The plant in f17v has long been a favorite of mine. At first, my views on it were crude and inaccurate, but over the years I have come to understand it better. The image is exceptional in many ways and should, if I manage to explain its complex, layered meaning successfully, clarify how Voynich plants are constructed.

Based on real plants

The purpose of this post is not to identify the exact plant species that was intended in f17v (this may be impossible), but still I want to have a quick look at the botanical aspects first. Understanding the kind of plant we’re dealing with will help us understand the full picture.

The plant can be divided into five discreet parts, as numbered in the image above:

  1. a root
  2. a green oval as the base of the stem
  3. leaves
  4. fruits
  5. a tendril or empty part of the stem

With some Voynich plants, we cannot even be sure whether we are looking at a moss, a herb or a tree, but luckily f17v is unambiguous about its type: it ist a vine, in the general sense of any trailing or climbing plant. Its habit, leaves, berries and tendril are all appropriate for the type.

First of all, the plant scrambles all around the margins of the folio, climbing over the top of the text and hanging down from the right. It uses the available space to its fullest. This layout may remind us of the vines that often adorn medieval manuscripts, though there is no way of telling whether this is intentional.

Next, the leaf shape is hastate to sagittate. The variance makes it hard to pinpoint a specific species, but in general these leaf shapes with their typical basal lobes are characteristic for some of the most common vines, like bindweeds, black bryony and even some forms of ivy.

Different leaf shapes on f17v.

Clusters of berries are also common in vines, like smilax, black bryony, ivy and of course the true grape vine.

The red berries of black bryony.

And finally of course, the tendril (or wavy end part of the stem) is also indicative of vines.

What is important to remember here is that we don’t have a picture perfect illustration of one specific species, but we have a very clear indication of a plant type; everything suggests that this is a vine, in the broadest sense of the word. Much can be written about the exact species (my personal favorite remains black bryony, which was already suggested by Theodore Petersen), but again this is not the focus of this post.

Not so natural after all

We can assume with some confidence that we are meant to see this plant as a vine, even by just considering its habit alone. However, despite this rare glimpse of clarity the VM allows us here, there are also problems. The plant does things that are not natural.

When I introduced the plant, it was easy to number each part. This grouping of constituents in itself is weird: normally berries, leaves and tendrils mix all over the length of the stem, they don’t neatly separate. But in the VM plant, all the leaves grow first above the root, then various bunches of berries, and then one long tendril or empty piece of wavy stem. This comes across as weird and artificial.

Exaggerating a bit, we can even say that each constituent gets its own margin: root bottom, leaves right, berries top, tendril left.

Another implausible feature: plants don’t separate and regrow at the stem. Probably separate plant parts can fuse together under certain circumstances, but that is not even what happens here; it is like a full green loop is inserted between the root to the actual stem.

Additionally, vines are not known for their lumpy, hairy roots. Even taking the large root of black bryony into account, this chain of three humps connected by thinner, smooth parts is hard to explain botanically. Since the Voynich manuscript is notorious for getting fanciful in the roots especially, these bumps should be regarded with suspicion.

Finally, none of the plants that match the rest of the drawing have an opposite (paired) leaf arrangement, while the leaves of f17v do.

And then there’s Tendrilface…

Tendrilface

While it is clear that real plants lie at the basis of this image, I don’t think it is mainly about those plants.

When I started studying the Voynich manuscript five years ago, one of the first things I noticed in the Herbal section is that the tendril on f17v appears to deliberately outline the contours of a face in profile. We see a man with a prominent brow, large nose, puckered lips and wavy beard.

Faces in tendrils are not unheard of in manuscript art; JK Petersen sent me these wonderful examples from a 15th century Italian manuscript. Since the scribe was kind enough to add some additional features, we can see that these are faces for sure.

The John Rylands Library, Latin MS 65

And Cary Rapaport added that none other than Giotto hid the devil’s profile in the clouds of his Assisi Basilica fresco:

So, if the profile in the VM is intentional, then why is it there? Who or what does it represent? Well, to get to the point, I will argue that the tendril represents Judas Iscariot, at the moment when he betrays Jesus Christ. And the rest of the plant supports this reading, each part adding to the others.

Why Judas?

We don’t have to look far to find dozens of medieval depictions of Judas’ kiss. It is illustrated in the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, one of the most popular illustrated works of the 14th and 15th centuries (according to the Wiki, over 350 copies survive of the Latin version alone).

All examples below are gathered from this page at the Warburg Institute. Profile, bearded face, puckered lips, Judas kiss.

Many other examples can be found in books of hours, paintings and sculptures. The image of Judas’ grotesque profile turned towards our Lord embedded itself in the medieval mind. Here is a later example from a painting (c. 1500) by Hans Holbein the Elder.

But why Judas, and not just an anonymous profile (or random wiggles in the tendril, for that matter)? Well, the rest of the plant also connects to Judas’ betrayal, and enriches the message by referring to various relevant passages from the Bible.

Judas’ motives

As with many things in the Bible, there are differences between the gospels about what exactly prompted Judas to betray Jesus. “Matt. 26:14–16 and John 12:6 designate Judas’ motive as avarice, but Luke 22:3–6 ascribes his action to the entrance of Satan into his body, paralleling John 13:27, where, after Judas took the bread at the Last Supper, “Satan entered into him.”” [1]

The gospel of Luke has Satan enters Judas during the last supper, and from there on the inevitable takes place:

3 Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. 4 And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. 5 They were delighted and agreed to give him money. 6 He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.

