This post is about the cup-shaped plant on f35r, and why I believe it represents the cup (“grail”) in which Jesus’ blood was caught during the Crucifixion.

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The Grail in Arthurian romance

Etymologicallygrail comes from the Old French graal, which in turn comes from Medieval Latin gradalis, “a flat dish or shallow vessel”. False etymologies related to sang real “royal blood (of Christ)” already existed ca. 1400.

Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the stories of the Holy Grail as the ultimate must-have for the knights of the Round Table. These stories usually include connections to Christian lore; the grail was the cup Jesus used during the last supper, and/or in which his blood and sweat were caught.

The biblical figure connecting Christianity to the Arthurian grail is Joseph of Arimathea, who is mentioned in the four gospels as the man who requested Jesus’ body from Pilate and helped bury him. John 19:38 is wonderfully to the point:

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.

Luke 23:50-56 provides the most elaborate account:

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

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Niccolò di Tommaso painted Joseph in the mid 14th century. His attributes refer to his role in removing Jesus from the cross.

As you can see, there is nothing about any vessels or grails there. As so often, the Bible is sparse with details, and much of the stories we know today were fattened by tradition. So where did the blood-catching story come from?

This crucifixion scene was included in an early 14th century manuscript of ‘L’Estoire du Graal’. Joseph catches blood dripping from Christ’s feet in a dish.

A “grail” frist appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, le Conte du Graal, around 1190. Even though this piece of tableware is wondrous, there is no link to Christ. However, not much later Robert de Boron did make the connection in his influential poem Joseph d’Arimathie. And soon, a multitude of authors, including those who wrote the anonymous Continuations of Chrétien’s Perceval, connected the Arthurian grail to Jesus.

As Leah Tether explains, “medieval writers and publishers of romance used the Grail as an adaptable and creative instrument for conveying a particular message to their audience, the nature of which could be very different from one book to the next.” So this is where we leave the convoluted mess of Arthurian Grail stories behind – the important part is that from ca. 1200 on, the concept of a cup in which Christ’s blood was caught enters popular lore in full force.

The Grail in devotional contexts

The stories about the knights of the Round Table acted as a catalyst, cementing the belief that Christ’s blood was caught in a cup into popular culture. Someone collecting blood was now a common sight in devotional imagery (this could also be done by angels or other figures).

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Water from the fifth Wound is collected, Hortus Deliciarum.
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Crucifixion painting by Giotto
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Sometimes there is a shortage of angels (source)

The bloody chalice is not limited to crucifixion imagery; see for example the lamb in the Ghent altarpiece:

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It is part of the Arma Christi, as in this 1443 votive panel:

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In this example from Morgan MS M.1089 (first half 15th century), Christ is conveniently positioned above a chalice during Eucharist:

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Some images draw the bleeding side wound of Christ as the opening of the chalice (second half 15th century).

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One could go on for ages about the many incarnations and meanings of this horror show, but the bottom line is that medieval audiences were well accustomed to bloody chalices. Even if it were just the one the priest prepared in church.

And the Bible?

As I explained already, no blood-catching chalice is mentioned in the Bible. Of course there is the “cup” of wine of the Last Supper, but this is not connected to crucifixion or any fluids literally leaving the Lord’s body.

The whole veneration of the side wound of Christ and all related imagery ultimately stem from John 19:34:

But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.

Most illustrations seem to take this as a mixture of blood and water, resulting in a lighter stream gushing from the chest, compared to thick drops of blood at the other wounds. Some really go overboard, like this 1450 woodcut (held at Cambridge university):

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Voynich MS f35r

There is a reason why, poor reader, I needed to drench your eyes in some of the more gruesome imagery of mainstream Christian history (granted, some are worse, like the many inventive methods for torturing saints). Starting in the 14th century but really reaching its peak in the 15th, there was a tendency towards an affective experience of devotional imagery. People were encouraged to connect with Christ and Mary’s suffering on an emotional level. And I think f35r must be understood in this context.

Worshipers were confronted with blood-soaked scenes in painting, but also in sculpture. Just take a look at the surviving wooden German pietàs. The Röttgen Pietà shows a devastated Mary holding the emaciated, blood-streaked body of her son. Such images, along with of course the obligatory crucifixes, would have been on display in every church. Blood would typically run across Christ’s limbs, body and/or the base of the cross in several lines:

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These were among the most important images in medieval European lives. Why do I think this matters so much in relation to our plant? Well, because the appearance of a cup-shaped plant with red streaks would have had a different impact on the medieval viewer than it has on us.

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But, you might say, cup-shaped plants exist in other herbal manuscripts as well! What makes this one different? Here are some examples, but there are many more. Left the VM plant, centre a plantago from Egerton 747 and musa from BNF Ms. Latin 9333; right the Johnson Papyrus, the oldest known herbal manuscript illustration.

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Some properties clearly set the VM plant apart from other examples:

  • Nothing like the VM flower is found anywhere in combination with cup-shaped leaves.
  • The leaves form a single, smooth surface (apart from the top)
  • Stalk and roots are shaped to complete the resemblance to a chalice

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There are further indications that connect the VM plant to religious imagery and tradition;

Bloodlines: no effort is made to evenly color the stem and roots, nor are the red streaks regular in any way. They are like streams of liquid that look and behave  like the blood in crucifixion scenes. The VM painter was perfectly capable of producing a solid red surface (right detail) but did not do so here.

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A golden chalice: at the top, the leaves are green and serrated, but most of the surface gives the impression of being a solid object. The color is probably the closest to gold the VM painter had to his disposal. Moreover, the paint hides lines of circular decorations.
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The flower, I believe, can be best understood in the light of the Bible verse which helped shape popular crucifixion scenes, John 19:34: “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water“. The central part of the flower has the typical almond shape of Christ’s side-wound (inflicted by the spear), immediately recognizable to any medieval Christian. It is red.

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Around it, “petals” curl out. They are blue and resemble splashing water. The water flows down the stem towards the cup, where it is about to join the red lines.

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In conclusion, I believe that this plant, so forcibly shaped like a chalice, contains enough indications to link it to the most prominent chalice in European lore and religion. Moreover, the motifs incorporated into the image appear to point towards the affective devotion of the 15th century.