and Senectus with a walking stick. Finally, an angel pulls the corpse decrepitus into the grave, and launches the infant on its path around the wheel, thereby connecting end and beginning.
Like the VM wheel, this one is not specifically about kings with crowns, and the only handheld attributes are sticks for Puericia and Senectus, and money for Virilitas. If we assume that the VM shows this wheel with the omission of four in-between figures, the poses are quite similar:
The problem here is that the figure on top, which should be the most glorious one, is hanging upside down in the VM. We know that this isn’t just some trick of orientation or perspective: the standing hair indicates that this figure is literally upside down. This most humiliating position is the opposite of what we’d expect.
The Ages of Man
One cannot talk about the Ages of Man without also involving that other VM 4-figure circle, the one on the reverse of the large foldout. For obvious reasons, this circle has been linked to the four ages of man/ four seasons at least since D’Imperio. See the discussion on Stephen Bax’s site with some interesting contributions from Marco Ponzi, and the discussion on the forum.
A point of agreement appears to be that the figure on the left represents youth/spring because of the branch, while the figure on the bottom is old age/winter because of the walking stick. This is in agreement with the “beginning” mark which is placed under the left figure.
Below I repost the image made by Marco because I think it is relevant. The figures were found in a Scotus manuscript, second half of the 15th century.
Infancy or spring has a flower, youth a remarkable pointing gesture. Maturity has material wealth (?), and old age a walking stick.
What we were missing until now, I believe, is figures with such attributes in a cicle. Note that tree of these attributes are present in the Wellcome Wheel of Life I posted above: pointing gesture, wealth and walking stick. There is, however, one other manuscript which deserves mention here, the Tractatus de quaternario.
As the name suggests, this work is entirely dedicated to the fourfold division. It only survives in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, Ms 428, early 12th century. Most sources I found complain about how this unique manuscript has not yet received the study it deserves. And indeed, images of it online are incomplete and of atrocious quality.
The signs for the first and second stages of life are switched here compared to the VM and the Scotus images. Puerita has her left hand raised instead of Iuventus, who is holding a branch. The two latest stages are engaged in sedentary activities, spinning and winding thread respectively.
It is a shame that this would be the only manuscript of its kind. If any later copies survived, they might be more illuminating.
As is often the case, other manuscripts’ imagery provides some hints of what the VM images might mean. Sometimes, these parallels appear too great to be a coincidence. But they rarely offer a completely satisfying explanation. So far, when it comes to understanding the VM quartered circle diagrams, we remain sine regno… like this poor chap: