This post was written in collaboration with Cary Rapaport.
In our previous post, we explored a novel approach to the images of the Voynich manuscript. Our basic premise is simple: the entire manuscript treats religious themes, while at the same time avoiding overtly religious imagery. This apparent contradiction of depicting devotional matter without actually depicting it, is what makes the images so hard to understand. The VMS does not directly copy conventional Christian iconography; if that were the case it would already be easy to recognize. Yet VMS imagery appears to share visual motifs and structures associated with specific biblical narratives.
The current post is the first one in a series about the Rosettes foldout. Since several readers found our previous post too long, we plan to present our new ideas about the Rosettes in several installments. It is important to keep in mind that the current post will only present one part of the puzzle. However, we believe the evidence we will present today will already add significant new insights to our understanding of this fascinating folio.
The Rosettes Foldout as Jerusalem
There is little agreement about what this enigmatic page depicts, so it is generally referred to descriptively as “the Rosettes foldout” – after all, its main feature are its nine rosettes. Given its prominence and abundance of material, many people have come up with just as many different explanations. One hypothesis that seems to have gained some traction is that the page, more specifically the central rosette, depicts Jerusalem. This idea originates with Jürgen Wastl and Danielle Feger (2014), who base their argument on cartographical conventions in the Middle Ages, which would often place Jerusalem in the centre of the map. Essentially they see the foldout as something like a Mappa Mundi combined with representations of the elements (earth, fire, water, air and ether). Its purpose is to represent the cosmos as it was understood in medieval times.
We agree that a Jerusalem is essential for understanding this image, but a different Jerusalem. For Wastl and Feger, only the central rosette represents the Holy City, placed in the middle of the world in accordance with the mapmakers’ convention and corresponding to the fifth element, ether. It is a representation of the physical world as seen through Christian eyes. Our Jerusalem on the other hand, is not geographical, but rather biblical. It is New Jerusalem, the enormous city that descends from the sky in John of Patmos’ vision of the end times. Moreover, we think the square outer frame (and not the middle circle) represents the boundaries of the city.
The following image contrasts Wastl & Feger’s view on the left, with our view on the right:
Since the majority of our readers are not biblical scholars, we will first have a closer look at the primary text. We will then see how medieval artists tackled the task of drawing New Jerusalem, and finally compare this to the Rosettes foldout.
What does the Bible say about New Jerusalem?
“New Jerusalem” is one of the names of the city described by John in Revelation 21. This chapter of the bible is our main source for what heaven and earth are supposed to look like at the end of times. John’s vision of the city begins when it descends to earth, and an angel takes John to a vantage point on a high mountain to behold this wonder. Since we will argue that the Rosettes foldout is based on the biblical account, we must first learn what is said about the Heavenly City’s appearance. These are all physical characteristics of the city listed in Revelation:
- Rev. 21:11 “It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. […] And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”
- Rev. 21:12-21 “It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels […] the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl”
- Rev. 21:14 “And the wall of the city has twelve foundations”
- Rev. 21:16 “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width;”
- The dimensions of the walls are given. They form a cube with an equal width, length and height of 2,200 kilometers (1,400 miles). Additionally, the walls are thick: about 65 meters (200 feet). For comparison, the thickest walls ever recorded, according to Guinness World Records, were those of the ancient city of Ur: 27 meters (88 feet), made of mud brick. The walls of New Jerusalem are over twice as thick.
- Rev. 21:18-20 “The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.”
In short, the city is radiant (emits its own light) and square with abnormally huge walls. In each wall there are three gates, for a total of twelve gates. Somehow, each gate is a single pearl. It has twelve foundations, made of different types of precious stones.
How did medieval artists depict New Jerusalem?
It is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of medieval illustrations did not intend to faithfully reflect every single one of John’s specifications. After all, how do you draw a cube-shaped city with an area larger than that of the EU and with walls that are 2,200 kilometers high? For comparison, the International Space Station orbits at an altitude of 408 kilometers, so it would crash into the bottom of this wall. People who climb up only a small section of the wall, 80 kilometers above the earth’s surface, would officially be allowed to call themselves astronauts.
And how do you give this wall (that extends well into outer space) twelve gates that are each made of a single pearl?
Needless to say, even when medieval artists had the intention to stay close to the text, they had to compromise somewhere. Usually they attempted to convey the message of a divine city without worrying too much about the architectural details. Let’s have a look at some examples. We will notice that our new familiarity with the text of Revelation will help us understand what the artists were trying to accomplish. There are many ways one could classify these illustrations, but for the purpose of this post we will distinguish between side view and top-down view.
1. New Jerusalem in Side View
1. The Cloisters Apocalypse, c. 1330, France.
Our first example above includes quite a number of details from Revelation. The foundation is set with gems; there are three gates on each side; the plan is probably square. Of note in this example is that the City takes on the appearance of one big church. There is a good reason for this, but we will return to this in the second post. Notice also how the city floats on a cloud as it makes its descent to earth.
2. Apocalypse, M. 1043.2r, 1290-1299, France.
Our next artist takes a rather unique approach. He heard “square” and “precious stones”, thought “say no more!” and went to work. The city has become a square, set with twelve smaller squares representing the twelve different precious stones of the foundations. There is no sign of gates, walls or anything else.
3. Bible of Antipope Clement VII, c. 1330, Italy.
Our third example is the first one where we really get the impression of a luminous city. It is similar to a traditional medieval depiction of a city, but the walls are made of gold and studded with jewels. The holy figures within radiate light.
4. Abingdon Apocalypse, third quarter of the 13th century, England
Our next artist draws attention to the inhabitants of the city. Instead of twelve gates, there are now twelve windows, each revealing a different member of society, from soldiers to clergymen to women.
5. Codex Gigas, early 13th century, Bohemia.
The codex gigas is the largest manuscript in the world, and it contains two full-page illustrations. One is of the devil (and source of the manuscript’s reputation as “the devil’s bible”). The other, facing Satan and towering over him as a sign of hope, is of New Jerusalem. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Codex Gigas is the first manuscript in our list that tries to do justice to the city’s scale. We see enormous, thick outer walls, and in between them tiers made of orange stones, each carrying its own row of buildings. The other elements of the biblical description are not featured prominently.
With the size of the VM Rosettes foldout in mind, it is interesting to note that the biggest manuscript in the world devotes its biggest illustration to New Jerusalem.
2. Top-down Perspective
In many examples, the city is shown as if viewed from a high vantage point. John Williams (2017, p. 204) points out that this perspective is consistent with the biblical account, where “the city is seen, from a mountain great and high”. Since it also allows for the inclusion of more details, it is the natural choice for artists who wish to include as many elements from the biblical description as possible.
In the Las Huelgas Apocalypse, we see the city from above, revealing the twelve gates and the square plan. The artist leans into the symbolism of twelve by placing one of the apostles in each gate instead of an angel. Each apostle has his own unique precious stone, relieving the artist of the burden of having to draw a wall with twelve different foundations.
The illustrator of BNF NAL 1366 (above) chose a similar design. Here, the apostles are placed in roundels next to their respective gates, with each gate consisting of two double doors. The top-down view was clearly favored by artists who wanted to show the layout of the city, like a plan. While this manuscript is filled with single-page illustrations, it devotes a double page to its subject in just two cases: a Mappa mundi and New Jerusalem, the current and the new world.
2. Trinity Apocalypse, c.1250, Anglo-Norman.
The Trinity Apocalypse uses a similar plan. In the middle we see the Throne of the Lamb, the River of Life and the angel with his measuring rod. This is the first manuscript we found where the artist managed to depict twelve foundations in different materials, though it is clear that he also struggled with the concept.
3. Liber Floridus, 3rd quarter of the 13th century, France or Belgium
This version of the Liber Floridus also opts for a top-down view, but the plan is now circular. The apostles are placed in the twelve gates and surrounded by angels and church towers radiating out from the center.
All in all, it appears like artists focused on different aspects of John’s description and rarely (if ever) managed to include everything. This observation is confirmed by the literature; for example, Hana Šedinová (2000) writes that in many cases “it was up to the illuminator (or his exemplar), which details of the description of the Heavenly City caught his attention and which, on the other hand, were treated with less interest or were not treated at all.”
How does the Rosettes Foldout depict New Jerusalem?
Now that we know how standard manuscripts illustrate Revelation 21, we can turn our attention to the Voynich Manuscript. We will discuss each feature of the Heavenly City in turn, and demonstrate that the VM stays relatively close to the biblical text. Please note that we do not argue that the Rosettes foldout is only an illustration of Rev. 21. It does much more, but tackling everything at once would be too much. The current post isolates those features that correspond to the description of New Jerusalem in the bible, and the remaining aspects of the foldout will be discussed in future posts.
1. The walls form a square
There are good reasons why the city that descends from the sky in revelation is shaped like a square. It is a perfect shape and echoes the square “Holy of Holies” of the Jerusalem Temple. Still, not all artists chose to adhere to this part of the description. There are circular examples (as shown above) and John Williams (2017, p. 204) discusses a manuscript with a full-page illustration of the heavenly city that is rectangular instead. He explains that “the rectangular shape of the page clearly determined the form of its representation”. This implies that allotting as much space as possible to the City (by filling the whole page) was more important for this artist than strictly sticking to the word of the bible.
