This post was written in collaboration with Cary Rapaport. It is part two of our series about the Rosettes foldout, and we highly recommend reading part one first.
Since the Rosettes foldout is large (six regular sheets), complex and layered in meaning, we have decided to split our analysis into several chunks that are easier to digest. To recap, the first post focused entirely on the walls connecting the eight outer rosettes. We linked them to the biblical description of New Jerusalem (Revelation 21), a city descending to earth at the End of Times. This city shares many properties with the walls of the Rosettes foldout: broad walls, a square plan, twelve foundations, made of many precious materials, luminous.
Taking the walls of New Jerusalem as our foundation, we will now add two new concepts to our interpretation. The Rosettes foldout does not simply illustrate the city, it also uses unique symbolism to include common medieval interpretations of the biblical text. Both the city and its meaning are shown.
- The Rosettes foldout depicts New Jerusalem as the worldwide Church. This was the most common interpretation of Revelation 21 since Augustine’s influential De Civitate Dei (The City of God).
- Related to the thought of the Church expanding over the world, the twelve gates of New Jerusalem are symbolically represented as the preaching of the twelve apostles.
Church, Ecclesia, New Jerusalem?
The word church and its Latin equivalent ecclesia are polysemous: they can refer to different things depending on the context. Dictionary.com gives 14 definitions for the noun church. We are interested in 1 and 3:
- a building for public Christian worship
- the whole body of Christian believers, Christendom
These can be distinguished by means of capitalization: “a church” (ecclesia) is a building, while “the Church” (Ecclesia) is a collection of people, all of Christendom. The Church as it was understood in medieval times (influenced by the Church fathers like Augustine) included all believers, from the peasant to the priest, the lifelong Catholic to the newly converted pagan.
Both the church (building) and the Church (Christendom) were understood as forms of New Jerusalem, and each of the three can stand for the others. Meyer (2003, p. 70): “The great Gothic churches of the Middle Ages are, perhaps, the most conspicuous examples of how Platonic concepts of light, image, and cosmos had evolved and were fused with the Christian concepts of history and Church. What distinguishes these edifices from other forms of medieval sacred art is that all their components – architectural design, iconographic programs, use of light and liturgies – functioned together to an extraordinary degree to create, in so far as it was possible, an earthly representation of the New Jerusalem.”
Wilson (1990) writes that “every medieval church was an evocation of the heavenly Jerusalem, the abode of the saved to be established after the completion of the Last Judgment (Revelation, chapters 21 and 22). That this was the primary meaning of church buildings is clear from the service for their consecration, where frequent allusions are made to St John’s vision.” This relationship between the church and New Jerusalem became especially clear when new buildings were consecrated. Meyer (2003 p. 81-82): “The chief theme that recurs throughout the liturgy for the feast of the dedication is the concept of the church building as a figure of the New Jerusalem. […] This image of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven before John’s eyes and placed so prominently near the start of the liturgy, immediately introduces the symbolic relation between the Heavenly Jerusalem and earthly church. This chapter from Revelation served as a standard reading in virtually all consecration rites and feasts for the dedication during the Middle Ages and continues to be central to dedication ceremonies today.”
The close correspondence of ecclesia, Ecclesia and New Jerusalem often shines through in manuscript art. BNF fr. 13096 (14th century, French) shows New Jerusalem as a church, where the Church convenes to praise the Lamb. Note the design of this building, with four spires surrounding a larger central one. As we will see, this type of church with a central focal point lends itself especially well to comparison with New Jerusalem, with its square plan and the altar of the Lamb in the middle.
The Rosettes Foldout as a church (building)
In our post “An Allegory of Salvation: Finding Jesus in the Voynich Manuscript”, we started exploring how all sections of the VM might be constructed as Christian allegories. In the half year that followed this publication, we spent most of our research time on the Rosettes foldout. As a result, most of what we wrote there has now been refined or changed altogether. Originally, the New Jerusalem from Revelation 21 was entirely absent, while we now think this is one of the clearest religious components of the foldout. We shifted our perspective from the birth of the Church to the journey of the Church towards the end of time.
One idea that remained the same is how the Rosettes foldout corresponds to the square plan of a Byzantine-style church with a large central dome surrounded by four smaller domes. This is especially clear because three of the four rosettes that connect directly to the central one have strong architectural components. In addition to canopy or dome-like structures (as seen from a bird’s-eye perspective), other motifs resemble architectural pillars and archways. Among the examples of such churches we provided were the San Marco basilica in Venice and the cathedral of Périgueux (France).
