A challenge for my fellow Voynich enthusiasts: without skipping ahead, how quickly can you tell where I’m going with this post? 🙂
Let’s start with an odd question: which were the most famous wounds in history?
To many, and certainly to the medieval mind, these would have been the Five Holy Wounds suffered by Jesus during his crucifixion. Nails in hands and feet, and a lance to the side. Images of the wounded Christ on the cross were on display in every church. Similarly, the ostentatio vulnerum was a common theme: Christ revealing his wounds to affirm his identity and resurrection.
From the 13th century onward, interest shifted from Christ’s divinity on the cross towards his humanity and suffering. A common depiction of Jesus, drawing specific attention to his suffering, is the so-called Man of Sorrows.
Devotion of the Five Holy Wounds
Modern viewers can still easily understand these images and their meaning. But during the late middle ages, a more specific type of devotion reached its peak in popularity. While the images I posted above always included the Christ figure, we now get more abstract depictions of the wounds themselves. Sometimes, as in the examples below, the wounded body parts are shown in isolation: hands, feet and heart. Inclusion of nails and lance is optional.
These developments fit within the broader shift of attention towards Christ’s humanity and immense suffering. In the 14th century, the wounds were being addressed specifically during mass. And in imagery, the portrayal of the wounds took an even more abstract turn when they became entirely separated from the body. Depictions of the wounds were meant as very direct and empathic confrontations with the suffering of Christ. The side wound (to the heart) was the most important, and accompanying text would often assure the reader that the image of the wound was true to size.
I will now post more images of this wound, before addressing the question that will inevitably come to your mind upon confrontation with this imagery.
All five wounds:
Sometimes the side wound accompanied the Arma Christi (Instruments of the Passion):
In writing this post, I relied on Martha Easton’s The Wound of Christ, the Mouth of Hell: Appropriations and Inversions of Female Anatomy in the Later Middle Ages. She writes (p. 396):
For the most part, these images have been ignored in art historical scholarship, and until recently very rarely had been published or reproduced; thus few modern viewers are familiar with these images of the isolated wound of Christ. Part of the reason for this oversight seems to be a kind of censorship because of the potentially erotic nature of these wounds; at least to a modern audience, such depictions are almost inescapably vaginal. In my experience discussing such images in the public venues of the museum, the classroom, and the conference session, these images can provoke profound discomfort.
She adds that “the link with female genitalia […] suggests a series of associations that would have been entirely appropriate in the context of fourteenth-century piety and social thought.”
Obviously, there is a purely physical similarity, already noted by Hildegard van Bingen, who saw some connection between female menstruation and men’s bleeding wounds. But also on a more symbolical level, the wound of Jesus “births” the Church (ecclesia):
There is evidence that images of this wound were used physically in devotion. In some cases, actual slits were made in the parchment. And Easton mentions a manuscript (below) of which “the pigment of the wound is worn away from repeated kissing or touching”.
During the 15th century, the wound would often be oriented horizontally, shifting the focus away from the female connotation and towards the Sacred Heart. Still, “in the fifteenth century, representations of the wound of Christ were used in association with vaginal problems; the user of an amulet containing the “measure” of the wound with an entreaty to Longinus expected to end a problematic period”.
I need one more digression before we can move on to the VM: Longinus. Much like the three Magi, he was one of the many biblical nameless who received a name and more fleshed-out backstory in later traditions. Longinus was the Roman soldier who used his lance (the “Holy Lance”) to pierce Jesus’ side during crucifixion, inflicting the fifth and most important Holy Wound.
The name first appears as Loginos in the 6th century. After the 10th century, an additional element enters the tale of Longinus: bad eyesight. In various versions of the story, Longinus was now “dim-sighted” or even blind. When some of Jesus’ blood fell on his eyes, he was healed, and now believed in Jesus.
To be fully prepared for the VM analysis, let’s recapitulate. Around the figure of Longinus we find:
- the Holy Lance
- the side wound of Jesus, which in its isolated veneration was intentionally drawn to resemble female genitalia
- restoration of eyesight
Lanceolate leaves and bloody roots
Voynich folio f17r is mostly known for the faded inscription in its top margin:
But the plant on this page has also garnered quite some attention, because there are clearly non-botanical elements in its roots. Let’s zoom in on these first:
When I first saw this part of the image, it reminded me of female genitalia, especially the bottom one. I was not the only one who got this impression, for example Ellie Velinska thought the plant could be “wild tarragon – used to induce woman’s monthly cycle.” However, most researchers saw in the root a set of eyes, which might refer to the name of the plant or its use in treating afflictions of the eyes.
I think neither solution answers all questions. If they reference female genitals, then why two? And if they represent eyes, then why not set them horizontally? And why the difference in size? Why the slit pupils? Why the blood apparently running down?
So is it possible that these root elements are actually wounds? And that they refer to, or at least were based on, the holy wounds of Christ?
If they literally refer to the Holy wounds, then the difference in size might mean that the side wound and one of the lesser wounds are meant (which still doesn’t explain why there are only two).
It is possible that the reference is to wounds in general, and the Holy Wounds were just used as the most available exemplar. Or because their particular appearance would have most readily brought “wound” to the mind of the medieval observer. In this case, the plant might be meant for one that is used to treat wounds, like one of the woundworts.
I will, however, argue that the entire plant is a more direct reference to crucifixion imagery.
Look at the shape of an individual leaf:
Such leaf shapes, of which this is a rather dramatic example, are called lanceolate, because they are shaped like a lance head. This somewhat exaggerated lance shape might be a reference to Longinus’ weapon, the cause of the wounds. Or to “things that cause wounds” in general.
There’s more to consider though. Look at the shape of the complete set of leaves. Do they, as a whole, bring to mind a particular part of the human body?
Maybe a ribcage?
If Longinus is alluded to, then the resemblance of the roots to eyes might be relevant as well, since contact with Christ’s blood fixed his eyesight.
I’d like to mention one final detail here. Note how the red line only runs along the bottom part of the stem, connecting to one of the “wounds” or “eyes”.
Now compare this to the bottom of the cross in many medieval crucifixion images:
There are two ways to connect this to the Holy Wounds / Longinus concept. One, if the red line represents Christ’s blood hitting Longinus in the eyes.
But I think there’s a better way of looking at it: upside down. Then the small “eye” becomes the one visible wound at the feet, with the nail. And the large one is the side wound, halo included.
Remember that for the medieval viewer, images of the wounds detached from an actual Jesus were a familiar sight, well accepted in religious imagery.
I have come to argue, to my own surprise, that f17r references the Crucifixion and perhaps the figure of Longinus. To show this, it was first necessary to introduce the veneration of the Holy Wounds as it was common in the 14th and 15th centuries. Because of the suggestive way these wounds were drawn, they fell out of favor and have become unfamiliar to modern eyes. The medieval viewer, however, would have recognized them without difficulty.