But what if the makers of the VM found a way to have their cake and eat it too? For example, by using an extra-large sheet of vellum that folds out to a square? Indeed, the Rosettes page does not only fold out horizontally (like the other foldouts in the VM) but vertically as well. If you want a page that is big and square, this is the way to go.
And while the image contains nine circles, the overall plan is square. This corresponds to Rev. 21:16 “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width;” Moreover, while the Voynich is (by all reports) a surprisingly small manuscript, its makers did include this large piece of vellum, specifically designed to fold out into a square. Not only the square shape may be of importance, but also its size. We already mentioned the full-page New Jerusalem in the Codex Gigas, but there are other manuscripts too, like the above mentioned BNF NAL 1366 that go out of their way to provide New Jerusalem with the required amount of room.
2. The walls are long, high and thick
The actual measurements of the city’s walls are not represented by any manuscript we studied (remember that its area is larger than that of the EU and its walls rise up well into outer space). One example discussed above, the Codex Gigas, did clearly attempt to convey the vast scale of New Jerusalem by placing smaller buildings on tiered walls and bracing those with even higher, thicker walls. The VM appears to do something similar; the walls surrounding the central rosette are unusually wide (red arrows below). But the houses on them are tiny (green arrows), accentuating the scale of the whole.
Below is another view, showing how the walls, marked in orange, form the square by connecting the rosettes. The tiny red dot is more than sufficient to completely cover one of the houses on the wall. These walls are huge.
This is looking good so far: our walls form a square around the foldout, and they are very large and wide.
3. The walls have twelve foundations adorned with twelve kinds of precious stones
It is clear that medieval artists struggled with the verse Rev. 21:14 “And the wall of the city has twelve foundations”. Admittedly, drawing a wall with twelve foundations is a challenge, especially if you want to show this from a top-down perspective and all around the square. Several manuscripts add a few foundations to the walls, but so far we have included only one example where there are twelve: the Trinity Apocalypse.
It employs some creative tricks to make this work. As is common in the square-plan type, the gates surround the central part of the city, where in this case God and the Lamb sit on their throne. The “walls” themselves are relatively small (the brownish sections in the image below). The foundations make up most of the walls’ height, and they consist of twelve strips of alternating colors, indicating different types of precious stones. This brings the message from the text across, but also has some inelegant consequences; for example, the foundations abruptly change from vertical to horizontal in the corners. And it seems almost impossible to draw twelve distinct foundations for a wall, without allowing those foundations to replace most of the actual wall.
We will now discuss how the Rosettes foldout uses similar strategies to show the twelve foundations, but differs in the depiction of the precious stones.
Twelve foundations and a wall
The VM attempts to include twelve foundations under the wall in some places, but (like many of the manuscripts we studied for this post) appears to struggle with perspective elsewhere. Since this is easier to show than to explain, here are some samples, starting with the clearest one.
The section of wall isolated above is located between the top left and top middle rosettes. It demonstrates what we mean when we say the artist struggled (or played around) with perspective. The whole square is presented as if we are looking straight down, but taken in isolation, each section of the foldout appears to be viewed from a different angle. It is as if we are following John’s different vantage points, observing the city from high up on a mountain and then focusing on the various aspects pointed out by his angelic guide.The image above is an example of John’s perspective, and it gives us the clearest view on the foundations under the wall. At our left side, the foundations are tightly packed and we can see all twelve. To the right, the foundations are drawn wider apart and we can see seven or eight.
While researching this part, we encountered more manuscripts that include all twelve foundations: BNF Français 13096, MS. Douce 180 and Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 401, an Apocalypse of the mid-14th century. Like the Trinity Apocalypse, they place twelve bands under the walls, but now we see the city from the side. The examples below are from MS. Bodl. 401. Note how it uses a tiered design, making each foundation slightly broader than the one on top, similar to what the VM appears to be doing.
The following image shows where foundations are visible on the Rosettes foldout (green) around the walls (orange). As you can see, all sections of wall have been drawn with some amount of foundations:
Twelve precious stones
The foundations of the walls are set with twelve different types of precious stones. Since most manuscripts omit the twelve foundations, they either omit the twelve kinds of stones, or they transpose them to a different part of the drawing. We are not entirely certain if the VM intends to depict different kinds of materials for the foundations, but there certainly is variation. Rather than assigning a type of stone to each layer (which would be closer to the text) the VM appears to show different materials in different sections.
For example, the walls on the left side of the foldout are marked with a pattern similar to the bands of stones from the Trinity Apocalypse:
We have not figured out exactly what the VM is aiming at with its different foundations, but below are some examples. Different patterns might denote different kinds of stones:
4. Twelve gates guarded by twelve angels
The walls of our city certainly do not have large, obvious gates like in most normal illustrations of Rev. 21. And there are certainly no twelve angels guarding them. For some reason, the VM decided not to include human figures on this foldout. This might be a consequence of the scale, as for example the Codex Gigas also excludes human figures. We do believe the gates themselves are present in a way, but they have been moved to the inner circle. It is similar to the Beatus manuscript discussed above, where the twelve gates are manned by the twelve apostles who each get one of the twelve precious stones. Centralizing the symbolism of “twelve” overrules the description in Revelation. We have a decent idea about why the VM places its gates in the middle, but this is beyond the scope of this post to explain. We will get back to this in the follow-up posts.