The fact that the plan of the Rosettes foldout has much in common with that of a centrally planned domed church makes sense in the light of the biblical New Jerusalem. The city described in Revelation is also square, centrally planned and likened to a church. Therefore, the architectural elements in some of the rosettes can simply be explained as complementary to the properties of the walls. Together they form the city-church that will descend to earth at the end of days.
However, limiting ourselves to a literal-architectural view would not do justice to the complexity of this foldout. For example, each of the four surrounding “domes” is different, and the one on the right is the only one that does not look like a roof or canopy. These differences will be discussed in a future post about typology. Additionally, the other four corner Rosettes include detailed imagery that can also be examined in a typological context. For now, we will direct our attention towards the central rosette and the relationship between Ecclesia and the end times.
The Worldwide Church, and why there are no Gates
In our previous post, we noticed that the Rosettes foldout includes more details of the biblical description of New Jerusalem than the average manuscripts. One essential part appeared to be missing though: the twelve gates. We will argue that the Rosettes foldout draws these gates as twelve clusters of “tubes” or “towers”around the central rosette, and it has good reasons to do so.
Apostles in the gates
Revelation 21 describes New Jerusalem as a square city with twelve gates in the walls, three on each side. These gates bear the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and are manned by angels, not the apostles. Yet we see that a wide variety of manuscript art does place the twelve apostles in the gates. Below are some examples of apostle-heavy New Jerusalems:
The text of Revelation itself describes the twelve gates in language that suggests a multi-layered interpretation: “The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl.” (Rev. 21:21) It’s not clear how gates can also be pearls, but as we can see, medieval illustrators chose varied ways of interpreting these descriptions. The gates were not always pictured literally, nor were they always placed on the outer walls in groups of three.
An especially relevant depiction of the Heavenly City is found in BNF lat 8865, a 13th century copy of the Liber Floridus, pictured below. The apostles’ gates are arranged in a circular plan, and church towers point outward in all directions in a way that is reminiscent of the triangular “spires” around the central rosette.
In summary, even though Revelation associates the twelve gates with the tribes of Israel and the names of the apostles are only inscribed on the twelve foundations, diverse medieval traditions do place the apostles within the gates. This includes influential works like the Beatus tradition. Why did they do this? Well, to a medieval viewer, replacing the tribes of Israel with the apostles would have made perfect sense, since they are typologically related. The twelve tribes of Israel are a type (foreshadowing) of the dispersion of the apostles. This typological connection will be the focus of the fourth post in this series. For now it is sufficient to understand that in the medieval mind, the equation of the apostles with the twelve gates of New Jerusalem was a logical one.
Hana Šedinová (2000, p.39) describes the relation between New Jerusalem, the gates, the Church and the apostles as follows: “The City is also an image of the Church and its members […]. The twelve gates of Heavenly Jerusalem are of twelve pearls; these pearls are Christ’s beloved, His disciples, the apostles who set an example and by their virtues show the way into the Heavenly Kingdom to the other believers. As Christ is a gate, so are they, since it is thanks to them the believers may learn about Christ’s message and enter the faith; […] According to some medieval commentaries, the angels [at the twelve gates] are the symbol of the apostles and their followers, i.e. other preachers;”
It is no coincidence that depictions of New Jerusalem like in the Liber Floridus pictured above, bring to mind traditional representations of Pentecost. Because it was after Pentecost that the apostles spread out to preach in all the corners of the world (just like New Jerusalem has gates on all four sides), thereby establishing the worldwide church. The connection to Revelation is simple: the Lamb will descend to marry his bride, the Church. Without the apostles’ preaching, the Church would not have been established and there would be no salvation at the End of Days.
In Acts 2, we learn that Pentecost allowed the apostles to communicate with every person, who heard them in his own language. Augustine wrote that before Pentecost, “the Church was not yet spread out through the circle of lands” but afterwards, “the Church was about to be in every language” (source). This thought is clearly present in the Dome of the Pentecost of the San Marco Basilica (Venice) pictured above. The apostles almost appear to radiate out from the central point of origin (in the bible this would be the “old”, worldly Jerusalem), placing them closer to the various people. Or as Augustine would put it, we see the Church spreading out through the circle of lands. This explains why some depictions of New Jerusalem, like the one from Liber Floridus pictured above, abound with church towers: New Jerusalem is the worldwide Church, which is a collection of church buildings.
