This post is a collaboration with Cary Rapaport, who provided or helped refine many of the ideas discussed here. Additionally, Cary wrote the part about the Zodiac section.
The liturgy lay at the heart of medieval religion, and the Mass lay at the heart of the liturgy. In the Mass the redemption of the world, wrought on Good Friday once and for all, was renewed and made fruitful for all who believed. Christ himself, immolated on the altar of the cross, became present on the altar of the parish church, body, soul, and divinity, and his blood flowed once again, to nourish and renew Church and world. As kneeling congregations raised their eyes to see the Host held high above the priest’s head at the sacring, they were transported to Calvary itself, and gathered not only into the passion and resurrection of Christ, but into the full sweep of salvation history as a whole.Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars
It is my guess that the whole thing is medical,Georg Baresch, the first confirmed owner of the Voynich manuscript, in a letter (1639) to Athanasius Kircher (trans. Philip Neal)
the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race
apart from the salvation of souls.
When we – Voynich researchers – try to discover the meaning of the images in the manuscript, we usually focus on individual drawings. This plant image looks like a nettle; this arrangement of nude figures in a pool looks like a page from the Balneis Puteolanis; this cylindrical object looks like a microscope or a cannon or… anything that’s cylindrical, really. For each VM image, there are one or two or many proposals about what the thing kind of resembles. This approach is not inherently “wrong”, since it can lead to an increased understanding of parts of the manuscript, but it never gets us very far.
Over the years, I have gradually come to accept that the VM is a unique creation. Its makers did not create images by slavishly copying them from other sources – otherwise we would have understood them long ago. When people explain why the Voynich is “the world’s most mysterious manuscript”, they don’t only attribute this property to the text (which we don’t understand) but also to the images. Something about the idiosyncratic way they expressed their thoughts makes it so that we experience flashes of recognition, but have a hard time figuring out the intentions behind it all.
If we cannot systematically understand VM images by directly comparing them to other sources, then we must try a different approach. The VM may be like a unique flower we don’t know, but what we do know is the soil that fed it, based on overwhelming scientific evidence: the early 15th century. By “doing their own thing”, the VM makers have taken from us the comfort of direct comparison and immediate identification. We cannot say “x looks a bit like y so x = y“. What we can do, however, is ask ourselves how the VM imagery can be read as an expression of 15th century thought and more importantly, which 15th century thoughts.
The post you are reading now is ambitious. It is meant as the first step (but definitely not the final step!) towards a more holistic understanding of Voynich imagery. Given the scope of this undertaking, it has become larger and more involved than my usual posts. Please read it when you have the time to take it all in. It consists of two main parts:
Part I familiarises the reader with a cluster of concepts and images that permeated medieval thought, but are bizarre to modern eyes. For example, Christ in the Winepress (which we discuss below) peaked in popularity in the 15th century but was almost completely forgotten by the year 1600. If you want to understand our interpretation of the VM, you must first understand the concepts explained in this part. Please keep in mind that none of the images shown in part one are meant as exact parallels for the VM. They are merely examples of the kinds of images that were made at the time and the thoughts behind them.
Part II shows how the mentality described in Part I shines through in the various sections of the VM. Sometimes small and subtle, sometimes loud and ubiquetous.
Some Basic Concepts
Here are some concepts we will need during this post. Consider this required brainwashing for entering the general medieval mindset.
- Original sin: when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they lost eternal life. From that moment on, every person would inherit the taint of original sin at birth. Luckily, there is a cure.
- Baptism: the most important sacrament in Christianity. Undergoing baptism washes away the taint of original sin, and makes sure that we will not burn in hell for all eternity. Baptism is only possible because…
- Jesus died on the cross for our sins: it is only because of Christ’s crucifixion that our souls can enjoy eternal life after death.
- Salvation: “Christianity’s primary premise is that the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ formed the climax of a divine plan for humanity’s salvation” (Wiki).
- Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is the sacrament initiated by Christ during the Last Supper, when he gave his disciples his body (bread) to eat and his blood (wine) to drink. The Eucharist is explicitly held to remember Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
The above subjects all touch upon the core of Christianity, the idea the Crucifixion saved our souls from damnation. Therefore, the Crucifixion was considered the most important event in history. To someone like me, these are strange things some people believe (still today), but to the average medieval European, this was the only conceivable reality. The thought of an eternity in hell must have been terrifying, and the thankfulness for Christ’s sacrifice real.
These are some of the most common aspects of Christianity, but of course each time and place had its own specific beliefs and practices. It was when Cary sent me an article by Dóra Sallay, that I first caught a whiff of the kind of devotion that might have inspired the VM images. Only sideways, perhaps, but it was enough to adopt a mindset “medieval” enough to set the wheels in motion. Sallay discusses the “Eucharistic Man of Sorrows”, a rare and variable type of imagery closely connected to the mindset we will try to bring to the fore in this post.
“Man of Sorrows” imagery tends to emphasize Christ’s wounds in a specific way: it includes motifs that symbolize the regenerative and redemptive nature of Christ’s body and blood. The imagery often includes a chalice for the collection of the holy blood and may include grapevines (from which consecrated wine is pressed, symbolizing Christ’s blood). Also included can be stalks of wheat or wafers of sacramental bread, otherwise known as “hosts,” symbolizing Christ’s body. It is important to understand that “symbolizing” is not in fact a strong enough word here, since in the ritual of the Eucharist, these two substances are understood to change, or transubstantiate, into the actual blood and body of Christ. In the Middle Ages especially, this understanding would have been literal and powerful.
Images of the Eucharistic Man of Sorrows occur from the middle of the 14th century to the early 16th century, in the area between Prague and Firenze. They were often on public display in churches, close to the place where believers would receive the Eucharist. “The central idea shared by these images is related to the doctrine and cult of the Eucharist, which was at the heart of late medieval religiosity. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the two species of the Sacrament, the consecrated wine and the host, became the objects of immense adoration in Western spirituality” (Sallay 2000, p.46). Related were the miracles of bleeding hosts and relics of the Holy Blood. “Devotion to the Precious Blood was inseparably intertwined with the adoration of the Five Holy Wounds of Christ and of the Arma Christi, the instruments of the Passion. […] Especially the side wound received distinguished veneration, whose measurements were thought to be known […]. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the fascination with the Eucharist and the Passion of Christ grew into a cult that was unrivaled in the Christian world.”
The Arma Christi and Five Holy Wounds
Personally (and I think with me, many Voynich researchers) I only got to know the Arma Christi as a tradition through my study of the Voynich images, more specifically the large plants. The veneration of Christ’s wounds, and especially the side wound, is even more foreign to a modern audience. What was once the obsession of Medieval Christianity, is now all but forgotten as a concept. The side wound, inflicted by a lance, was often included among the Arma Christi, and it had a very recognizable shape:
During the 14th and 15th century, it was not uncommon to find references to the Five Holy Wounds in various contexts. For example, they were explicitly integrated into the Portuguese flag in the late 14th century.
There is a reason why these images were once popular, but now forgotten. When I first wrote about the Holy Wounds and the Arma Christi on this blog, I quoted 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.
Water and Wine
Since 2019, I have been tentatively linking Voynich images to the Arma Christi and the five Holy Wounds, but I was missing something more important: the related cult of the Eucharist. Let us first have a look at its most allegorical expressions: Christ in the Winepress and the Fons Vitae.
Christ = Grapes
The thought of Christ as grapes or the vine is one of the core aspects of the Eucharist, as the wine represents Christ’s blood. Full transubstantiation was adopted during the Fourth Council of the Lateral in 1215, which meant that the wine and bread used for the Eucharist were now literally turned into the blood and body of Christ. Since blood is wine, Christ is grapes. One extreme depiction of Christ-as-grapes is the “Christ in the Winepress” type.
As seen in the image above, Christ is treading grapes, the juice pouring out at the bottom. However, he is also being pressed himself, with his bleeding wounds on display. He is simultaneously the treader and the trodden. Christ is the grapes, since his blood is wine. The thought of Christ treading himself is probably based on the words of St. Gregory the Great: “He has trodden the winepress alone in which he was himself pressed” (see Schiller, p. 228) The juice/blood then connects to all the sacraments with red lines, a rare property of this particular image.
The mechanical winepress, with a large screw, is probably not relevant to Voynich imagery, but the idea of Christ and grapes being mutually interchangeable is. Another example comes from the immensely popular Speculum Humanae Salvationis, in which two spies carrying a bunch of grapes from the promised land prefigure “the Jews and the Gentiles who together brought Christ to Golgotha“. These are some early 15th century examples from the Warburg Institute website. Note how the grapes are drawn like a bunch of overlapping circles or scallops. Two men with grapes prefigure two men with Christ.
These metaphors are flexible and can be applied in various contexts, but the meaning is clear to those who are familiar with the visual vocabulary. For example, when the Madonna holds a bunch of grapes like in the ca. 1425 painting by Fra Angelico below, the fruits refer to Christ’s embodiment and his future sacrifice. As so often in these kinds of images, thoughts of the physicality of Christ, the Passion and the Eucharist are interwoven. The Christ child reaches for the grapes because he will willingly sacrifice himself to save us by spilling his blood, which is also literally the wine of the Eucharist.
Christ = Water
John 7:37: “On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.”
All of this was mere preparation, my attempt to get your mind in tune with that of 15th century believers who were obsessed with the physicality of the Passion and almost tangible adoration of the salvation of their souls through Christ’s blood. In some extreme cases, like the early 16th century Mystic Bath of the Souls triptych by Jean Bellegambe, nude figures are literally bathing in the blood of Christ. The composition draws from both Eucharistic and Baptismal imagery.
Since blood baths are not always ideal metaphors, another image for Christ’s “liquid salvation” is more common: the Fons Vitae, Fountain of Life, also called Fountain of Living Waters. There are various instances in scripture where Christ is called “the Living Water”, and when his heart was pierced on the cross, salvific blood and water flowed out. Perhaps when it came to fountains, wells and bathing, water was the preferred metaphor for Christ. It is not to be confused with the similar “Fountain of Youth”, where old figures enter the water, become young again, and promptly start fondling each other. The Fountain of Life is about the salvation of the soul.
On the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, four groups of people (from the four corners of the Earth, i.e. the entire world) have arrived to adore the Lamb, the sacrificed Christ. The lamb is bleeding into a chalice, a direct reference to the Eucharist. Below that, we see the Fountain of Life, the water of which pours downwards, “out of the painting”, where a real baptismal font would have stood in the original setting.
An even more explicit link between the Fountain, the Lamb and the Eucharist is established in another painting (1432), also linked to Van Eyck: The Fountain of Grace and the Triumph of the Church over the Synagogue. Here, there is no blood. Instead, the water of Grace flows from the Lamb (a reference to Revelation 22), down architectural elements towards the figures beneath. Numerous hosts float in the water, establishing a clear link with the Eucharist. Obviously these images are metaphorical, since Eucharist wafers would get soggy and even less appetizing if they were fished from a fountain. The water is Salvation that springs forth from Heaven and the Lamb.
These are all utterances of the same thoughts, all related to the core of Christian belief: Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and because of this our souls can obtain eternal life – as long as we are baptized in his example. The Eucharist is celebrated to remember these events. In a way, water makes for a more accessible Eucharistic fluid than blood: it cleanses, washes away impurities, and its symbolism is deeply rooted in the Bible. All of the concepts we will discuss in this post are very closely related. “During the Late Middle Ages the image [of the winepress] was closely linked with devotions concerning the Instruments of the Passion and Christ’s wounds or the Holy Blood. The concept of the Fountain of Life was also linked with the winepress.” (Schiller 1972, p.228).
In short, both grapes and fountains are allegories for Christ the Savior. Now that we understand these metaphors within the broader context of the importance of Eucharistic devotion in the 15th century, we can finally get to the point. How does the VM fit into this story, and what makes its approach unique? We will argue that the VM takes allegorical concepts like grapes and Living Water and turns them up to eleven, omitting the image of Jesus altogether. Christ is the grape, Christ is the water. Or: how to fill a manuscript with Jesus, without using any Jesus. Given the medieval love for allegory, this may not be as weird as it sounds; certain genres, like the Bestiary, are also about Christ and matters of faith, without actually depicting these things.
The Meaning of Certain Mysterious Patterns
Over the years, I have proposed various solutions for Voynich images, with varying success. However, I kept ignoring several sections of the manuscript, simply because I could not think of any way to make sense of them. For example, Q13b, the large Rosettes foldout and the various diagrams on its recto side. One thing these sections have in common is that they rely heavily on some of the manuscript’s favorite motifs: scallops, which may be dotted or not; canopy-like structures with a large finial on top; countless circles or disks filling up the space between lines; parallel lines emanating from objects; and an overall “liquid” or “watery” theme.
Since these sections lean so heavily on aforementioned patterns, one might expect that understanding the patterns means understanding the sections. Cary and I think we now understand some of these patterns, and they point in a very specific direction. While we have been aware of symbolism relating to the Arma Christi and Five Holy Wounds for a couple of years already, we now believe we must expand the scope to a broader phenomenon: the cult of the Eucharist in the 15th century. If we assign a consistent meaning to some of these patterns, it becomes possible to read the imagery as an allegory of Salvation with a strong Eucharistic focus.
- Scallops = grapes = Christ = source of Salvation
Let us say that bunches of scallops represent grapes, standing for Jesus who is to be crushed into wine to save our souls. However, just like in Fountain of Life imagery, the Christ-symbol is the source of “living water” rather than blood or wine. With the Fountain of Life, the bleeding lamb is the origin of water, while in the VM, the pierced grapes are the origin of water. That the “grapes” are often dotted may refer to their being pierced, or “wounded” to release their juice. (When Christ’s side was pierced, both water and blood flowed out, allowing for both fluids to be used interchangeably, as we see in the art).
2. Flowing water = Living Water = Salvation
From these grapes comes clear blue water. While standing water in the VM can be green or blue, flowing water is almost always blue, even when connecting green pools.
3. Series of disks = hosts (Eucharistic wafers)
In this post, we hypothesize that much of the VM’s imagery relates to the theme of Salvation, with a focus on the Eucharist and related concepts. Within this framework, we can read rows or clusters of circles surrounded by blue as hosts in salvific water. This motif is not as widespread as the “grapes”, appearing mostly on both sides of the f86 foldout.
4. Canopies = the Heavens
In medieval art and architecture, the domed canopy represents heaven. This is especially prominent in the Byzantine sphere of influence, including Italy. The Bible itself provides the image of the heavens as a canopy in verses like Isaiah 40:22:
[God] stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
One of my favorite examples is the apse mosaic of the San Clemente basilica in Rome. It shows the Crucifixion surrounded by vegetation. Beneath Christ is a Fountain of Life, and above him the canopy of Heaven.
Or in the opening words of Karl Lehmann’s The Dome of Heaven: “One of the fundamental expressions of Christian thought and emotion is the vision of heaven depicted in painting or mosaic on domes, apsidal half-domes and related vaulted forms”. Domes and heaven are one.
Within the VM itself, it is also clear that the canopies refer to the heavens and appear interchangeably or in combination with cloud bands. We believe they relate to each other as follows: when our focus is on a figure above the sky, a cloud band is used. When our focus is below, we get a semi-top down view of the canopy with its finial. The following examples will clarify this:
We should also point out three patterns used for rays, representing flames or light. Let’s call these tentacle, line and tongue. For comparison, below is an image from the Visconti Hours (late 14th century). It uses the common tentacle type for the sun’s flames and radiant lines for its light. The rosettes foldout uses similar lines for light (top right) and a good example of tentacle flames can be seen in the Astro pages (bottom right). These should be fairly straightforward.
Apparently the VM uses a third pattern for flames or light, resembling teeth or claws. I call them “tongue” though, since they are kind of shaped like the tongue of our favorite feline and the biblical expression “tongues of fire” will be relevant. The type is not very common, but since it appears in both the Astro section and the rosettes foldout, I will include it here:
This concludes our introduction to patterns; we will now show how each section of the Voynich Manuscript relates to the above in various ways.
Quire 13b (nude figures in pools)
Almost everything I have written about Quire 13 so far has focused on Q13a, those folios with fewer, more individualized human figures. I ignored Q13b because I had no idea what it could be about. The human figures (which we traditionally call nymphs, even if we don’t think they actually represent nymphs) have very few individual traits. They simply stand around in pools, appearing in a limited set of awkward poses.
But what if we attempt to form a coherent picture of its visual vocabulary? Here is an attempt, based on our “salvation hypothesis”:
- Scallops are “grapes”. They are connected to heaven (canopies, positioned above figures’ heads, at the top of the page). This shows that these are not just any grapes, but rather stand for sources of divine salvation.
- Flowing, “living” water is virtue and salvation, which will almost literally wash the stains of sin off the soul.
- Nude figures are souls. These need not be the souls of the deceased, but may rather refer to the souls of pious Christians.
- The section employs the visual vocabulary of grape-treading
What we do not propose that the grape-treading on certain folios is represented literally in terms of a practical guide for planting grapes, with illustrations of grape treaders working and bathing afterwards. (It should be noted that Nick Pelling reported such a suggestion in 2009.) Instead, we believe the grape treading is allegorical and relates to the salvation of the soul, traditionally represented by nude figures. We don’t know exactly what each folio means, and it is clear that the VM employs unique imagery here (which is true no matter which explanation we propose). So let us first see, what is grape treading and what does it look like?
Let’s start early, with this Roman mosaic of three men stomping grapes in a shallow basin, they lift their legs high (looks familiar) and hold on to each other to prevent slipping (looks familiar). At the bottom of the basin there are spouts that direct the juice into vessels.
Grape stomping in large basins is still done today (mostly for tradition and tourists), especially around the Iberian Peninsula. Here you can find images and an explanation of the traditional method:
The site, Grape Friend, describes: “First comes the cort – this is the first breaking of the grape skins. Treaders get into a big granite vat called a lagar and the juice, skins, stems and seeds come all the way up to your knees. It takes about two hours of very tedious, methodical leg work to make sure they’ve crushed them the best they can. They link arms to be as close as they can and approach the other line of people inch by inch.” Do check out the short YouTube video of the process here.
In manuscript art, the dominant form of grape treading is by one or two persons in a large wooden barrel. Since grapes were pressed immediately after the harvest, these scenes also often include people bringing baskets full of freshly picked grapes, to be added to the barrel.
There is one last thing we must accentuate before turning to Q13. When treading grapes, the loosened juice will seep through to the bottom. In various types of wine treading vessels, there is an outlet at the bottom, where the juice flows out into another recipient. A few examples:
The above should be enough to provide a general idea of what grape treading can look like. But how does this apply to Q13b? It has long been thought that quire 13 contains two kinds of pages, which have gotten mixed up during rebinding. Following Glen Claston, we call these “a” and “b”. The b-part, which concerns us here, currently consists of only eight pages, or two bifolios: 75-84 and 78-81. Let us start with f78r.
I believe the two images above are motivated by a very similar thought. The one on the left is a Swiss woodcut (see Loda 1999) made between 1470-1490. We see Christ, with the nails still present on the cross. A dozen of hosts (a literal link to the Eucharist) is raining down from his wounds, into the large basin below. Now here’s the crucial part: the basin appears filled with a liquid, which runs out through an opening in the bottom, flooding the surrounding area. Here, nude souls are benefiting from the salvation it brings. The text reads: O bone Jesu qui est verus fons misericordiae qui regnavit totam terram et inebriavit eam et redemit nos suo sanguine. (“Good Jesus, who is the real source of mercy, who ruled the entire earth and flooded it, and redeemed us by his blood”.) To the left, God and the Holy Ghost are also present, providing a clear link with the Heavenly.
The VM does something similar, with nude souls in salvific water, but it employs a tighter allegory, representing Christ as grapes, the heavens as a canopy and the souls as treaders. (The thought of Christ flooding the entire earth with salvation will return in other sections). Zooming in on the bottom pool makes it clear that we are looking at a grape treading metaphor. The outlet is present, I just need to add a rudimentary vessel to collect the “juice”. Now we also know why the inside of the “pool” is patterned with parallel lines; they represent the wood of a large barrel (which I continued on the outside). The arrow indicates a basket of grapes to the side.
This also explains why so many souls stand with one leg lifted. It explains why they are immersed up to their knees, why they hold on to each other for support. Like in the woodcut, the focus is on the heavenly liquid that flows not from earthly grapes but from Christ’s mystical grapevine. However, the VM still uses grape treading imagery to reinforce the reading of the scalloped structures as Eucharistic grapes. F75v adds a soul in a “private” barrel, in a clear treading pose.
In the Stammheim Missal, we see a very similar figure right underneath Christ’s bleeding feet. This is a scene from the Old Testament (Isaiah 63): the prophet asks a young man trampling grapes in a wine vat “why is your robe red?” The man answers “I have trodden the winepress alone”. This passage was interpreted as a typological prefiguration of Christ’s willingness to sacrifice himself. “Christian commentators equated the youth’s treading of the winepress with Christ’s washing away the sins of the world with his blood.” (Teviotdale 2001, p.65)
Keep in mind, again, that the liquid these souls are performing their activities in originates from heavenly grapes. However, just like in the Swiss woodcut mentioned above, it is the liquid that “floods” (Lat. inebriavit) the world below. The source is heavenly, and Salvation is liquid.
There are only a few “attributes” in this subsection, since most human figures are generic souls. The most obvious case is a pointy nail. In front of the figure holding it is the only unambiguously male figure in Q13b. Nails tend to refer to the Crucifixion and are part of the Arma Christi. This reading is reinforced by the male figure clasping his wrist; this is a common pose for Christ in Man of Sorrows imagery, allowing the wounds (inflicted by those nails) to be displayed as he rises from his tomb. Of course we don’t mean that this figure is Christ, but the reference is clear. He might, for example, also be a soul performing Imitatio Christi, imagining Christ’s pains.
Further indications of a vineyard theme are the various containers we find throughout the section, reminiscent of the baskets of all shapes and sizes used during the grape harvest. F84r has radiant, grape-like structures on top, which spontaneously release their juice. At the bottom of the image, various figures are seen treading in a barrel-textured pool, while others reach down into containers on the side.
Finally, the souls on f75v appear engaged in a form of coordinated treading, like in the traditional method we mentioned before. Two rows of figures face each other, clasping shoulders and lifting the same leg. The source of water above them is a heavenly canopy.
Now, finally, we can answer one of those questions that have been bugging me for ages: why does it look like the VM took inspiration from other sources, but altered those to match its own particular programme? For example, there is the long-known resemblance to the illustrations of De Balneis Puteolanis manuscripts, whence Q13 gets one of its traditional names, the “balneological section”. With the simple assumption that the “sources” in the VM represent sources of heavenly salvation, we can now understand how the Balneis – which is about the healing of the body – is employed to depict a healing and cleansing of the soul.
The continuous reference to grape treading might be the VM’s unique way of showing that salvation does not come for free, but can only be obtained by living a virtuous life in Christ. Heavenly grapes are the source of cleansing water, but the soul must do the treading. What we see in Q13b appears to be a unique combination of related metaphors, based on the Fountain of Life and Christ in the Winpress. The aforementioned concept of imitatio Christi may explain why the souls here are doing the treading, imitating Christ by experiencing his suffering.
A similar thought of caring for one’s soul is the Jardin des Vertus, a theme found in various manuscripts. It is an allegorical representation of virtue, where seven fountains represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the trees represent virtues. The tall one in the middle is Christ. The virtuous ladies are using cups to water their virtues with the “gifts”. This scene bears at least a superficial resemblance to certain Q13b scenes.
After I shared some Jardin images over at Voynich.ninja last year, an interesting discussion ensued, and J.K. Petersen referred to an article by Ellen Kosmer. The following quote shows that the similarities between the Jardin and our proposed interpretation for the Q13b images run deeper than the superficial.
The appealing literary metaphor of man, or man’s soul, which can bear either profitable plants (virtues) or weeds (vices) is found quite often in medieval texts […]. A longer discussion in the Revelations of Mechtild tells of a vision in which Christ shows her a garden or hill of virtues with seven levels, a virtue-fountain on each. Bathing in these removes the seven deadly sins.
Despite the similar themes, we cannot stress enough that the VM does its own thing. But now, unlike before, we are finally starting to realize exactly what that thing is. Just like the “virtuous woman” in the Jardin needs to do gardening work to maintain her virtues, so too our nude souls in the VM must actively participate. Only instead of gardening, their metaphor is that of grape treading, connecting them closer to the image of Christ as the True Vine. Now, for the first time, we dare to venture beyond merely pointing out similarities and differences; we also point out why they exist. As Cary and I will show in the following chapters, this devotional mindset about obtaining salvation through virtue, Christ and the sacrament of the Eucharist remains consistent throughout the Voynich manuscript – although each section also has its own focus.
Most of what I have written before about Q13 has been about select Q13a pages. Cary and I believe these earlier interpretations are compatible with, and in fact reinforce and further clarify the above interpretation of Q13b. However, since fully understanding the connection requires familiarity with an additional number of advanced concepts, tackling Q13a here would take this post too far. That being said, Q13a takes an interesting place within the “allegory of Salvation” framework (see note ), and will be addressed in a future post.
What is the most exceptional page in the world’s most mysterious manuscript? If you ask seasoned Voynich researchers, chances are they will point at the Rosettes Foldout. This page is the size of six regular folios, twice the height and thrice the width. It folds out into a square, revealing a 3×3 grid of circles. The Rosettes foldout is at the same time a sudden break with and a continuation of Q13. The human figures are gone, but the patterns reach their apotheosis. Canopies, cloud bands, disks, lines like radiant light. And many, many “grapes”. Mary D’Imperio’s impression is revealing: “its complexity and bizarre character boggles the mind already overburdened by the ‘queerness’ to the modern eye of so much else in the manuscript”. As we will show, the boggled mind can be somewhat unburdened by consistently reading the imagery in a specific Biblical context.
Let us first get the lay of the land. Underneath the patterns sits a surprisingly consistent structure. The central circle is larger than the others. Four circles connect to it directly, forming the shape of a “Greek cross” – overlaid in blue. The circles on the diagonal (red) are not connected to the middle, but they do point towards (or from) it with similar structures (orange). Finally, notice how the walls (grey) connect all outer circles, enclosing the space and accentuating the “squareness” of the layout.
The rosettes on the “cross” and the centre are also thematically connected by the presence of canopies or cloud bands (which, as we have seen, fulfill similar functions in the VM). Top, bottom and left have canopies with finials like those in Q13, or in the case of the bottom one something that looks like an oculus. The central circle and the one on the right are surrounded by particularly elaborate cloud bands.
A final preliminary observation is that the rosettes keep shifting our view in at least three ways: perspective, rotation and size. The perspective tilts from fully top-down, to side view, to something in between. The rotation is not consistent, which is indicated by both the way objects are drawn and the varying direction of the text. Finally, the size of objects is not consistent: a tent-like canopy may cover an entire circle, while a tiny castle is only a detail in another one. This ambiguity of scale is driven to the extreme in the central roundel, where six objects can be interpreted as vessels to be held in hand, or tall towers that literally pierce the fabric of the sky. This alone is enough to prohibit a completely literal reading of the image, shifting our attention once more to allegorical and layered meanings.
There are two main ways Voynich researchers have approached the rosettes folio: as a map (Diane O’Donovan) or a more abstract system, like Rene Zandbergen’s hypothesis that it represents the planets. Both these views can be combined, like in the work of Jürgen Wastl and Danielle Feger (2014) who believe it combines elements of a medieval map and a map of the Elements.
We will argue that the rosettes foldout revolves around one concept: Ecclesia, the Church. Three aspects of the medieval view on the Church need to be understood: her effect on the world, the moment of her birth, and her first steps.
The effects of Ecclesia
Let us return to the Fountain of Life painting mentioned before. While before we focused on the vertical movement, with salvation flowing down from the Lamb towards the faithful, carrying Eucharist wafers in its crystal clear water, we will now zoom out in the horizontal direction and observe the effect of this water down on Earth.
We see two contrasting groups of figures. The group left of the Fountain (i.e. at God’s right hand) represents Ecclesia, the Church, symbolized by clergymen and the faithful. They are in awe of what they are witnessing, gesture respectfully, kneel and pray. To the right (at God’s left hand), we see Synagoga, represented by a blindfolded high priest and Jews. His standard cracks and his followers close their ears, cover their eyes, rip their clothes, fall over or turn their backs. This representation brings to the fore the antisemitism that typically accompanied the thought of Synagoga in medieval Christianity. By the 11th and 12th centuries, when Europeans were more regularly confronted with actual Jewish settlers, Synagoga was increasingly cast as an adversary of the true faith (Rowe 2011).
A more common way to represent Ecclesia and Synagoga was as female personifications (J.K. Petersen wrote a post about these figures with many examples.) Ecclesia may hold an actual church building, but her most common attributes are a chalice (linking her to the Eucharist), and a victory standard topped by a Greek cross. Synagoga is blindfolded, holds a broken banner and stone tablets.
The birth of Ecclesia at Christ’s death
Ecclesia was born when Christ died on the cross, and at that same moment Synagoga was defeated, replaced by the true faith (from the point of view of the medieval Christian). For this reason, the pair is often depicted in crucifixion scenes, usually with Ecclesia at Christ’s right hand and Synagoga at his left. Below is an example from Cod. St. Peter perg. 139, a 13th century psalter from Strasbourg. Ecclesia is positioned conveniently to allow her to catch the blood and water that springs from the side wound, since this wound is almost universally depicted on Christ’s right side (i.e. the viewer’s left). Remember this, it will be important soon: the side wound is on our left.
In some of the more puzzling images (often discussed in gender studies), the link between Ecclesia and the side wound is made much more explicit: she is literally born from it. The examples below are both from the Bible Moralisée tradition: ONB cod. 2554 and ONB cod. 1179 f3v (of which I only found an atrocious scan circulating online). In both cases, God acts as the midwife, and clerics witness the scene, establishing that the institution they are part of was born at this moment. I included cod. 1179 because it adds some interesting nuances to the scene: Ecclesia does not hold her traditional Eucharistic chalice, but she immediately assumes her pose as the Bride of Christ. The Holy Spirit “radiates” around the pair (trio? It’s complicated) in the shape of many birds.
The first steps of Ecclesia at Pentecost
As is evident from the images above, the Church was usually believed to have come into existence at the moment Christ died on the cross. However, the most important early event in the history of the Church, enabling it to grow and conquer the world, happened at Pentecost. On this day, the “fiery tongues” of the Holy Spirit came over the apostles and their companions. Their efforts on that same day added three thousand believers to the new religion. So while Christ’s death restored the bond between God and the people and thus metaphysically birthed Ecclesia, the Church started its practical operations on Pentecost, when the apostles recruited its first members.
The Bible describes the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” Note that there is no mention of a dove, just wind and fire. Still, a dove was often used to represent the Spirit since this is how it appeared during the baptism of Jesus. For Pentecost, wind and fire are truer to the source, but since a dove is an easily recognizable image, it was often included.
Apart from the Spirit (usually as a dove) the events are represented by rays of light and “tongues of fire” either descending upon those gathered below or already present on their heads like little conical hats.
Sometimes Pentecostal symbolism is integrated into other images. For example BNF fr 916 shows tongues of fire descending on the faithful down from a fiery wound in the sky, combining elements of Pentecost with the veneration of the Side Wound.
Ecclesia on the Rosettes foldout
Now, to return to the Voynich manuscript, why do we think the Rosettes foldout is all about Ecclesia? There are no human figures on the page, so she cannot be personified. And none of the several little buildings in the roundels and on the walls connecting them look particularly church-like. Well, let us start at the beginning: the side wound. When the soldier pierced Christ’s side, blood and water sprung forth and Ecclesia was born. Remember the typical shape of the side wound as discussed in part I, and that it is positioned on Christ’s right side (so the viewer’s left). In the top left rosette, we see the following shape:
Notice how the gaping opening is surrounded by the “grape” motif, and radiates with rays of light. Inside the wound shape are flames of the “tongue”-type, which may refer to the presence of the Holy Spirit (tongues of fire). More luminous grapes are on the outer ring. The disembodied side wound, so favored in the 15th century, brings light and salvation, ending the time of the Old Covenant. The openings of the five pipes at the bottom right form the recognizable pattern of the Holy Wounds, another reference to the Crucifixion. (We will discuss the reason for the presence of so many pipes on this foldout soon).
In the bottom right, diagonally opposed to the side wound, we see the symbol of the Old Covenant: Christ’s death did not only bring Ecclesia into existence, it also overthrew Synagoga (at least in the medieval mind). And the VM chooses the most appropriate biblical symbol to represent this event, the ripping of the Temple Veil. “Matthew (27, 51) relates that the veil that hid the Holy of Holies in the temple tore as Christ died. Theologians interpreted this occurrence as the end of the rule of the synagogue and the illumination at the death of Christ of the law that had been dark before” (Schiller 1972, p.110). The roundel below has been rotated to account for the direction of the text and the image:
The above structure can be seen as a temple supported by pillars, though some have argued that it looks more like a tent or awning. In that case it is probably inspired by the Tabernacle or the “Tent of the Congregation” of the Old Testament, the direct predecessor of the Temple, with the same shape and function. Whatever it is, the layer in between the square and the rectangular part appears to be separating. The square part does something funny with the perspective: we clearly have a top-down view, but it shows a ribbed vault as we would see it from the inside – identifying the building as a place of worship. So the top of the roof looks like what we would expect the inside of a roof to look like.
When I mailed Cary explaining why I thought this represented the ripping of the Temple Veil at the Crucifixion, she clarified the rest of the image well, so I will just copy-paste her explanation here (this is also a typical example of the way we work): “I realized that the architecture of the temple would actually fit too, if you see it as a kind of awkward top view: that square is the innermost room of the temple, the Holy of Holies: “the area was defined by four pillars which held up the veil of the covering, under which the Ark of the Covenant was held above the floor.” It fits, a faithful representation: there’s a square section on the left with four corners, so that means it has four walls and pillars, and it’s connected to the rest of the temple, which is the larger rectangular space, and more pillars/walls underneath (it’s kind of like a top view but with a bit of perspective from the side too at the same time.) Also, the Holy of Holies was located on the West side of the Temple. That lines up too. And the sun was obscured at this moment when the veil ripped. Where’s the sun? Right there where it’s supposed to be, behind the “dark sky,” obscured outside of the circular border of the scene.”
This interpretation adds to the theme of light and darkness running through this foldout. While the side wound illuminates its surroundings, the Temple was shrouded in darkness. We witness the very moment the veil rips and darkness is lifted.
We have now seen the origin of Ecclesia (the side wound) and her predecessor (the Temple) but where is she herself? Actually, she is hard to miss, at least if you are familiar with the layout of domed (Byzantine style) churches. For me, this realization came when I read an article by Jelena Bogdanovic. This is the part that drew my attention:
A flexible, nine-square grid with domes surrounding a larger, central one. The mother of all churches of this type was the Hagia Sophia, which influenced church designs all around Europe. Similarly, a number of churches in France and Italy are believed to have been modeled on the Church of the Holy Apostles, which was destroyed by the Ottomans in 1461. It is depicted in a number of manuscripts, among which Vat. gr. 1162. The San Marco Basilica in Venice was built according to this Greek-cross plan.
So, where is Ecclesia, the Church, on the Rosettes foldout? Well, in a way it is the Rosettes foldout. The image below compares the foldout to the so-called Greek-cross plan of St Mark’s Basilica. Keep in mind that we do not argue that the foldout represents this particular building. We merely want to illustrate that for a person living in medieval Italy or any of the other areas where such a basilica existed, this was the shape of “the church”.
This Greek-cross design is by no means limited to areas that were under immediate Byzantine influence. See for example below, the plan of Périgueux cathedral (France);
Now we can also explain why the foldout appears to shift between various perspectives. The “Church” is overlaid on the world below, and at the moment of Crucifixion a connection is established between Heaven and earth. The Jewish Temple is dwarfed in comparison, and appears to crack in half like Synagoga’s banner. The ambiguity between domes, canopies and Heaven came naturally, since the church space, drawn together by the central dome, “was conceived, according to Byzantine liturgical commentaries, as the ‘Heavenly Kingdom on Earth’” (Lidov 2019). “The Byzantine church domes dazzled observers with splendor that represented or replicated the primordial tent, the heavenly house, the promise to liberate all of creation from its burdens, the union of heaven and earth, and a promise to the faithful of heavenly Jerusalem ﬁlled with the divine presence. […] Their form can be understood as a relation between the iconic dome and its evocative representation of the heavenly realm” (Bogdanovic 2020). The dome is the canopy of Heaven.
When searching what had been written about this matter, I noticed that the central rosette was sometimes referred to as “Heavenly Jerusalem”, an idea of Jürgen Wastl and Danielle Feger. They base their argument on cartographical conventions in the Middle Ages, which would often place Jerusalem in the centre of the map. It is certainly possible that the Rosettes design is influenced by this thought of Jerusalem as the literal central point of the world, a place where Heaven and Earth meet – the towers literally touch the sky. They do exude “Jerusalem vibes”, as similar architecture is used in 15th century depictions of the city.
An often discussed question regarding this middle rosette, is whether these objects represent towers or vessels, and why there are six of them. They are surrounded by light, grapes and cloud bands and they touch Heaven, but this does not help us narrow it down. Given the VM’s tendency towards intentional ambiguity, I believe they might be both. If the meaning “vessels” is intended (as secondary to “towers”), I believe the answer lies in John 2, the Wedding at Cana, when Christ turned water into wine. This scene was sometimes interpreted as foreshadowing Christ’s own marriage to Ecclesia.
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.John 2:6-9
It is possible that this type of vessel was envisioned, but drawn in a way to maximize the ambiguity with architecture. See for example this 14th century rendition of the Wedding at Cana:
One word which is almost certainly relevant for understanding these vessels and their canopy is ciborium. This means both “a covered, chalice-shaped container for Eucharistic hosts” and a canopy or covering supported by columns, freestanding in the sanctuary, that stands over and covers the altar in a basilica or other church.” Usually these are four columns though, not six.
Pentecost: the Holy Spirit as Wind
As discussed above, the Holy Spirit did not make its Pentecostal appearance in the shape of a dove, but as wind and flames. Drawing doves and flames is easy, but how do you symbolize wind? There are a number of options, but we believe the VM resorted to pipes, many of which are found around the Rosettes foldout. The number of different explanations people have come up with for these pipes is too large to count, including things like cannons.
If they symbolize wind though, then what could they be? Which sources of wind would the average medieval person be familiar with? We think the answer is as simple as wind instruments. This association of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost with wind instruments existed in practice. For instance, Kellner (p.115) writes that in France “it was usual to blow trombones or trumpets during divine service in memory of the sound of the ‘mighty wind’ which accompanied the Holy Spirit’s descent.” The VM’s clustering of pipes is especially reminiscent of pipe organs, which would have been a familiar sight to 15th century churchgoers. Additionally, smaller portative organs (organettos) were extensively used during the 14th and 15th centuries (Wiki). They were operated with bellows, reinforcing their association with wind.
The Rosettes foldout is strongly structured, and clearly shows two “sets” of pipes: four pipe openings point inward, towards the central rosette, and twelve clusters of pipes point outward, from the central rosette. Four point in, twelve point out. We will now explain each set of arrows.
Let us start with the twelve green arrows, each standing for a cluster of six pipes. One of the cupolas of the San Marco Basilica in Venice is called the “Dome of the Pentecost”, named after the 12th century mosaic that adorns it. Here, the Spirit is represented by a dove with rays of light and tongues of fire. These are the usual symbols, but the circular layout of the mosaic has a meaning that goes beyond the scene where the apostles simply sit in a room.
From the Basilica’s website:
The next cupola, the Pentecost, celebrates and glorifies the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church… [T]he Pentecost cupola is resolved in an emanation of twelve rays of silver light from the dove of the Holy Spirit above the throne. The rays fall in the form of a red flame on the heads of the twelve apostles who are seated on chairs. Between the sixteen windows below are depictions of the peoples among whom the apostles, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, spread the word of Christ.
The twelve beams of light descend outwards from a central point – the Throne of Heaven. The Basilica’s website quoted above provides an explanation for this circulair, radiant layout: the apostles are with the various peoples they converted, depicted in pairs right underneath the apostles. A worldwide Church with one focal point. This cupola has much in common with the Rosettes foldout: the dome itself is Heaven, and from it Ecclesia takes root in the world below. If we allow for the assumption that the VM uses wind (pipes) as its metaphor for the movement of the Holy Spirit, then the message is the same: the Twelve are sent out into the world, thus establishing the foundations of the Church.
The red arrows point towards the middle from the four corners. This layout is reminiscent of wind diagrams, where a wind originates in each of the four cardinal directions. Depictions of Pentecost sometimes borrowed elements from wind diagrams, as in this example Cary found. From the Berthold Sacramentary, (Morgan MS M.710 fol. 64v), Weingarten, Germany, 1215–1217. Four figures representing the four winds pour jars around the Pentecost scene. Together, they symbolize the thundering wind that was heard when the Spirit descended.
Wait… Cardinal directions?
If the openings in the four corners represent winds, then this implies that the cardinal directions are on the diagonals.
This means that, one, there may be a directional component and two, if we want to orient the foldout like a modern map with north at the top, we need to rotate it. Important note: I will now rotate the foldout, but this is only to make the directions easier to read – it is not because I think the page should be rotated this way. The foldout does not obey a single orientation. That said, I do believe north, east, south and west are identifiable on the diagonals and are in accordance with our interpretation of the iconography. This is how I would rotate the page if I wanted to place north on top:
Of our nine rosettes, five form the “Church” (its five domes) and the remaining four are each connected to a cardinal direction. They have a “wind opening” on one side (circled in purple) and a direction emblem on the outside (red text). The direction emblems are hard to see because the edges of the folio are faded, but each emblem is appropriate for its direction.
- East: the Latin for east is oriens, related to origo, “a rise, commencement, beginning, source; birth”. This is where we find the side wound with all its connotations, symbolizing the birth of Ecclesia, the dawn of a new age. The emblem of this rosette is a sun, because the sun rises in the east.
- South: this is the rosette with the infamous castle. I will quote Rene Zandbergen’s elemental hypothesis: “I believe [it] represents the Earth. Most of the buildings are in or near this circle, and just outside it is a T-O map.”
- West: Again, the emblem is a sun, and indeed we see the sun setting on the Old Covenant with the ripping of the Temple Veil.
- North: the celestial pole. While the central rosette refers to Heaven (as in God’s abode), the “north” rosette simply refers to the celestial north pole, a much more down-to-earth kind of sky. Much of this roundel and its role within the composition remains unclear though. I have tentatively named its emblem “constellation sign” since constellations were drawn like this, and it would fit the theme of finding north by looking for the pole star.
Of the four directions, we currently have the best understanding of east and west: the sun dawns on the new and sets on the old. Cary found a good example of how these thoughts were present in text and illustration in the Uta Codex (ca. 1025, Regensburg) and a later copy of the same page in the Mettener Armenbibel (Biblia pauperum) – BSB Clm 8201 (1414/15). Concerning the imagery, we are mostly interested in what happens in the bottom right corner.
Let’s zoom in on the bottom right scene of these three pages, all different renditions of the same event:
The titulus written around the temple reads as follows: “The curtain of the temple was rent, because the darkness of the Law was removed.” (Translations from Cohen, p.63-65). Right above (middle right), the figure of Synagoga is not named as such. Instead, her text reads: “The law sets in the west”, referring to the end of the Old Covenant. Opposite to her, on the left, is Ecclesia. Her titulus reads “Holy grace rises in the east“. We believe these thoughts are essential to understanding the rosettes foldout. The side wound, surrounded by motifs of salvation and closely connected to the birth of Ecclesia, is placed on the diagonal that bears the icon for “east”, the rising sun. And the ripping temple veil, surrounded by receding darkness, opposes it on the west corner.
In summary, we believe the Rosettes foldout has elements of a map, but is primarily intended to depict a world-altering event: the death of Christ and the victory of the Church over the Synagogue. The side wound births the Church, which is represented by an ideal plan of a domed Byzantine-style church. At the same time, these domes represent the Heavens, indicating that this is a metaphorical Church connecting the entire world with the Heavenly realm. The theme of light and darkness and the splitting of the Temple Veil point in the same direction. Everything happens at the very moment Christ’s side is pierced: Ecclesia is born, Synagoga overthrown, and salvation floods the world. Additionally, the central rosette alludes to the role of the Holy Spirit in kick-starting this newborn Church. Now we know why this foldout is so large compared to the rest of the manuscript: it shows a glorious victory, the culmination of God’s plan. And it’s worth a sheet of vellum the size of at least six regular folios.
Diagrams on f86r (Rosettes recto)
On the recto side of the rosettes foldout, there are six pages. Three are text-only and three contain a four-way diagram. While these diagrams clearly relate to the themes discussed in this post, we are not certain yet about any precise interpretations. For this post, we will focus on the one with four figures in white. At first glance, this diagram is entirely covered in the “grape” pattern. It is only upon closer inspection that we notice the four figures in white robes, holding various objects. Because these objects tend to be curved themselves, they are not always easy to distinguish from the background patterns.
The natural thing to do is to isolate these four human figures to have a better look at them, while keeping in mind that the extraction may not be perfect. My attempt is below, and you can compare with Nick Pelling’s here. I also rotated each figure and drew them closer together, but kept them in their respective corners.
All figures appear to wear a similar garment with wide sleeves that are narrow at the wrist. It is hard to judge since we can only see the tops of the figures, but the fashion appears to belong to the same time period as that of the Zodiac figures, placing them in the 1400-1430 timeframe (see my 2018 post The Golden Age of Baggy-Elbowed Tunics). The gender of all four figures is somewhat ambiguous. In those days, there was a surprising amount of overlap between dress for men and women, so the clothes can’t help us. The one on the left and the one at the bottom do appear to have breasts, so we can probably assume that these two are female.