5. On Clouds
As we have mentioned before, some medieval artists depict the descending city on a cloud. A cloudy base is not literally specified in Rev. 21, but it makes sense in its biblical context. Revelation makes it clear that ascending to and descending from heaven is done by cloud-elevator.
- Rev. 10:1 And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud;
- Rev. 11:12 And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them.
In the Rosettes foldout too, the square structure appears to sit on a cloud, since a cloud-like pattern surrounds it everywhere. The image below illustrates how the VM differentiates between the wall (the top layer), its foundations and the cloud. The foundations have varying shapes and patterns, but wavy blue-and-white clouds are always present underneath.
The following image adds the clouds to our expanding overview of how the walls are structured. The walls proper are in orange, their foundations in green, clouds in blue. Notice how the clouds are always at the edge, or at the bottom from our top-down perspective.
Once we noticed how the cloud pattern is applied all around the structure in a consistent way, we realized that just like some examples in manuscript art, our New Jerusalem is also on a cloud.
6. The city emits light
An important theme in Revelation, and in the bible and Christianity in general, is light. Of the City descended from heaven, John says that it has a radiance like a rare jewel, and that the glory of God is its light. Manuscript illustrations of the city – besides those that use gold leaf – generally don’t “draw” this light or radiance. This may be for understandable practical reasons, since the only way to convey “light” on a piece of parchment is by committing to the use of patterns like rays.
The Rosettes foldout, like other pages in the VM, is clearly subject to some degree of abstraction and does not shy away from using patterns. Since we are arguing that the sections of walls in between the rosettes (which we ended up coloring like a square parrot in the image above) are meant to represent the walls of New Jerusalem, we might expect light radiating out from them. And indeed, if you select any part of the wall, you will notice that the artist has dutifully provided it with rays of light.
This “light” pattern is also present elsewhere, like in the central rosette, but for this post we are focusing on the walls. It is applied to every section of the walls, shining both inwards and outwards. Like this, our city effectively becomes a luminous, heavenly square. The image below shows the presence of the light pattern on the outside of the walls:
In this post, we have argued that one layer of meaning of the Rosettes foldout is the New Jerusalem from Revelation 21. We referred to the primary text for the properties of the City, and then compared it to illustrations from various manuscripts. These vary considerably, depending on which verses from the bible the artist focused on. In the Voynich image, some parts (like the twelve gates) are missing at first glance, but many others are present:
- The city has a square plan; some illustrations make it round or don’t specify the shape, but the VM adheres to Revelation.
- The walls are enormous; the Rosettes foldout emphasizes this more than most manuscripts by placing tiny buildings on top of the walls.
- The walls have twelve foundations; a minority of manuscripts include these, and the VM is among them, although it does not draw all twelve foundations on all sections.
- The foundations are made of twelve different precious materials; many manuscripts include precious stones or gems of some kind on the walls, but few present twelve different ones. We suspect the VM references a variety of building materials by using various patterns, but there are probably no twelve different ones.
- Revelation does not explicitly place the city on a cloud, but does describe how it descends from heaven. Therefore, some artists place the Heavenly City on a cloud. The VM appears to do the same.
- Finally, the Rosettes foldout surrounds its walls with parallel rays of light, another reference to Revelation’s radiant city.
We would like to stress one more time that this is just one part of the story. Describing the Rosettes foldout as a simple illustration of one single concept would fail to do justice to its elegant complexity and ignore its ever-shifting perspectives. Mary D’Imperio already noticed in her 1978 publication about the Voynich manuscript that its diagrams appear to combine symbols “to build up more complex symbolic statements”, and about the Rosettes foldout in particular she mentioned that “its complexity and bizarre character boggles the mind already overburdened by the ‘queerness’ to the modern eye of so much else in the manuscript.”
Because the Rosettes foldout can only be understood as a synthesis of related concepts, we have very carefully teased out one thread of its “mind-bogglingly queer” fabric: a detailed analysis of the walls brings the biblical New Jerusalem into focus. Armed with the relevant verses of Revelation 21, we have shown that the Voynich attempts to include more aspects of John’s description than the average medieval illustration does.
In our next post, to be published within the following days, we will will focus on the matter of the twelve gates, and how the Rosettes foldout reflects the significance of New Jerusalem for medieval believers.
Edit: see part two here.