How many languages would the apostles speak if they spoke every language of the world? To know this, we must travel back in time to the construction of the tower of Babel. A united human race decided (in a classical display of hubris) that it would be a good idea to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God did not appreciate these efforts, and came up with a creative punishment: he confounded humanity’s speech and scattered the various peoples across the world. The events at Babel caused the previously unified mankind to become fractured and unable to understand each other. The bible does not mention how many languages were created, but church fathers like Augustine and Isidore deduced that there must have been 72. It was assumed that one would have to learn seventy-two languages to be able to communicate with people from every nation.
There are twelve clusters of six “towers” or “pipes” around the central rosette, pointing outwards much like the gates of New Jerusalem or the apostles radiate out to bring the Church to the “circle of lands”. This arrangement in twelve groups of six allows the total number to be counted at a glance: seventy-two. There are 12×6=72 pipes around the central rosette, so that the number of apostles and the total number of languages are both included. In Luke 10, a chapter with Apocalyptic overtones, Jesus sends out 72 preachers to various places, another direct link between the number 72 and the spreading of the faith.
The question remains why these twelve clusters of six objects, which would symbolize the apostles’ spreading the word of God to all nations, take this particular cylindrical shape. Are we to read them as towers, part of the architecture of New Jerusalem? This is a possibility, but the blackened tops seem to suggest that we are looking at hollow pipes of some sort. Their varying height and thickness might bring to mind the pipes of a pipe organ, an instrument often associated with religious devotion.
For example, Revelation 15 mentions people praising the lord with harps and song: “They held harps given them by God and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb: Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations.” and so on. Pipe organs are not mentioned in the bible, but they seemed like an obvious choice for medieval illustrators, likely due to the instrument’s use in church services.
In addition to the use of wind instruments in the church, the human voice could be likened to an instrument too, when it was used to spread the word of God: Clement of Alexandria, another influential Church father wrote, “The Lord made man a beautiful breathing instrument after his own image; certainly he is himself an all-harmonious instrument of God, well-tuned and holy, the transcendental wisdom, the heavenly Word.” Hence, a case could be made to read the 72 pipes in the VM as organ pipes, each one a voice spreading the word of God to every corner of the earth.
And what about those triangular objects in between the pipe clusters? They too might have an architectural as well as a spiritual meaning. At a glance, it is tempting to interpret these as some kind of flames. This would be consistent with Pentecostal symbolism and the fire of the Holy Spirit. It filled the apostles with the courage to start preaching and, in a broader sense, cleanses the world of sin through the Church. It would also be consistent with a reference to a “wall of fire” that surrounds Jerusalem, described in Zechariah 2:5, where it symbolically represents God’s divine protection of the city. Since the concept of New Jerusalem was informed by past, present and future versions of the Holy City, such descriptions from sources besides Revelation may be relevant.
Besides the flames of Pentecost, we can also view these triangles as physical structures. Evidence for this view is conveniently provided by the Rosettes foldout itself, where similar spires can be seen on top of actual buildings. This is another point where Church, church and the End Times meet.
The triangles surrounding the central rosette are similar in size, shape and color to the spires of nearby buildings.
If it was indeed the intention to draw shapes that could be read as both flames and church spires, then this was executed successfully. The central rosette is surrounded by the uniform flames of the Holy Spirit, which inspired the apostles and their followers to establish the worldwide Church. By the End of Times, the Church expands to all the corners of the earth, represented here by literal church spires.
The meaning of four
Even though the diagram on the Rosettes foldout is built up of nine rosettes, the number four appears to lie at the basis of its overall structure. Four rosettes connect directly to the center by four triangular structures. Four rosettes occupy the corners. Four pipe-like structures point inward. Four smaller items are placed in the outer corners. Not to mention the fact that the whole diagram is shaped like a square, the most four-ish of shapes.
The number four is used symbolically all throughout Revelation, and its meaning is clear: four is the number of the world. Take Rev. 7:1 as an example: “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth”. The emphasis on the cardinal directions and the square shape of New Jerusalem must be seen in the same context.
A famous example in Western art is the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, which to the best of our knowledge was painted around the same time the VM was produced. It “represents a foreshadowing of the New Jerusalem, with all peoples and nations flocking towards the Lamb (Christ) at the centre of the panel. As in the Angers tapestry [*], the paradisial, horticultural aspect of the New Jerusalem is foregrounded” (source). Here, too, the number four encompasses the whole of humanity, of the world, of the Church. It is all-encompassing.
The urban aspect is reduced to the background, making room for a New Jerusalem as a return to the blessed state of Eden. The focus is on the faithful (Ecclesia) who gather from the four corners of the earth to worship at the Altar of the Lamb. The River of Life gets a central spot as well, in the form of an octagonal basin.