…. but he still adds in money for good measure:

3 Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. 4 And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. 5 They were delighted and agreed to give him money. 6 He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.

Matthew places the agency entirely with Judas: he was promised money, and for that reason sought to turn over Jesus to the authorities

14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. 16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

In short, we have two reasons for Judas’ actions: the devil entered him, and he was driven by the desire for money.

Let us first consider Satan. Cary argues that, like in Giotto’s cloud face, the appearance of this profile might, in addition to mimicking Judas’ kiss, also alert the medieval viewer of a diabolical presence. This, unfortunately, goes hand in hand with the framing of Judas as the “Jew as Satan’s instrument”, with thick lips, a prominent nose and relatively long beard.

But what about avarice, the excessive desire for money?

For this, I must go back to something Ellie Velinska wrote in 2016: “I think that the root may represent camel going through eye of a needle – based on the story in the New Testament – it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” It was somewhat generally accepted that the “loop” resembles the eye of a needle, but as far as I know, nobody had yet connected the “humps” to a camel or connected these features to the famous biblical phrase.

At the time I was not entirely sold on the “camel” idea, since the root has three humps and camels have two (or one, in the case of the dromedary). But if the top bump represents the head on an upright neck, it might actually work. I’m still not quite sure which part is supposed to go where, but neither were medieval scribes apparently.

For these camels and more, see here.

I found only one manuscript illumination of a camel actually attempting the biblical feat, unfortunately without any source:

But what does Ellie’s camel have to do with Judas? The camel, being the most prominent large animal for Jesus’ audience, is used as a metaphor for the impossible: it cannot pass through something as small as the eye of the needle. Similarly, it is impossible for a rich man to enter heaven. Seems simple enough, right? Riches are bad. The problem is, of course, that the elite in society are generally rich, including members of the Church.

So from very early on, the verse has been interpreted as condemning the sin of avarice, that is, the love of money. Being rich in itself is not sinful, but desiring riches is. A similar, often misquoted verse is used to support this view: “for the root of all evils is the love of money.” Heheh, root.

This plant presents us with a coupling of Bible passages. In the root, we learn that desiring money is sinful. And in the tendril, we see how this avarice caused Judas to betray Christ (no doubt with some help from the Devil, who was omnipresent in the medieval world view).

The vine that lost a leaf

Finally, we must count the leaves. This is easy, since they are nicely paired up. Remember that this opposite leaf arrangement is not expected for this type of plant, so it may be an intentional deviation. Here we go:

I count six pairs, and six times two is twelve. In the context of the New Testament, the number twelve obviously stands for the twelve disciples of Jesus. Wait, there are not twelve leaves, but eleven? It appears that one of the leaves is missing its partner. Because they are paired, we can easily spot it. So where did one of the Twelve go? Did it fall off? Or is he in the tendril?

When I discussed this with Cary, she pointed out another relevant Bible verse. Remember during the Last Supper, when Jesus predicts that Judas will betray him? Judas then leaves, and Jesus remains with the eleven. And then he compares himself to… a vine. He tells his disciples: I am the vine; you are the branches.

Granted, the VM plant doesn’t have real branches, but leaves. And Jesus is most definitely talking about an actual grape vine, not just “any vine-like plant”. When he talks about bearing fruit, he means grapes for making wine. Still, linguistic and conceptual ambiguity allows us to see the VM vine as a knowing nod to Jesus’ vine, with its twelve or eleven branches.[3]

Interestingly, there are more plants with these twelve leaves, which would allow for an extended application of the visual vocabulary. The prime example is f54v, also a vine. Its leaves are also hastate, but the berries are blue like those of ivy. I don’t have an idea what this plant might mean, but it shows how it should be possible to extend meanings of one plant to others. This vine has twelve “branches”, so it is probably a passage where all apostles are present, i.e. not when Judas went scheming. The root is darker, smooth, with more smaller bulbs and a spike.

Summary

I include the whole plant one last time to summarize my key points.

The question remains: why? Why use a plant for Biblical commentary? I don’t know. If the system discussed here extends to more plants (which I am sure it does) then we are only scratching the surface. And I would not have reached this comprehensive analysis without the help of several people: Cary, who somehow always finds crucial parts I overlooked, JK Petersen’s tendrils, and Ellie’s insights on the camel. A long process of evolving insight was required for this one plant alone.

But at least, I feel like we got pretty far here, even addressing a number of frequently raised objections. I have explained:

  • how and why the parts of an existing plant are rearranged and altered to tell a different story
  • how the type of the original plant still matters
  • how the various oddities to this plant come together, serving the same complex purpose
  • relevant connections to art history
  • other examples of tendril faces
  • how visual vocabulary can be discovered and gradually applied to other plants.

Finally, there may be implications for the text. If the Bible is involved, we suddenly arrive at a system where a few markers for books together with a numerical system for verses can suffice to construct meaning. A number of concrete Bible verses are connected to this interpretation of the plant. But to even start testing this would require more analyses of this detail, and even then…

For now, I hope to have convinced at least some readers that there is more to the Voynich Manuscript’s Herbal section than just a series of inaccurately drawn plants.


NOTES

[1] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Judas-Iscariot

[2] The original Greek also uses the word for “root”: Rhiza gar pantōn tōn kakōn estin hē philargyria. Or the Latin translation: Radix malorum est cupiditas.

[3] The Greek for “vine”, both in the general and specific meaning, is ἄμπελος (ampelos). One type of “ampelos” is “ampelos melaina”, i.e. black bryony, the prime suspect for this plant. See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=a)/mpelos