Each figure is holding two attributes, which is extremely uncommon in the VM. The vast majority of Voynich “nymphs” hold at most one item, which I believe has to do with the VM’s specific way of representing abstract concepts. The fact that these figures have apparently not undergone this treatment might suggest that they must be read more literally – keeping in mind that the whole composition is still schematic.
First of all, the fact that the figures are standing in a circle filled entirely with the grape pattern suggests that we are still dealing with the theme of Ecclesia. In Q13b, we had the grapes (body of Christ) as a source of Salvation in the form of water. But now the figures themselves – who are clothed, so no nude souls – inhabit a world of grapes. And this is exactly what the first meaning of “the body of Christ” is in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 12: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. […] Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.“
In this metaphor, the Church is the body of Christ and the Spirit is water. Christ exists in Heaven, which is why the grapes are sometimes attached to a canopy. But he also exists on Earth, as the Church. And presumably this becomes the most tangible during Eucharist, when a piece of bread becomes the literal body of Christ. Various elements on this page are reminiscent of the Eucharist, and especially of the Elevation of consecrated objects during Mass. To see the host was the whole reason why people came to church.
“But for most people, most of the time the Host was something to be seen, not to be consumed. Since the end of the twelfth century it had been customary for the consecrating priest to elevate the Host high above his head immediately after the sacring (the repetition of the words of institution, “Hoc est enim Corpus Meum” which brought about the miracle of transubstantiation) for adoration by the people. […] seeing the Host became the high point of lay experience of the Mass.” (Duffy 1992)
We know from contemporary accounts that the obsession with the raising of the host took on dramatic proportions, especially in large churches where multiple services were held simultaneously at the main altar and in the side chapels. When a host was about to be elevated somewhere, a bell was rung and people would literally run and shove each other in order to get a good look at it.
The biggest clue is in the figure facing away from us. During the Elevation, the priest would turn toward the altar, facing the same way as the congregation, so they would see his back. One difference with the VM figure is that it raises two objects at once, while the priest only Elevates one at a time.
It is possible that the layout of the diagram itself is intended to reference the decoration commonly found on Eucharistic tableware. See for example this 13th century paten (a small golden plate for holding the Eucharistic bread) made for a monastery in Southern Germany. Instead of a grape motif, this paten is covered in a more common vine pattern to symbolize Christ (the True Vine). In the middle there is an empty circle, where the VM has a moon for some reason. Around it are four figures elevating various objects. At the top, Jesus Christ himself is holding a paten and a host. To his right, the Old Testament priest Melchizedek elevates a chalice, prefiguring the Eucharist. Similarly, Abel to the right is showing his sacrificial lamb. Finally, at the bottom we see the monastery’s patron, St Trudpert, holding the Palm of Martyrdom.
One thing this paten reveals is a preference for figures who can be connected to Eucharistic practice without necessarily being literal medieval priests. The inclusion of local saints and Old Testament figures expands the possibilities even further, and it is certainly not limited to those.
Two of the four figures especially drew my attention. My first thoughts about the figure left of the circle were that she is holding wheat (symbolizing the bread of the Eucharist) and a golden vessel. However, if her attribute can also be a Martyr’s palm – which is literally the most general attribute for saints – our possibilities multiply. The palm’s shape varies and it is often not green but gold, like a dried frond. She could represent, just as an example, someone like saint Barbara, whose attributes include a tower. (Especially when taking into account the VM’s love for tower-like vessels or vessel-like towers).
The figure at the top (whose gender is impossible to determine) is the one who reminded me of the priest turning away from us to face the altar and raising the host. However, he is raising two objects at the same time: one is a white disk, but the other looks more complex. He appears to be showing both objects in a similar way to Jesus in the paten above, though I don’t believe the figure actually represents Jesus.
Much of this image is still unclear, but it is not our intention to explain everything. If this is even possible, it cannot be done in one post. Everything considered though, I believe there is enough here to make a strong case for a Eucharistic connection, linking this diagram to the Rosettes foldout and Q13b.
“Naked I will follow him who was crucified naked…” Zodiac Nymphs and Women’s Piety
by Cary Rapaport
As Koen and I discussed and refined these ideas it became increasingly clear that the devotion to Christ’s blood was an area that seemed particularly relevant, and I began to learn more about the Medieval devotional mindset.
In a thesis by Jenny Tudesko, Blood and Body: Women’s Religious Practices in Late Medieval Europe, she explains how “religious women in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Western Europe developed forms of pious practice that were unique in their extreme devotions to the blood and body of Christ and unique in their use of their own physical bodies to practice these devotions… Considered incapable of the intellectual devotions of male mystics, women sought to grow closer to God through the physical imitation of Christ’s human suffering in the Crucifixion.” Possibly because of being excluded from frequently receiving the host at Mass, “religious women so desired to participate fully in the sacrament of the Eucharist that their devotions became obsessive.”
It was in this same paper that I saw the following image, and it led me to look deeper into the subject of women’s Eucharistic devotion. I will explain how I suspect this might relate to some unique features of the female figures in the Voynich “zodiac” section: their nudity, their flower-like stars, and their crowns.
Tudesko explains that the image was created by a nun, and it accompanies a “very pretty prayer about the holy, worthy Sacrament to be said before Communion…[and] shows the soul as a young woman with a garland in her hair bathing naked in a tub of blood at the foot of the cross.” I was surprised to learn that nuns identified with this kind of imagery, which almost functions like a self-portrait, an idealized image of salvation and aspiration. With the blooming garden, the garland in her hair, and her hands held to her heart, it appears like an idyllic scene if not for the dripping bloodbath—but we must wrap our minds around the fact that to her, it feels idyllic precisely because of this. Being immersed in the blood meant she was close to Christ: his blood was touching her very soul. This meant she was fully empathizing with his overwhelming suffering and communicating her love and devotion. This vision was clearly significant for her, since she drew it herself in her own personal prayer book and it is the main visual image within a book of mostly text. Meditating on this picture and everything it represented must have been important. Despite the date being late in relation to the Voynich (16th century) this image stood out to me too much to dismiss. I wondered if it represented a continuation of an earlier tradition and mindset that has been overlooked in potential relation to Voynich imagery, and I began to look further, especially to earlier sources. How did imagery of the nude female soul relate to concepts of salvation, for religious women? The connections are a lot more extensive than I expected.
The early thirteenth-century German mystic and writer, Mechthild of Magdeburg, also imagined herself as a nude soul in the presence of the Lord and Savior, in her book The Flowing Light of the Godhead. With language that may be surprising to modern readers, she imagined her soul as a bride, entering the bedroom of the heavenly bridegroom. (This concept derived from a genre of Christian commentaries on the Song of Songs which interpreted the original work as a theological metaphor, with the pious soul represented as a bride and Christ as the bridegroom.) A dialog ensues, along with Mechthild’s commentary as the narrator:
“Stay, Lady Soul.”
“What do you bid me, Lord?”
“Take off your clothes.”
“Lord, what will happen to me then?”
“Lady Soul, you are so utterly formed to my nature, that not the slightest thing can be between you and me. Never was an angel so glorious, that to him was granted for one hour, what is given to you for eternity. And so you must cast off from you both fear and shame and all external virtues. Rather, those alone that you carry within yourself shall you foster forever. These are your noble longing and your boundless desire. These I shall fulfill forever with my limitless lavishness.”
“Lord, now I am a naked soul, and you in yourself are a well-adorned god. Our shared lot is eternal life without death.”
‘Then a blessed stillness that both desire overcomes them. He surrenders himself to her, and she surrenders herself to him. What happens to her then—she knows—and that is fine with me, but this cannot last long. When two lovers meet secretly, they must often part from one another inseparable.’
(From the English translation by Frank Tobin)
Mechthild’s “Lady Soul” is naked in order to be closer to Christ and to experience a transcendent state of salvation through this tangible “contact.” The longing for eternal life without death is also a key component of this vision, and it is the complete devotion between the soul and Christ that allows this to happen.
If you thought this concept would have been too much for anyone to have illustrated—think again. The following image illustrates Christus und die Minnende Seele or “Christ and the Loving Soul”:
Note the crown that Christ’s “bride” wears, her long, loose hair, and obviously, the implied lack of clothing. (This whole situation is totally pious though, don’t get the wrong idea!)
Christus und die Minnende Seele is an illustrated verse dialogue, versions of which were produced from the late-fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries and were especially popular throughout German-speaking countries. They typically contained a series of around 20 scenes depicting the soul’s journey towards a mystical union with Christ, personified as the female bride engaged in a courtship with Christ her bridegroom. Some of the images make use of extreme visual metaphors to show the soul’s spiritual transformation in pursuit of this mystical relationship.
For example, one scene shows her being crucified while Christ watches (some alternate versions even show her being hung from the gallows at the hands of Christ himself), immediately followed by another scene where Christ helps to undress her. As Susan L. Smith describes it in The Bride Stripped Bare: A Rare Type of the Disrobing of Christ, the idea behind this is for the viewer to “love and to identify with Christ’s stripped, suffering body in order to merit the reward of being joined to him as his bride.”
This imagery was produced in multiple forms including illustrated manuscripts and also a woodblock “broadsheet”: a single large leaf with a series of printed scenes of the courtship and accompanying text in rhyming couplets (a similar but shortened version of the full-length poem). These circulated separately but their illustrations repeated a similar formula.
Okay, let us avert our eyes now and turn our attention back to the Voynich.
These examples—a nun in a blood bath, “Lady Soul” in the heavenly bedroom, and these scenes of the devout soul’s “courtship”—may seem extreme, but I believe the mindset behind them is relevant. In a thread on the voynich.ninja forum, Koen previously mentioned how in most medieval contexts, crowned nude women with loose hair would have been viewed as “Venus-types,” that is, alluding to love and desire. But this fact still seemed perplexing in relation to the Voynich, and it was hard to find examples of similar imagery that seemed relevant enough to the zodiac nymphs. It was only when I began to learn about the mindset and imagery I have introduced here, that I started to see this in a different light.
I have come to suspect that two different means of attaining salvation through the soul’s intimate contact with Christ may be present in the Voynich “zodiac” section.
First, nude souls literally bathing in Christ’s virtue—much like the nun’s drawing in her personal prayer book—may be represented by the nymphs who stand in individual tubs. These tubs could be vessels and vehicles of the soul’s salvation. It may be significant that the majority of these figures are female, since blood was seen as having a particular connection to women, for better or worse: “Women’s biology and their societal role as caretakers of the sick and wounded, contributed to the belief that women had more experience with blood and therefore had the ability to “manage” blood. Within the culture of late medieval Europe, this association both compounded the misogynistic view of women as weaker creatures more prone to sin and pollution, but also connected women to the cleansing and redemptive power of Christ’s blood.” (Tudesko, 48) However, as Koen mentioned already, the redemptive fluid from Christ does not always need to be blood, it can also be water. I will also add to this that as recorded in many female visions specifically, the liquid that flows from Christ’s wounds was even described as honey or milk. Women’s devotions also emphasized close contact with this liquid, including touching and tasting it, and our bathing nun’s soul is naked presumably to benefit from maximum contact with the blood-bath. The shape of the zodiac tubs suggests a container that could hold the liquid, and the figures may be nude to receive its full benefits. The “bridal-looking” veil worn by the nymph in my third example below may also be related to the type of devotion I have described.