To summarize this post, we can say that the Rosettes foldout emphasizes the relation between New Jerusalem and the worldwide Church. This is consistent with the dominant 15th century view on Revelation 21. We especially notice the influence of Augustine, who “shaped Latin Christianity in a way surpassed only by Scripture itself.” The title of his De Civitate Dei can be understood as “city of God”, but also as “society of God”, an ambiguity that reflects his theological views: the Church and Heavenly Jerusalem are one and the same, the bride of the Lamb.
The Rosettes foldout appears to illustrate this idea, expressing church, Ecclesia and New Jerusalem in one and the same image. It goes beyond the mere illustration of New Jerusalem, and as such can perhaps be better understood as a commentary on Revelation, incorporating related themes like Church and Pentecost. We will take this idea of a diagrammatic commentary on Revelation one step further in the next post, which will focus on some individual roundels.
Most sources are linked directly. In addition, we refer to:
Ann R. Meyer, Medieval Allegory and the Building of the New Jerusalem. Woodbridge, Eng., and Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 2003.
Hana Šedinová, The Precious Stones of Heavenly Jerusalem in the Medieval Book Illustration and Their Comparison with the Wall Incrustation in St. Wenceslas Chapel. In: Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 21, No. 41 (2000).
Christopher Wilson, The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church, 1130-1530. Thames and Hudson, 1990.
[*] The Angers Apocalypse tapestry referred to here is a large 14th century tapestry with many scenes from Revelation. One depiction of New Jerusalem shows a generic medieval city descending from the sky. Another is closer to the Eyckian version, including the Lamb, nature, the River of Life and the faithful. In reaction to our first post in this series, cloudband aficionado R. Sale pointed out their stylistic similarities to the cloudbands in the Rosettes foldout.
Nice work, Koen. I look forward to your planned future essays as well.
I can easily be convinced of the Ecclesia/New Jerusalem/World hypothesis in relation to the Rosettes page, but not so much the physical church layout. If churches were sometimes designed with the New Jerusalem concept in mind, could it not be merely a superficial and coincidental similarity between church design and the Rosettes page, and therefore not something the author consciously intended when creating his/her vision of New Jerusalem/World? I am yet to be convinced, but perhaps your other essays will make the comparison clearer.
One exception: fire vs church spires. One and the same conceptually- fire represents mind/spirit, as does the steeple/spire.
In line with your association of 72 with breath speech – the 72 names of God should be mentioned here. Those pipes most resemble cannons, which they had at that time. Cannons shoot outwards. I do still visualize the outer spheres as components of the inner, so nothing to my mind is getting shot at them. Remove them. The 72 names are directed at the outer margins, the most sacred realm of God and Matter. Fundamentals of Kabbalah and theurgy.
I do believe Revelations is a key text (along with Genesis). Your choice to use Revelations as a title is apt, as I would have been confused if you had used Apocalypse; that said, if medieval people used Apocalypse it is perhaps more evocative of how they thought of that scripture, and could shed light on what the author might be doing with Greek Orthodox crosses topping Muslim minarets with many feet in a New Jerusalem.
To me, this text could easily be part of a long tradition of alchemical prophetic texts predicting the Apocalypse. 1420. The western schism. Council of Constance. Hereticism. Calls for crusade against spreading Islam. Constantinople hasn’t yet fallen, but most ofTurkey has, as have most of the seven main traditional Catholic Church centres, such as Alexandria, Actium, etc.
The alchemical Book of the Holy Trinity is prophetic of the End Days, partisan against the Pope, written between 1417 and 1420, presented to the Holy Roman Emperor at the Council of Constance, and thought to be thinly veiled propaganda for the Emperor to mount another crusade to save Constantinople and Jerusalem from the Muslims, under the guise of alchemy and formulating the Elixir of Life, imaged as Christ’s blood/wine of the Eucharist.
Interestingly, right to the moment they were overrun, Western Catholic and Greek Orthodox people believed Constantinople would prevail over the Muslims. IC XC NIKA. Christ Conquers.
Rather apt in light of Greek crosses prevailing over Muslim domes. New Jerusalem as prophetic idea and concept, grounded in true or imagined reality.
I think if we are to assume Western creation of the VMS, as well as a Christian component, particularly “Ecclesia” and a New Jerusalem, then the carbon mid-date range circa 1420, puts the VMS squarely in the middle of the most talked about, biggest controversy, most important event of Christendom – the Council of Constance, huge gathering of nobles, churchmen/women, heretics, scribes, bibliophiles, and spies. Where the most controversial issue, aside from mending the papal schism, is extending the Eucharist as wine as well as bread to the common people – highlighting this because of your former essay – and Jon Huss is executed for this “heretical” idea. Info-gathering, knowledge exchange, a giant book fair. It would not surprise me if our VMS author/s were there, or at least addressing the Council in some way in the VMS.
