The current series of posts explains how the Q13a images are artificial constructs of two layers, and each nymph is like an actor playing two parts at once. I started this line of investigation back in 2016, and now I am in the process of correcting, refining and expanding it. Right now, the focus is on f80v and f82r. This post details how the images on these folios tell Ovid’s story of Callisto. And the second layer of f80r relates to the constellations, as explained in this post.

The layering of Callisto’s story and constellations on f80r is logical: the myth of Callisto is a catasterism, it explains the origin of constellations. But what is the second layer of f82r?

f80v = Callisto 2 + constellations
f82r = Callisto 1 + ???

The second layer of f82r is the subject of this post. I found out about it rather by coincidence, while exchanging emails with Cary Rapaport. Cary not only makes awesome Voynich-themed artworks (if you haven’t seen her work yet, check it out), she also has a great eye for the subtleties of Voynich imagery. In fact, it was Cary who pointed out the text which made the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Stella Maris

While discussing the images on f82r, it became clear after a while that there are significant connections to the Virgin Mary. Before going into the details of these connections though, I first want to point out that there may be a good reason why Callisto was linked to the Virgin.

First, there are some thematic links. Ovid does not call Callisto by name, instead he calls her virgo, “the virgin girl”. Both Mary and Callisto carry the child of a god, although their circumstances are opposite: Callisto is raped by Jupiter and her life is ruined, while Mary is blessed, chosen to be the mother of Christ. Finally, both Mary and Callisto end up together with their sons in the heavens.

But there is more: Mary is Callisto, because both are the Pole star. For Callisto, this connection is clear, but why Mary? Well, at least since the 7th century (Isidore of Sevilla), Mary’s epithet as Stella Maris, star of the sea, had become widespread. Just like seafarers use Polaris (or one of the Ursae) to know their course, so too we poor sinners must look at the Virgin for guidance among the waves of earthly temptations.

In short, Mary = Stella Maris = Callisto.

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The star is often present on the Virgin’s clothing (shoulder and/or hood), as in this c.1433 painting by Fra Angelico.

I am not certain if it was the Stella Maris connection that motivated the layering on f82r, or just the parallels between both virgins’ stories, or both. Fact is that the only star in Q13, and the only blue star in the VM, is located on this folio, above the sleeping/dead figure.

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We will get back to this in a minute, but first…

The Crucifixion

Few scenes have been more commonly depicted in European art than the Crucifixion, the event central to Christian faith. Medieval images of the Crucifixion are varied in their details, but tend to have a number of aspects in common. For example, Christ’s mother is always present among the onlookers. Indeed, as one of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, the Crucifixion became an important element in the devotion of the Virgin.

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Crucifixion from New York, Morgan Library, H.3, fol. 206r. Mary on the left. Also note the Sun and Moon on either side above the cross.

There is a cross-shape on f82r, and on its left is a figure with a blue hood.

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If we just shuffle the elements a bit, it should become clearer:

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Since the Bible states that the sun went dark at the time of the Crucifixion, the scene was traditionally accompanied by a Sun and Moon. This eclipse-like situation may be represented in the arms of the cross.

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Cary pointed out that a similar layout was customary in certain types of metal crosses called encolpion (British MuseumCatawiki, google encolpion). Personifications of Sun and Moon were included in the surrounding circles.

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Equally illuminating is the Cross of Lothair, made in ca. 1000 CE Germany and still in use today. On the reverse, there is an engraving reminiscent of the Byzantine examples above. The Sun and Moon are personified in the circles to the sides. And above, the Hand of God reaches down from the clouds.

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Finally, the blue symbol right of the Voynich cross can be seen as a reference to the Five Holy Wounds, a motif related to the Crucifixion that was extremely popular in the Middle ages.

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The Dormition

When I explained my early thoughts about this folio to JK Petersen, he pointed out that there is a tradition of depicting Mary on her death bed. This is called the Dormition of the Mother of God, and is especially connected to the Byzantine sphere. Mary’s appearance in the scene is generally the same:

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Without going into the theological technicalities, the Orthodox church holds that Mary died blissfully as if she was resting. Catholic dogma, on the other hand, does not specify whether Mary died before her body ascended to heaven. That is why Dormition scenes are mostly found in the Eastern sphere, although Italian artists like Fra Angelico and Niccolò di Pietro Gerini painted it as well.