The zodiac section’s clothed-people-in-tubs are a complicating factor. If nudity is so important for expressing the type of devotion I suggest here, does clothing pose a contradiction? It is notable that some nymphs on f70v1 wear clothing (white or colorless dresses) and then on f71r and f71v, many more become clothed and there is a sudden emphasis of red: a total of 22 figures are dressed in this color. Although the pigment is faded, red dominates the color scheme, along with a bit of green.
In the Middle Ages, red was imbued with multiple meanings, but a popular one was love. In Red: The History of a Color, Michel Pastoureau describes thirteenth- and fourteenth-century miniatures that “…often chose red to present the love that united two young people. It could be simple amorous banter under a rose bush with splendid red blossoms, as in many great paintings from the famous Codex Manesse (Zurich, c. 1300-1310). Or it could be tender kisses exchanged between two lovers dressed in red or red and green (the color of youth), as we see in various examples in the illuminated manuscripts of the Arthurian romances. […] Generally speaking, a red dress is never neutral; it is almost always an appealing dress, meant to attract or to convey the passions of the heart.”
Christianity inspired passions too that were more complicated than these young carefree lovers. “In the iconography of the late middle ages and early modern period, Mary Magdalene often wears a red robe or cloak, an ambivalent color that evokes her former status as a prostitute even as it emphasizes her love for Christ.” The love for Christ was also emphasized in imagery of the bridal soul. Although this later came to represent the pious individual, an earlier personification represented the entire Church as Christ’s queenly bride—also wearing red. Pastoureau explains this color choice as having its roots in the symbolism of Christ’s blood and the sacrifice of martyrs and crusaders. “Saint Cyprian of Carthage proclaimed … in the third century: ‘Blessed indeed is our church… In the past she was clad in white through the good works of our brothers; now she is arrayed in crimson through the blood of her martyrs.’”
The crimson garments of Christ’s bride symbolize a mystical love and at the same time seem to cover her from head to foot in his precious blood:
Marriage—Holy Matrimony—is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Medieval Christian couples were encouraged to emulate the model of Christ the bridegroom and his bride in their respective roles, to enter marriage as an opportunity to follow God’s will and pursue a virtuous life. The tradition of a red dress in iconography of the Church as Bride was also reflected in the customary bridal attire for Christians in the fifteenth century. Unlike today’s traditional white wedding dress, medieval brides wore other colors—as seen in this detail of Rogier van der Weyden’s 1445 painting of the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece where the bride wears red, accented with a green belt and a crown.
There were other options outside of marriage that also involved identification with Christ’s bride. Nuns who considered themselves brides of Christ were initiated into monastic orders in ceremonies that closely resembled secular marriage ceremonies. Some religious women who identified as brides of Christ were officially recognized by the Church, but others identified this way more privately or within alternative spiritual communities such as the Beguines.
The symbolism of red combines divine love and blood in the writing of Mechthild of Magdeburg, previously mentioned for her vision of the nude soul. She writes of the day when Christ’s “…sweet wounds shall heal, as though a rose petal had been placed on the spot of the wound. One will then see the scars turned bright red—love’s color; and they will never fade.” This is also the color of heavenly clothing: in another passage describing a pious girl whose poor health prevents her from attending mass, God miraculously transports her to a church in heaven where she sees beautiful people, “clothed in rose-colored garments,” wearing the “crown of freely chosen chastity.” Embarrassed by her own inadequate clothing, she is granted another miracle and suddenly finds herself wearing “a deep red mantle woven out of love…”
Are the red-clad nymphs in tubs symbolizing their strong love and desire for Christ through their clothing? Might they be just as symbolically soaked in the blood of salvation as their nude companions?
We suspect that the Voynich zodiacs with the most ornately clothed nymphs might broadly coincide with the liturgical calendar, particularly the 90-day period from Lent to Pentecost, and perhaps the clothing relates to the devotional mindset around these holidays. It is equally possible that they connect to other religious ceremonies in which specific clothing played a part, but these ideas are difficult to test because the folio for February is missing, religious feasts have moving dates, and local custom introduces all kinds of variety in calendars.
The second means of the soul’s intimate contact with Christ in the VMS zodiacs may be represented by the nude nymphs who do not stand in tubs. These nymphs are standing in poses that suggest forward or upward motion. Are they walking along the path of eternal life without death—standing naked in the presence of Christ’s illumination, much like Mechthild’s “Lady Soul”?
The concept of nude souls is not uncommon in medieval art. It appears often in other religious imagery such as scenes of the Last Judgement, although usually the pious figures here are patiently waiting in line to be sorted into Heaven, not experiencing a passionate union with Christ. So, what else makes me think the Voynich nymphs are so different?
One may be wondering, given that I am suggesting these nymphs are nude souls in intimate contact with Christ—where is Christ in these images? If these are souls, are they not alone? Remember that in the ritual of the Eucharist, Christ is believed to literally be present in the consecrated wine—the substance is Christ’s presence, just as much as if he were in physical form. But aside from the tubs, none of these nymphs is actually alone—each is connected to a star.
The Voynich Manuscript is unique in its numerous drawings of “stars on strings” or “stars on tethers”—no other medieval work has been found that exactly replicates this style of connecting stars to figures. But the following examples show some other imagery that may connect to a similar devotional mentality.
This illustration from the Rothschild Canticles (turn of the 14th century) shows the “spiritual marriage” of the soul with Christ. I include alongside this an image of the Virgin Mary filled with light to illustrate multiple instances where large stars are paired with figures to indicate their divine illumination.
In this context, the star is closely associated with Christ—representing his divine light. Since the star is so large, it almost seems to function as a stand-in for Christ himself, even though he is partially pictured alongside it. Christ is the star, and the star is Christ. And even though there is no Voynich-style “string” or “tether,” the connection between the soul below and Christ/the star above is emphasized by their outstretched hands.
Not close enough to the stars-on-tethers held by Voynich nymphs? The next smitten soul I will show you takes things a step further:
This image also belongs to the genre of “Christus und die Minnende Seele,” from a 15th century German manuscript (Sammelhandschrift – Cod. Donaueschingen 106). A few variations show that multiple 15th century manuscripts followed a similar formula with their illustrated sequences: Christ is bound to a tether, the other end of which is held by the soul.
It was initially the imagery of a nude, crowned female soul that drew me to take a closer look at the Minnende Seele imagery—I was not expecting to also discover that closely related imagery includes the soul holding a tether. I will now reiterate our overarching hypothesis: that the Voynich allegorically depicts a specific kind of Christian devotion, all accomplished without literally drawing Jesus. I suggest that the Voynich’s star-tethers represent this metaphysical bond between the soul and Christ, just as it is more literally represented by the Minnende Seele. Given that we have seen Jesus represented as a star—a divine light—in a similar genre of illustrations, is it not too much of a leap to imagine him that way here, too?
Some VM nymphs hold star-tethers in their hands, while for others, the star’s tether is connected to other parts of their body or to the side of the tubs they stand in. These may all be variations on a similar thought: the amor ligans (“binding love”), a motif described by Amy Gebauer in Christus und die minnende Seele: An Analysis of Circulation, Text, and Iconography. The scene of the tethered Christ follows a scene where the soul shoots him with an arrow, symbolizing “…the soul’s target as his heart and the injury as a wound of love.” She explains the scene of the tethered Christ as a counterpart to the one pictured earlier where the soul undresses. “In the illustrations, the soul’s pulling on the rope tied around Christ’s waist parallels Christ’s pulling off the soul’s clothes in the earlier scene. Furthermore, Christ’s crossed and bound wrists…recall the soul’s passively crossed hands in the ‘hanging’ illustration. Whereas the soul was bound to Christ earlier by renouncing all earthly things and submitting her will to his, resulting in her ‘crucifixion,’ now the wounding arrows of the soul’s love bind Christ, forcing him to submit to her will.” (Gebauer, 223-225)
Another type of illustration, Kreuztragende Minne (“cross-bearing soul”) is closely related to the Minnende Seele, and I suspect they are both related to the VM’s visual symbolism of tethers. This is another dialogue between Christ and the Soul, where the soul bears her cross in imitation of Christ (imitatio Christi) while the bond of their love connects them. In one example, the soul holds a rope attached to Christ’s waist, as they both bear crosses, and in another example, the soul and Christ are both tethered together at the waist. But since Christ is leading the way forward, Gebauer interprets this motif as a reversal of the scene where the soul pulls Christ by a rope. In a particularly unusual example from a late fifteenth century woodcut, a male soul is bound with a tether around his waist, which Christ holds while being tied to a cross himself and brandishing a scourge. The text in the speech scrolls translates to: “Son, give me your heart. I do not remit the punishment of the one that I hold dear.” The soul replies, “O Lord, this I want, I desire it, for this reason thus you should pull me.” (Gertsman, 18)
“The image of pulling is taken from [the Canticles] 1.3 (trahe me post te curremus) and is often used in mystical literature to express a process of Christ pulling the soul that results in unio mystica.” (Gebauer) These different stages of the soul’s bonding with Christ show it to be a reciprocal process (though it comes about through a back-and-forth chase). Either way they are bonded together with mystical love, and this is represented as a rope or tether that can be connected or held in various ways, similarly to the VM’s various styles of star-tethers.
Although the objects held by the zodiac nymphs are commonly recognized as stars, and the accompanying zodiac roundels suggest a celestial theme, there is also a distinctive quality about them that resembles flowers on stalks. The Voynich seems to exploit this ambiguity for some reason. The numerous “stars” could also resemble a field of flowers.
Koen also reminded me of the way the VMS “Virgo” relates to this idea too, holding a star instead of the flower that is traditionally held by medieval Virgo figures, while oddly a real flower grows at her feet. These ideas seemed important, but their significance seemed unclear. However, the more that my research unexpectedly led me down the path of “bridal mysticism,” and related traditions, something else clicked in my mind when I read about the Speculum Virginum (“Mirror of Virgins”), a 12th century guidebook for monastic women that was popular into the 15th century. The book teaches theological lessons through a dialogue between a spiritual teacher, Peregrinus, and a student, Theodora, who is learning how to become a Virgo Christi (“virgin of Christ”). This treatise uses flowers as a repeated metaphor that even extends to the book’s structure, referring to each chapter as adjoining meadows for the virgin of Christ to travel through. The flora in these meadows represent the many virtues for virgins of Christ like Theodora: chastity, charity, humility, modesty, spiritual discipline. In one passage Peregrinus describes numerous flowers, like “thousands of virgins” that “multiply the hues of ardent love in the sight of God.” The flowers are the individual virgins; the garden is “the harmonious community of holy virgins in Christ.” By cultivating their virtues each “flower” attracts Christ’s attention when “…the bridegroom strolls in this spiritual garden, like a flower more charming than the rest, and rambles among the flowers…” As they experience his divine presence among them, does each devoted virgin hope she is ready to be “picked” as his Bride?
I find it particularly interesting that this type of devotional mindset is a context where flower symbolism coincides with celestial references, which seems to be reflected with the ambiguous imagery in the Voynich. Some stars appear to be attached to a long stem that grows from the ground, rather than being held in hand, further alluding to flowers.
In the Speculum Virginum, the floral metaphor has to do with preparation for the celestial union: “Look! While browsing through the meadows of Scripture, we have at the same time gathered flowers to weave a crown for the virgin’s head, until we are able to cover the rest of her body as well with mystical garments—so that, beautifully adorned, she may proclaim to her bridegroom, ‘He has clothed me with the garment of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of justice’.”
Perhaps the nude zodiac nymphs are not yet covered with any mystical garments, but they do have another distinctive feature…
When I looked for more information about medieval nuns, I read an article that suddenly made another previously unexplained feature of the zodiac nymphs come into focus. In The Nun’s Crown, Julie Hotchin describes the dress of monastic women in northern Germany—which included a distinctive kind of headdress with a crown.