Those outer lines on the paths: I don’t see rays of light. I thought hatching, but perhaps illustrators didn’t “hatch”, lol. at that time.
I think your perspective on the rosettes page design is right on in terms of how to look at it. Stand it up. One thing I would add from my Christian/Aristotelian/hermetic POV, and also derived from what to learn from your Ovid essays. Metamorphosis and movement. Crank those wheels, flowers, elements. We are looking at systems of movement: wheels of fortune, seasons, cycles of life, soul, etc.
I really wish whoever devised the opening credits video for Game of Thrones would do a treatment of the Rosettes page.
Hi Barbara, and thank you for your comment! I am so sorry, it ended up in the spam folder so I am only seeing it now. We clearly agree on a lot of points here.
It is interesting that you mention Kabbalah and the 72 names of God. Cary and I have also been talking about this possibility, but left it aside since we find the subject very difficult to navigate. It started when Cary found this document: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=or_6465_f001r
One of the central circles (Tiferet) has twelve clusters of six towers around it. We haven’t found out yet if these relate to the names of God or something else though. And since the document is really late for the VM, we didn’t pursue this angle any further.
without prejudice and purely in regard to your theory as outlined in the post above – you may find interesting some of the illustrations that were included in a paper published (quite some time ago) in the Journal for the History of Astronomy. I recall the images well and that one of the authors was David A.King. I believe it may have been the following paper, whose details I have today from a Bibliography that King has published online.
Gerald S. Hawkins & David A. King, “On the astronomical orientation of the Kaaba”, Journal for the History of Astronomy13 (1982), pp. 102-109, reprinted in Astronomy in the Service of Islam, XII (the first announcement, based on investigations of satellite images by GSH & and [of] medieval Arabic texts on folk astronomy by DAK).
I have already read the first part of the Jerusalem post. I would like to ask you some questions about your interpretation of the foldout.
Based on the idea of the manuscript as a whole whose parts are closely (and apparently) interconnected:
Have you established a relation between the bulk of the manuscript and the Jerusalem city?
If so, why would the author(s) encode the manuscript? Unless the author were a Hussite or any other protestant reformer fearing to be pursued, to encode a text containing Christian topics seems a bit convoluted, or so I think.
If the foldout depicts Jerusalem and the worldwide church, why does the manuscript lack Christian symbols? Certainly, there are symbols but they do not seem clearly to belong in the Christian iconography, except for the cross held by a nymph.
Thanks in advance.
Hi Carmen, thanks for your questions.
We don’t really know how all parts of the manuscript are connected thematically, but this goes for anyone’s hypothesis. A second manuscript that combines all sections from the VM simply does not exist. So by definition – until the script is understood – we have to enter the realm of hypothesis to explain the selection and connection of its parts.
One possible way the plants connect to New Jerusalem is if we take into account the “return to Eden” interpretation that was on the rise in the 15th century. This is one of the reasons why I included references to the Angers tapestry and the Ghent Altarpiece. Art historians have identified over 70 different species of flowers, herbs and trees in Van Eyck’s painting. So one possibility is that the VM also wanted to draw plants in this context, but also wanted to infuse them with additional meanings.
As to why the imagery is obscured, this is of course the big question. One thing we mustn’t forget is that the VM’s text is obscured as well, so there is no reason to expect that the imagery speaks plainly. The manuscript that perhaps most resembles this aspect of the VM is the Rohonc codex, which appears to be about Christian themes. We also don’t know why its text is obscured and its imagery unconventional. (Although the Rohonc is later than the VM and apparently of more dubious authenticity, so I’m not sure how strong this argument is).
I see two possible types of reasons why one would obscure a Christian text. One is intellectual: Augustine himself praised obscurity, in the sense that discovering the true meaning of an obscure text (like the bible itself) could be a source of intellectual gratification. The tradition of “mnemonic bibles” must be understood in the same light: it assumes that the reader is already familiar with the text of the bible, and offers a deeper, more challenging way to interact with it. The point is that obscurity in itself could be seen as a virtue, and the game of figuring out the hidden meaning a rewarding one.
The above is my personal favorite hypothesis, but like any hypothesis about “why is the VM the way it is”, it cannot be proven yet. I would not initially look towards protestant reformers, as you say, because I also see nothing specifically pointing in that direction. Still, I would leave open “a different faith” as a second option. If the makers of the VM were for example recent converts to Christianity who still acted within their original environment .For example, Jews who wanted to study Christian texts but were still living in Jewish communities. In some Jewish circles, it was even frowned upon to read books written in Latin script.