Since in the VM, the probable connection to the Callisto layer is the Virgin Mary becoming the Pole star after her death, this might be the reason why they put the blue star right above the Dormition. (In the Callisto layer, this is Callisto resting in the grass, so they compromised with a green cover). The Stella Maris is present in regular Dormition art as well, on Mary’s clothing.

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By now, you may have noticed that we keep stumbling into the Byzantine sphere of influence, with the encolpion crosses and now the Dormition. But we’re not done yet.


So what about the figures in the green pool below? Do they also relate to the Virgin Mary?

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I would still be lost here if it hadn’t been for Cary’s input. I explained how, in my experience, unnatural arm positions generally mean that the nymph is, in at least one layer of meaning, not quite human, probably an animal. Case in point, the figure on the right in the image below:

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But Cary had another idea: what if the arms are meant to remind us of the tall wings of an archangel? In that case, we might be looking at the VM version of the Annunciation, when Gabriel tells the Virgin that she will carry the Son of God.

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From Morgan MS M.493 and the Bodmer Hours.

Variations existed in the depiction of the Annunciation, but the scene was mostly standardized. In the majority of the cases, the archangel approaches Mary from the left – in the VM this would be from the right. Mary was reading a book when the angel appeared, in the VM she would be spinning. One similarity is that our supposed angel has rays coming in over its head, which is also a staple in Annunciation imagery.

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Overall though, out supposed Annunciation would have been out of line with mainstream Latin Annunciation imagery. I was about to abandon this path, when Cary came with the solution: the Protoevangelium of James.

Two Annunciations

The Protoevangelium of James (Gospel of James) is an apocryphal text written in the 2nd century CE. It is an infancy gospel, a genre that describes the early lives of Biblical figures, in this case the Virgin Mary. As Prof. Tom O’Loughlin explains in this video, this text contains matters of faith for Greek (Eastern) Christians and Latin Christians alike, despite the “warning label” apocryphal.

Events from the Protoevangelium of James (PJ) which are not in the Bible, are still important in the Eastern as well as the Catholic church. The Presentation of Mary in the Temple is still celebrated on the 21st of November. Just to say, simply because it was not officially part of the Bible, does not mean that it was an obscure or marginal text. The PJ helped shape tradition and was almost treated as if it was part of Scripture from the 8th century on. It left many traces in art, especially in the Byzantine sphere.

The PJ builds upon the canonical Gospels, and provides a background story for the Virgin Mary, a figure we hear relatively little about in the texts of the Bible. What happened to her before the Gospels? It tells of her conception, dedication in the temple in Jerusalem at the age of three, betrothal to Joseph, and links to the events described in the canonical Gospels, like the Annunciation. Therefore, it became an important source for the cult of the Virgin Mary.

So how does the Annunciation in the PJ help us with our nymphs? Well, to understand this, we must look at the whole top row of the green pool, and know that the Annunciation in the PJ happens in two stages.

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The first time Mary is visited by an angel is known as the Annunciation at the Spring. This happens when Mary is drawing water from a well. She hears the angel’s voice, but does not yet see him.

In the text of the PJ, this is described as follows:

And she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water. And, behold, a voice saying: Hail, thou who hast received grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women! And she looked round, on the right hand and on the left, to see whence this voice came.

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source of the images

In images like the ones above, we see a surprised Mary looking around towards the direction of the sound, but the angel is in a different realm (sky) so she only hears his words. In the VM, this appears to be indicated by the words placed at her ear. She hears, but does not see. The angel, again with wing-arms, is hidden behind a cloudy veil.

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Cary explained how the VM images suddenly make a lot of sense in the light of the dual Annunciations from the Protoevangelium of James: “shortly after Mary returns from gathering the water, she is spinning thread when the same angel appears to her again and gives her the rest of the message.” This is how the story continues in the text:

And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher; and taking the purple [yarn], she sat down on her seat, and drew it out. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying: Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found grace before the Lord of all, and thou shalt conceive, according to His word.

This is why in the Byzantine world, the image of Mary spinning is associated with the Annunciation. For many examples, see here.

12th century Sinai

Now that we know the dual Annunciation, we can easily read the top of the green pool, going in the direction most figures are facing:

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Bottom of the green pool

So what about the rest of the green pool? Well, we aren’t quite certain, but here are some thoughts. Let us first consider the complete page; how does the narrative of Mary’s life flow?

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It appears that this layer of Mary’s life mirrors the story of Callisto on f80v, where we start at the bottom of the page and see Callisto “ascend” to the highest of the heavens. Here, too, it appears like we start at the bottom and move up towards Mary’s later life and ehr ultimate ascension as the blue star. If this is the case, then the bottom must be scenes from before the Annunciation, from Mary’s infancy. And Mary’s infancy is exactly what the Protoevangelium of James narrates.