“Each woman received her crown in a ceremony of consecration, or coronation, in which her virginity was dedicated to Christ. This distinctive headdress symbolized—more so than the veil and ring—her privileged status as a Bride of Christ.” Nuns of different orders, and of different status within a particular order, would have worn different styles: for example, “the nuns at Rupertsberg under Hildegard of Bingen’s leadership wore long, white, silk veils and golden crowns adorned with crosses on both sides and the back, with a figure of the Lamb on the front,” and at the Cistercian convent of Holy Cross in Rostock, soon-to-be nuns received crowns at their coronation “of finely wrought gold filigree” with embroidered red crosses. Some others were adorned with one of the Voynich’s favorite motifs—dots: a distinctive habit worn by an order of nuns under Birgitta of Sweden incorporated “five dots of red cloth sewn onto the linen bands where they joined to represent the outward signs of Christ’s Passion” and a northern German nun described the ornamentation of red crosses on her own crown as “…a sign of Christ’s wounds upon our heads, so that we always remember our spouse as in the Canticle, where he says, ‘You have wounded my heart, my sister, my bride [Cant. 4,9], namely through love.’”
I don’t think there were any naked nuns at a coronation ceremony, but we have already seen that when it came to picturing their soul, certain nuns had no problem with the idea of dispensing with their worldly clothing if it meant becoming closer to Christ. Perhaps the special crown, a symbol of identity, might be the only thing their soul would want to wear as it left this earthly realm. “The crown has a long tradition in Christian iconography as a symbol of the rewards due to the faithful in heaven. This held special meaning for religious women, for whom the crown they received in this world presaged the celestial reward granted to virgin brides of Christ in the next.” (Hotchin)
The crowns and headwear of Voynich nymphs do not match a distinctive design, but they are numerous, and notable as the only attribute of identity for many of these nude figures.
Are the zodiac nymphs “virgins of Christ,” arriving in the heavenly realm of salvation to receive their celestial reward?
Now, having read this far, you might be thinking that I am convinced that the art in the Voynich was created by a woman—perhaps a nun, a mystic, or a deeply religious woman who imagined her soul enraptured in a mystical union with Christ. Maybe even a group of such women. But I do not want to jump to any conclusions about the manuscript creator’s gender too quickly. I believe that the perspective I have presented here points to this possibility, which is something I only recently considered could be plausible. Perhaps we could better understand the mentality and visual meaning behind these images, by better understanding nuns’ devotion and the perspective of medieval “brides of Christ” (which is a complicated topic and I have only scratched the surface). I want to keep in mind, however, that if women really were involved in the manuscript’s production, this does not mean that it was only women.
Men certainly may have been closely involved in the “project” of the Voynich, in a variety of capacities—there is not enough information to say either way. If religious women were involved, it would not be unlikely that men worked closely with them—as they often did as confessors and spiritual advisors. Though they had different roles and approaches, the devotion to the Eucharist was equally important to both men and women.
It is also worth noting that the concept of a bridal relationship with Christ did not only appeal to women: identification with the female soul (anima, a female noun in Latin) could be separate from one’s identification as a man or a woman in the physical body. In Marrying Jesus in Medieval and Early Modern Northern Europe, Rabia Gregory explains that in Medieval understanding, “Jesus was a spouse for Christian souls, and not even Catholics limited the role of bride to nuns.” […] “Rituals and prayers for brides of Christ were available to both male and female Christians, and their devotional acts regulated a coherent and stable gender system that was predicated on personal piety rather than the sexuality or the sex of physical bodies.[…] The soul’s shifts from male to female granted medieval women alternate routes to spiritual authority, allowing individuals to transcend societal parameters for gender by making bodies secondary to souls—but it was not something only women could or should do. [Medieval Christians] might also have understood the shifts from male to female to act out the gendered inflections in their own languages, as discussion shifted from the form and matter of a male-gendered person to the formlessness and spirit of a female-gendered soul.”
Both men and women also made illustrations and authored literature relating to these themes. It is apparent that womens’ piety had some unique qualities that seem particularly relevant to the VM’s imagery, but just because there are a lot of women in the Voynich doesn’t by default suggest that women drew them.
It would also be difficult to speculate about the experience of medieval nuns and their devotional practices without considering the environment of medieval convents. This is an area I still know little about, but I was surprised to learn how complex these situations could be. There were highly variable degrees of resources, education and freedoms that were available to the nuns, and many factors were at play. Some women chose this lifestyle freely, but some did not.
Some medieval convents even held prisoners too, which I imagine created some complicated dynamics. (The following quoted from a paper by Cherel Jane Ellsworth Olive, 167) “Convents were also used to confine socially erring or undesirable women, both secular and religious. Common criminals and “dishonored” women were imprisoned within the same monastic establishments as dedicated nuns and female elites. This was due to the fact that state operated prison systems had not yet been created, and thus convents became a combination of idealistic elitists, resistant sacrifices to Christ and the socially undesirable…In addition, convents housed “inconvenient claimants to the throne” and female heretics of various orders. Convents held not only political prisoners but also convicted nuns and clerics who were given prison sentences within monastic walls.”
Was this an environment in which some unusual expression of religious devotion coincided with some unusual need to obscure information? What do those zodiac nymphs know that we don’t? I hope that these perspectives may lead to more new questions that have not been considered.
Now back to you, Koen, and the Large Plants!
I will not write too much here about the large-plants section since it has already been discussed in previous posts. Moreover, this section contains 143 plants and I only have proposals for some of them. So this overview will be very incomplete, and may apply to only a subgroup. Still, it must be pointed out that this section, whatever else it may contain, makes plenty of visual references to the cluster of concepts the VM appears to be based around: the Eucharist, salvation, Passion…
Readers may remember this 2019 post about the side wound that started it all, or a first exploration of the Arma Christi. A clear example is the “bloody chalice” discussed here, which I now realize fits entirely within the context of the “Eucharistic Man of Sorrows” type (see Salay 2000).
Notice how the wound on top gushes with water, and the blood is only added later as an afterthought. This can be explained by John 19:34, when a soldier pierced Jesus’ side “there came out blood and water”. However, when I first wrote about this, I did not yet realize that the VM, more so than the average medieval product, relies heavily on the image of Living Water. With that in mind, we can see how this fountain from the wound has a lot in common with Q13b, where water flows from pierced grapes. The fact that this source of salvific water is placed in the flower, on top, is again in line with the practice of Q13b
Another similar example is the flower of f18v, which the reader should be able to understand completely by using the patterns discussed earlier in this post.
Almost hovering above the rest, there is an opening, radiant like the sun. Inside, five red circles, “pierced” by a black dot. They are arranged in an x-shape, with the central dot being the largest. Underneath, scallops. In other words, this is again a symbol of salvation (the Five Holy Wounds) presented within a heavenly setting.
F16v contains a very similar idea: here we see the four smaller wounds as red leaves (?) and the Side Wound as a big blue explosion in the sky. The use of patterns in the radiant flower core remains similar. Once again, heaven, water and salvation are linked. The fact that in these three plants, the “body of Christ” is raised above the scene might again refer to the Elevation as well.
F40v shares a lot of this vocabulary. A blazing sun (symbol of Christ) is set in an oval shape surrounded by scallops (grapes). The oval burns on the outside with “tentacle” flames, on the inside with “tongue” flames. The top left circle from the rosettes foldout uses the same patterns in a similar way, linking both sections. Grapes, flames, light, wounds.
I predict that part of the solution to the large-plants section will be to learn the meaning of its patterns. Identify the actors in this allegory, and the forms they take. As a final example, let us examine the tympanum of the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy in Conques, France.
In an oval in the middle of the famous tympanum sits Christ. He is surrounded by six stars shaped like flowers, representing six of the seven Classical planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon. Christ himself is the seventh planet: the Sun. Flowers as stars, the Sun in an oval, and those cloud patterns around it… It is really not that far-fetched if you just push the allegory to its limits.
The flower from f50r uses a similar layered, tri-lobed cloud pattern as the tympanum, which was made in the first half of the twelfth century. The Voynich, however, was made in the early 15th century, and shows the signs of its time: where Christ would sit in Majesty, there is a literal wound in the parchment.
The small-plants section remains problematic, and we have not spent much time yet trying to understand it in the light of the VM as a devotional work. Therefore, we will just provide some remarks and a possible avenue of investigation. The section contains two kinds of images: plants and vessels. The plants are impossible to identify, often consisting only of a root and a leaf or two, and the meaning or purpose of the vessels is unknown. In general, each row of plants is accompanied by one vessel in the left margin.
One thing I noticed is that vessels like these are often (though not exclusively) found in liturgical or at least religious contexts. Last year I posted an example to the voynich.ninja forum of a fresco by Giotto (Scrovegni chapel, Padua). We see Mary’s suitors praying and making an offering. Flanking their pile of sticks are two vessels with familiar shapes. We don’t know what exactly they represent, but they were clearly thought appropriate altar furnishings at the time of painting.
Or this piece of Last Supper tableware from the ca. 1220 German BLB Cod. Bruchsal 1, with a recognizable shape and banded coloring:
Cary pointed out that the vessels may have something to do with the Chrism (Holy Oil, also called Myron), in a metaphorical way. There are different oils for different purposes, and various oil containers were stored together in an Ambry. This reminded me of a mail Cvetka Kocjancic once sent me with similar observations, adding that Myron in the Armenian church is made with dozens of roots and herbs. There are good reasons though, why a metaphorical interpretation is to be preferred here.There are 45 containers in the small-plants section and a whopping 241 roots and other plant parts, none of which are easy to identify. Moreover, most of them appear unique within the section, so a list of recipes seems unlikely since we would expect some important ingredients to return often. While it is true that the Eastern Church currently uses a mix of over 50 ingredients in its Myron, the Catholic Church uses much simpler scented oils. The Bible itself lists no more than five ingredients: myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, cassia and the oil itself.
Cary and I still feel uncertain about this section, but if we were to speculate, we would guess that it draws from pharmacological imagery to talk about curing the soul. The source of inspiration is probably something like the Paris Nicander, a work about poison and antidotes. I wrote about this before, pointing out resemblances in layout rarely found in other manuscripts. It is hard to imagine that many of the VM’s generic drawings of roots served an actual purpose in the identification of ingredients, so these impossible to recognize pharmaceutical drawings may simply accompany a text about allegorical “spiritual ointments”. If this is true, these “recipes” are totally allegorical: they don’t represent real ingredients or real medicine for the body, but instead represent spiritual antidotes for spiritual ailments.
Just as an example of such a text, Yoshikawa (p.84) describes the popular Booke of Gostlye Grace, that talks about aromatic ointments that can be obtained by entering Christ’s heart and receiving his healing medicine. There are different ingredients, and it is instructed that the ointment be poured into one’s suffering soul. So this medicine is envisioned as something abstract rather than a real substance. But how would you draw a metaphorical “cure”? Maybe by using familiar imagery of physical cures? “Here a sense of oneness with God is imagined in terms of medical treatment by the eucharistic ointments that flow from the medicine chest of Christ’s heart.”
There may also be a link with Mary Magdalene: her colors are red (symbolizing her love for Christ) with green or blue and her attribute is an oil vessel. In medieval art, if you see a woman in red holding a container like this, you can be certain she represents the Magdalen. The VM has a love-hate relationship with red: some folios or entire sections avoid it completely, while others rely mostly on red. As Cary wrote, the color scheme for the nymphs’ clothing around the Zodiac roundels is red and green, and the same is true for many of the containers in the small-plants section. Below is a variety of Mary Magdalene illustrations:
There is some overlap between her containers and various kinds of apothecary jars, which are sometimes likened to the VM vessels. See for example this pink and green Magdalene from ONB cod. 1767 (1448).