Again though, this is all hypothesis, but the same is true for any attempt to explain why this book is the way it is. But there are two different scenarios I find acceptable: either most references to Christianity are hidden as a form of intellectual challenge, or they are hidden because it was deemed inappropriate for the makers to read Christian texts and posses Christian imagery.
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Thanks for the questions and to add to what Koen said, I wanted to add a third possibility of what could possibly be a reason for encoding text containing Christian topics. Instead of obscuring the text and imagery for intellectual gratification or for protection from persecution, could a third reason be to conceal information of a religious or ritual nature that was deemed exclusive to only certain members of a religious group? (That group being a religious order/sect/cult/whatever it may be…) Instead of their main motivation being fear of persecution (although that could have been an additional factor), they wanted to keep certain information exclusive to a select few members of a group. Perhaps to keep out the uninitiated.
There could also be some combination of these reasons and not just one by itself. But I only throw this out there as a possibility; it may not be the most likely. And I remain open to all possibilities.
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Thank you, Cary! ☺️
I do really think we can interpret the Voynich imagery as an idiosyncratic or philosophical system. Nihil novum sub sole…since D’Imperio and Zandbergen had already noticed that. I strongly believe there is a specific bond connecting all the quires. Although we know nothing of what it says, we can guess what it means.
Hi Cary. As a Hermeticist who has completed the three degrees of Freemasonry, I second your third option. =D
Esoteric religion, where another whole way of seeing oneself, the world, and one’s place in the world is revealed in a stepwise fashion from master to voluntary student, has been a thing at least as long as exoteric religion (the outward-facing, social and political face of a people’s faith tradition). While ritual gatherings and moral codes arguably are for everyone, mysticism, spirituality, and master-to-apprentice relationships are definitely not everyone’s cup of joe. Plus as any fan of mystery stories knows, the pacing and order in which pieces of information are revealed is an important part of the impact the story makes on the audience.
I haven’t been actively involved in my lodge for some years now, but in the Masonic lodges one finds books with scripts for all of the degrees and rituals of Freemasonry. These are in the form of plays and dialogues. A Mason earns each of the three degrees, in order, by memorizing, practicing, and performing the central role in these plays. This tradition of “morality plays”, of people acting out stories from mythology to prove a point, is a tradition well documented in the world of Classical Antiquity, and was used in both exoteric pagan religion (public performances on feast days), and in the esoteric Mystery Schools.
But these Masonic script books are lightly encrypted, substituting a set of maybe 100~300 simple pictograms / logograms for most of the important words. To a candidate who duly memorized and practiced the degree at any point, e scripts are helpful and easy to use mnemonics. But to anyone who hadn’t, they don’t mean much, and are not at all intuitive. It’s a simple way of making information accessible to those who have earned it, but withholding it from those who have not. I tried to locate one of these books or something like it when Shannon entropy of different kinds of information specimens was a hot topic over at Voynich.ninja, but I didn’t have much luck, and stopped because I try to be a man of my word, and didn’t feel right sharing this information that I kind of promised my Brothers I wouldn’t share.
Letting my imagination run with this for a second, this might make an interesting explanation for the transition from Currier A to Currier B. Perhaps learning and/or decoding Voynichese was the challenge needed to earn one’s degrees in this fraternal order, and the code got harder and more complex with each degree.
Thanks for your comment, I didn’t see it before. As you say, there is an established structure for learning certain esoteric religions where information is presented/revealed in a series of stages, and only those who complete the required training have access to advanced levels of information. I appreciate your perspective from your own first-hand experience of how this works in Freemasonry.
Similarly, there are hierarchies of learning within many if not most religious traditions. Even comparing this to known aspects of medieval Christianity, there were certain rites that only priests were permitted to perform, etc.
Your speculation about Currier A and Currier B brings up an important point: the question of multiple scribes must be considered when speculating about any of the possible scenarios of why someone might obscure Christian text/imagery. Did a group of people share an interest in obscuring a text for the intellectual challenge of it? Or did a group of people fear persecution? Or did scribes want to conceal information because it was restricted to certain levels of initiation within some group? And if multiple people could write/understand Voynichese, there is a question of who was teaching and who was learning. The recent research by Lisa Fagin Davis about multiple scribal hands beyond just Currier A and B, also raises more questions about the nature of the relationship of a group of scribes.