  • When she is three years old, Mary is sent to live at the temple among the other girls. It is already known that she is holy, and she is received with respect. The small child enters willingly, and during her stay she is fed by an angel.
  • When she becomes twelve, Mary must leave the temple “lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord” (priests are terrified of menstrual blood). Therefore, she is betrothed to Joseph, an elderly man who will function more like a guardian than a husband.
  • The priests want to make a veil for the temple, and all “undefiled virgins” are called upon. They find seven suitable virgins, and each is assigned a color of yarn by lot. Mary gets the most expensive one, (royal) purple. She starts spinning her purple yarn.
  • Then follows the dual Annunciation at the well and while spinning, as described above.

There are reasons to believe that the scenes at the bottom indeed focus on Mary’s infancy among the children at the temple. For starters, most of these nymphs are really small, like children. There appear to be three scenes: a “child” facing a large figure with long yellow hair and some kind of crown. A child facing a tall figure with blue hair and a different kind of crown, holding a “ring”. A child facing two other children.

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There are scenes from the Protoevangelium of James depicted in the mosaics of the San Marco Basilica in Venice. We know the Annunciation at the Spring, but right next to that is a different scene. It is also from the PJ tadition, but the exact meaning is not entirely certain.

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Mary receives something from a priest. This is thought to represent the purple yarn, although it may be influenced by a later scene. What matters for us though, is the appearance of the high priest compared to Mary. Something similar can be seen in other mosaics, like the Presentation at the Temple from the Chora monastery (14th century).

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In the Venice example, the priest is depicted wearing something on his forehead. This “golden plate” is mentioned in the text, it functions as some kind of magical amulet that absorbs the sins of those who bring offerings.

So there are indications that these are scenes between the child Mary and the priests of the temple. And indeed, three scenes precede the Annunciation at the Spring: the Presentation at the Temple, the betrothal to Joseph and the distribution of the yarn among the virgin girls. But we will leave it at those indications for now.

To top it all off

By now you must think that I wanted to ignore those double arches at the top of the page:

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I never quite understood why they put double arches there, until now. I need merely quote from The Iconography of the Annunciation in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries by David M. Robb (bold is mine): “in earlier attestations of [the Annunciation] with an architectural background, it is not uncommon to find the angel and the Virgin each occupying a separate bay in a double arcade. Reminiscences of this arrangement […] are almost never absent from Italian representations of the Annunciation, even as late as the end of the fifteenth century, and are often found as a traditional element in examples which are much more realistic in other respects.”

Below are the Annunciation by Fra Angelico and the Martelli Annunciation (c. 1440). But there are hundreds of other examples.

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This image from MS Sloane 1977 (14th century France) illustrates how much the m-like double arches had become associated with the Virgin, creating a familiar “sacral space” even when the event depicted did not take place in a temple:

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In this post, I have been mixing influences from the Latin and the Greek worlds. But this is not a problem, and indeed it should not raise objections with seasoned Voynich researchers. I agree with the general sentiment that the Voynich manuscript was made in a Latin setting (modern day Italy or southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France…) but there have also been indications of Byzantine influences pointed out by various researchers. Off the top of my head, I think of Diane O’Donovan’s work, VViews’ posts on the Byzantine “Marginal Psalters”, Rene Zandbergen’s opinion on the 9th century Greek manuscript Vat. gr. 1291, my own work on the layout in plant manuscripts, both large and small.

In other words, while the VM appears to have been made in Latin Europe, it looks like at least in part it might process Greek material in some way. Cary and I think that the influence of the Protoevangelium of James was primarily textual, which might explain why this folio also includes visual elements associated with Latin imagery, like the rays of light entering above the arch angel, the spatial separation between mary and Gabriel, and the double arches.

Similarly, it has often been pointed out (among others by JK Petersen) that the VM glyphs, while mostly Latin-inspired, also seem to draw from Greek conventions. A few glyph shapes are Greek, but especially the stacking of specific letters is something we know from Greek conventions.

It becomes increasingly clear to me that we will not be able to understand the VM images by looking only at the Latin world or only at the Greek. It combines both in some way. Might this be part of the key to its uniqueness?

PS: it appears that today, August 15th, we celebrate the Assumption and Dormition of Mary, so this post is appropriately timed 🙂