However, apart from these possible indications, we leave all options open for this section.
To summarize everything, let us go through each section in order one more time.
Herbal section: the large plant images are traditionally known as the Herbal section, and medieval herbals are all about the medicinal properties of plants. However, we can only identify a handful of plants, even though the drawings are large and detailed. The plants contain many unnatural elements, often used differently than those found in regular herbal traditions. We are far from a complete solution for this section, but the presence of the Arma Christi and references to scenes of the Passion suggest that the concept of a florilegium – “a collection of flowers” was used literally. The word anthology, of Greek origin, means exactly the same, and encyclopedic works like the Liber Floridus use the same figurative meaning of flowers as “a collection of good things”. Instead of plants that will heal the body, we get a collection of figures that, for those who understand and contemplate them, will benefit the soul. The fact that some of the scenes referenced are acts of evil, like the betrayal of Judas, does not matter: to contemplate the suffering of Christ and all kinds of moral lessons learned from various stories was an essential part of medieval devotion, especially by the 15th century.
Following the large plants, there are fourteen circular star diagrams (Cosmological section). Given the already massive scope of this undertaking, we did not yet study these.
Zodiac section: The figures in tubs have been connected to medicine in various ways, for example as a calendar of days suitable for bathing, or as relating to the pregnancy cycle. Cary described these figures as an allegory for the soul’s desire to draw closer to Christ. Instead of cleansing the body, these figures in tubs are about the cleansing of the soul and binding it to Christ, who is represented by a star on a tether. The fact that these stars-on-stalks are reminiscent of flowers relies, just like the Herbal section, on the connection between flowers and virtue. We believe the section also draws on wedding imagery through the colors of the figures’ dress (red with accents of green), their bridal headdresses and crowns, with the intention of representing the soul as the bride of Christ. As such, the soul’s love for Christ is the central theme of this section.
There is a lot of potential for further research in this section. Cary touched on female devotion, especially that of nuns. For me personally, this was the first time I was led to consider significant female involvement in the manuscript’s origin, whether as its makers or its audience. However, caution is advised when speculating about these things; one complicating factor is the fact that the soul (anima) could be seen as female on linguistic grounds alone, and the souls of men could be cast in these feminine roles just as well as those of women. Still, I now believe further investigation into female devotion, whether in private, mystic or monastic contexts, may provide useful insights. Another possible source of clarification is to study the overt calendar aspects of this section; the most well-dressed nymphs seem to coincide with the period of movable feasts surrounding Easter, the most important part of the liturgical year, especially in the Middle Ages.
Q13: the Zodiac section is followed by that other “nymph-heavy” section, traditionally known as the balneological section (“related to the therapeutic use of baths”) or the biological section (because some early commenters recognized internal organs in a few of the drawings). In both cases, the traditional view is medical. We believe that we are instead looking at a cleansing of the soul, made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. The focus shifts from a personal bond with Christ in the Zodiac section, to a more universal “flooding of the world by his blood”. Q13a, which we did not address in this post due to its extreme complexity, deals with questions of (original) sin and redemption before the crucifixion. This is why these folios don’t rely on the “grape” motif. Q13b, then, shows the situation of the world after humanity’s bond with God had been restored. It relies on two visual metaphors: water as a source of Salvation, and grape treading as a virtuous act of imitatio Christi.
Rosettes recto: the three diagrams on the recto of the large foldout are not completely understood yet. We focused on the one with four figures in white robes to demonstrate that there are clear connections with the Eucharist.
Rosettes foldout: this folio depicts the crucial event that caused the world to go from the state of Q13a (no salvation) towards the state of Q13b. It is the culmination of God’s plan for his creation: the birth of Ecclesia from the Side Wound and its true beginning at Pentecost. It is also the culmination of the VM’s artistic plan, with a sheet that folds in two directions and nine connected circles. Each time the reader unfolds this page over his desk, he also unfolds Ecclesia over the world, since the four circles that form a Greek cross together with the larger middle circle represent the floor plan of an actual Byzantine-style church, which in turn, with its five domes, represents Heaven. Four pipes in the corners converge inwards towards the centre, from where twelve sets of pipes point outwards. In each case, the effect of the Holy Ghost is felt, who (drawing from the visual devices of wind diagrams) crashed down upon the twelve apostles like a thundering wind and sent them forth to convert the peoples of the world. Further adding to the theme of a global Church, the four cardinal directions are represented by emblems in the corners. “Light versus darkness” is another theme on this folio, with a bright dawn for Ecclesia in the east and the sun setting on the darkness of the Temple in the west.
Small plants: traditionally known as the Pharma section. It is indeed likely that these rows of plant parts placed next to vessels are meant to bring to mind pharmaceutical illustrations or practices, like those in the Paris Nicander. We did not dwell long on this section, since much of it is still unclear. Since there are some decent parallels for the vessels in devotional imagery (including the ointment vessel of Mary Magdalene), a connection to holy oils is possible. These oils are, after all, antidotes for the poison that ails sinners’ souls. But as it stands now, our thoughts about this section are still very speculative.
Q20, the last section of the Voynich, is text-only and does not concern this post, which is only about the imagery.
This post was long, about ten times as long as I usually allow them to be. I value brevity, and understand the importance of bite-sized communication in the internet age. I could have split it up in many parts, but I chose not to for the sake of coherence. If one plant refers to the Eucharist or the Passion, this may be brushed aside as a coincidence or a figment of the imagination, but if all sections appear to have emerged from the same 15th century devotional mindset, it becomes clear that more is going on. As we demonstrated, the imagery in the whole manuscript is deeply concerned with those interwoven concepts that were most important to the medieval European mind: the Easter season, Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation, his Wounds, the Eucharist, original sin and the cleansing of the soul through virtue and the love for God.
None of these things are immediately clear. Certain aspects of the visual vocabulary have become alien to us, and were already obscure by 1600. The manuscript’s first confirmed owner was Georg Baresch, an alchemist active in Prague. When he wrote to the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher about the manuscript in 1639, he had no clue what it was about. He referred to the characters of the script and images as unknown, Egyptian, exotic… while we know now that both are European – just not his European anymore. There is some irony to Baresch’s attempt to arouse Kircher’s interest in the manuscript: “it is my guess that the whole thing is medical, the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls.”
However, while a lack of familiarity with idiosyncratic 15th century forms may be a part of the problem, the average medieval European would probably still not understand much of this manuscript. While we recognize almost all of the text’s characters from “normal” scribal practices, they are employed in an unknown way, resulting in a text that we still don’t understand. The same goes for the imagery: we recognize parts of it, but those are used in novel, unrecognizable ways. One visual metaphor takes the place of an equivalent one, resulting in a strange new composition.
Why draw a whole manuscript about Jesus without drawing a single Jesus? This question will probably remain unanswered until we can read the text. We can speculate a bit though. There are other medieval works where the images suggest a “secular” content, while the text reveals the actual religious meaning. Bestiaries, for example, are ostensibly about all kinds of animals and their (often invented) habits, but the text explains how each animal and its behavior is a Christian allegory. Similarly, works like the Ovide Moralisé illustrate Ovid’s classical myths, but the text explains each story as a moral lesson. With these practices in mind, it is not unthinkable that the VM came into existence as an exercise in extreme allegory, playing around with fluid meanings and visual polysemy.
Alternatively, the makers of the MS could have had a good reason to hide its contents. Maybe they were “outsiders” (possible women) who wanted to read devotional texts that were not meant for them, because they were deemed too advanced or could lead to wrong interpretations without clerical mediation. Or maybe these texts were outright banned by the Church, making it dangerous to possess them. Things like criticizing the clergy or believing the wrong version of how exactly the host transformed into the body of Christ were enough to be branded a heretic. Again though, all of this is extremely speculative.
However, if I were pressed to explain the images of the Voynich in a sentence, this is what I would say: I believe they took imagery associated with the healing and cleansing of the body, and transformed those into an allegory for the healing and cleansing of the soul. Georg Baresch provided our earliest known opinion about the manuscript in 1639, and he thought it was medical, but did not understand it. And today in 2021, the most prominent Voynich researchers still think it is a medical compendium, and still don’t understand it. Have we been blind for four centuries? How did this happen? The only reasonable answer I can think of is that the manuscript does resemble a medical compendium, because it takes imagery from one domain – medicine – but applies it to another – the salvation of souls.
Baresch’s guess that the manuscript is concerned with medicine may not be entirely inaccurate–but the idea that medicine is a branch of learning apart from the salvation of souls may be a crucial disconnect that has persisted today. We now think of medicine in a clinical and compartmentalized way, but as it relates to the 15th century devotional mindset, medical and spiritual discourse were often intertwined. “The language of medicine is common currency in late medieval mystical writing. Just as Christ identifies himself as ‘magnus medicus’ in Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias, the analogy of Christ the Physician becomes a staple in discussing medicine for the soul, and related medical discourse frequently appears in late medieval devotional literature … Based on Hippocratic and Galenic theory, medieval medicine recommended that the best weapon against disease was a healthy system of physical and spiritual care, the ethos of which was based upon Christian morality.” (Yoshikawa, 70-71)
If there is one thing I have learned after five years of observing people who think they have solved the Voynich, it is that those who claim to know it all, actually know the least. It takes a clear mind and respect for this deceivingly difficult manuscript to separate the known from the unknown, and to recognize valid evidence as opposed to pure speculation. This post was not meant as a complete solution for the pictures in the Voynich Manuscript, and I cannot even begin to enumerate the aspects of the imagery that are still unclear. There are also a few folio types that we didn’t address at all. What we do propose, however, is a specific new framework for the study of Voynich imagery. We can explain the manuscript’s bizarre and idiosyncratic use of recognizable elements by positing that it uses genres associated with the well-being of the body to deal with the well-being of the soul. If the foul beasts of bestiaries are suitable conveyors of Christian truths, then surely the “second most beneficial branch of learning” is as well.
 The Piacenza image was impossible to find. I owe thanks to Marco Ponzi for helping me to find this video, from which I extracted and recomposed the image. He also sent me the Angelo Loda which compares the fresco to the Fons Vitae engraving.
 In short, Q13a alludes to mythological and Biblical events that happened before the Crucifixion, i.e. before salvation was possible. (The fact that people born before Christ could have lived a virtuous life but not entered heaven was a concern for medieval thinkers). Therefore, in Q13b, water originates from “grapes” (Christ) while in Q13a it does not, since the grapes of Salvation had not been pierced yet. In Q13b, water, i.e. virtue, connects the soul to Heaven, while in Q13a there is virtue without the promise of eternal bliss. Additionally, the themes treated in Q13a are typologically and eschatologically relevant to the main theme of the section, and perhaps the VM in general: Adam and Eve with the introduction of Original sin and the fall from grace (f80r, f80v) and divine mercy for sinners (Callisto and Philomela).
 The passages from the Speculum Virginum are taken from the book Holy Matter: Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity by Sara Ritchey. The title of this section comes from this article by Susan L. Smith, which mentions how the imagery of a nude female soul is somewhat related to an iconographic tradition of depicting the “disrobing” of Jesus before the Crucifixion. The pious soul is encouraged to imitate this and also to welcome suffering to become worthy of salvation. A prayer that Ludolph of Saxony recommends to his reader following his account of the Disrobing: “Jesus, you who willed that you be stripped and spoiled of garments before the cross, make me to be stripped of all earthly things, which are so inimical to my salvation, since naked I will follow him who was crucified naked and the naked cross.”
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