Hi Cary. I’ve read Lisa Fagin-Davis’s paper arguing for five scribes — absolutely game-changing scholarship as far as I’m concerned. Before this paper, the idea that the VMs was entirely the work of a single person held a lot of currency. This possibility opened up some rather grim prospects for anyone ever pulling any meaning out of it. Before Prof Fagin-Davis published her work, I used to see a lot of speculation about the VMs being either a piece of outsider art by someone profoundly socially isolated, or a very dedicated forger.
In my judgement, strong evidence that the codex was more likely to have been written by a small group of people than a solitary individual, renders both of these scenarios less likely. Outsider art is not made by groups of people, and doesn’t usually have enough artistic merit or sentimental value for others to want to copy it. And in the case of forgery/ con job, involving more than one person in the creation of a fake is bad op-sec.
On the flip side, evidence of more than one person writing Voynichese raises the likelihood of communication of information between humans having been a design consideration. In other words, Voynichese could potentially have been used by one person to store information which could be reliably retrieved by any other person who knew Voynichese. Contrast this with writing designed more for use as a part of mystical practice, such as angelic alphabets, sigils, and automatic writing. Contrast it also with idiosyncratic forms of shorthand for note taking, which usually prioritize some mixture of speed, brevity, and privacy, at the expense of being meaningless to anyone but the writer.
Simply put, if Voynichese is a system designed, understood, and used by only a single person, then regardless of what it meant to that person, the meaning is likely irretrievable now. But now that singlehandedness is a harder position to defend, the odds are better that the system features a consistent relationship of signifier-to-signified.
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Hi Koen. Thanks for your answer.
You said “by definition – until the script is understood – we have to enter the realm of hypothesis to explain the selection and connection of its parts.”.
This made me think about prehistoric images when writing had not been invented yet. You know, we see different drawings on the walls of a cave: hands, tiny human figures, bisons, horses or even abstract symbols which suspiciously conjure up sounds. Based on your words, then we would never be able to interpret those drawings since writing did not exist at prehistoric times.
I know it is somehow risky to interpret Voynich drawings and all the imagery, but is it realistic to wait for our understanding of the whole text?
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Your comparison with prehistoric art is an interesting one. When you really dig into the literature, you will see that most of what we think we understand is speculation, and many conflicting views exist among specialists. (You can also compare this to the many unknowns and “maybes” surrounding Stonehenge for example). To get an idea about the difficulties of interpreting prehistoric art, check this wiki for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotta_dell%27Addaura?wprov=sfla1
In my ideal VM solution scenario, our understanding of the images and the text will take alternating steps. Maybe we can understand enough of the images to point us to a more specific cultural background, which may have implications for the text, which may teach us more about the images and so on. So far, neither images nor text have given us enough to increase our understanding of the other.
I happen to think Carmen might be onto something.
It’s probably nothing, Koen, but playing around with the mysterious words on f116v, one possibility I stumbled upon for the word after EVA [aror sheey] is “valden”, as a possible reference to the Waldensians. They’re a proto-Protestant sect founded in the X century by Peter Waldo, with likely influence from the Cathars and other heretical Gnostic sects. They were condemned by the Catholic Church at the time the VMs was written, and persecution against them was starting to ramp up. They were also most active in… of all places… the Piedmont and Alpine regions bordering present day Italy and Germany. This geographical area comes up time and again with VMs investigations. The Waldensians were eventually absorbed by Calvinist / Reformed Protestantism, and they comprise a tiny “model minority” in Italy today, overrepresented among Italy’s highly educated and highly accomplished.
The Waldensians, originally called the Poor of Lyon, were heavily involved in ministering to the poor. They were Promethian and populist in their approach to spirituality. They believed that all believers could preach the message of Jesus, without any need for the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. This earned them the ire of the Church, of course, who wanted a monopoly on people’s relationship with God. For these reasons, Waldensians often congregated, prayed, and planned their charitable works in secret.
It would take a lot more evidence than crypto-Christian imagery and one poorly-written word to definitively connect the VMs with a XV century Waldensian community. But it would fit historically. The time and place are correct, as is the motive of an encrypted Christian-themed book from within Christendom. It could be a Waldensian catechism, missionary’s notebook, or a community’s meeting minutes and log book, disguised as a foreign book of knowledge.
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Yeah, I guess it is possible. I actually think our default assumption should be that the VM images are somehow obscured, that they don’t speak plainly. After all, if there was a reason to obscure the text, why would “what you see is what you get” apply to the images? It would be like going out in public with a shirt on but no pants, like Donald Duck.
People seem to think that taking the images at face value is the prudent thing to do, and everything else is speculation. I would argue that a symbolic/metaphorical interpretation of the imagery should be our default hypothesis, since the text is obscured, so straightforward imagery would make no sense. Moreover, we know that something like this would be possible in the medieval mindset, they could see everything as an expression of Christian truths. Bestiaries, for example, would certainly have provided entertainment with their depictions of wild beasts, but their text is all about how the message of the bible is found in nature.
In the context of prosecuted religious groups, there is an additional motivating factor to obscure the imagery, because pairing recognizable religious images with an enciphered text would be dangerous. Imagine being suspected of heresy, and they find an enciphered manuscript in your possession with overt religious illustrations. That’s a one way ticket to the stake. However, if you could say that you obtained a medicinal compendium from a foreign traveler, you might get away with it.
Proving authorial intent — even for a work whose author who is living and available for interview — is notoriously difficult. This is why commentary on written works and other art forms often involves longstanding and spirited debate: Did the author explicitly intend to make the point we’re getting, or was this an unintentional side product of his subconscious, the cultural milieu in which he worked, and the way we beholders remember that cultural milieu?
With that in mind, I think you’ve made a reasonable case, both on your blog and on Voynich.ninja, that the author(s) of the Voynich Manuscript deliberately intended to hide information. Short of cracking the code or unearthing other documents related to it, I don’t think this is provable definitively. But I think you’ve established that it’s a highly reasonable, even likely, assumption to work from.
I think you’ve also made a convincing case for the VMS’s imagery containing references to Christianity, for the simple reason that for most medieval Europeans, everything was connected with Christianity in some way. It was a thing’s connectability to Christian belief and practice that leant it legitimacy, in many cases.
What remains to be established, though, is what role these Christian references play in conveying the book’s hidden message. Because they seem to be identifiable in much of the manuscript’s imagery, it’s tantalizing to think that the book’s main hidden message and use is indeed a Christian one. It’s fun to imagine secret heretical sects, or undercover Christians traveling in places hostile to Christianity. But I think it’s just as possible that the Christian references play merely a supporting role, as a common cultural touchstone for drawing analogies, illustrating abstract concepts, or constructing mnemonics. In other words, the manuscript could simply be drawing on an assumed understanding of Christian concepts among the intended audience, to make an entirely unrelated (and hidden) point.
For a more modern example of what I mean, a lot of Russian gangsters get tattoos with overtly Russian Orthodox or Leninist themes. But the details of the iconography have hidden meanings within the Russian mafia, related to the bearer’s criminal history. In this way, a Russian gangster’s tattoos serve as his curriculum vitae in the criminal underworld. But anyone not a part of that world who saw those tattoos, would likely assume they were primarily devotional. They’d be forgiven for assuming that, but they’d be wrong. On the contrary, in becoming a made man (“vor v zakonye”), a Russian mafioso permanently renounces all loyalty to any legal and legitimate human institution. Any who break this and go to the government, the church, or a legal business for any kind of help, is marked for death as a bitch (“suka”).
Hi David, this comment was also swallowed whole by the spam filter. Thank you for your encouraging words. I am always afraid of crossing the line between “reasonable assumptions” and “fullblown VM theorist” without being aware of it myself. So it is good to see that it makes sense to others too. Of course, working together with Cary and being critical of each other’s ideas helps a lot here.
You are right, it is tempting to assume the Christian themes are the main “purpose” of the work, but as you say we cannot yet be sure. We are definitely only scratching the surface though. I just posted a ca. 3500 word essay on one rosette alone, and all of this took a lot of preparation. About just part of one folio. So maybe, hopefully, if more aspects of the programme become clear, we may start to understand the purpose better.
There is a second cross to be found in the ceiling of f75v. Two crosses fulfill the pairing paradigm.
The red hats and blue stripes of VMs White Aries, as examples of ecclesiastical and armorial heraldry indicate a connection to church tradition.
Hi R. Sale,
The detail you mention in the ceiling/canopy of f75v is an interesting comparison to the Rosettes since it’s exactly the same kind of shape that tops the six objects in the center rosette. Since these shapes are kind of rounded on the sides, I thought they looked more like finials, with a three-dimensional round part in the middle and a cone-shaped spire on top. If they are meant to be crosses, it’s an ambiguous way to draw them, but maybe the ambiguity is intentional.
They also resemble the shape of ciboriums, like this one:
Interestingly the description of this c.1400s ciborium describes the conical finial as imitating the spire of a church.
Sorry if this sounds spoil-sport ‘ish but as simple matter of fact, the item held in the nymph’s hand on folio 79v wasn’t meant for a Christian cross. If you look at it close to, you see that one arm has a socket drawn at its outer end, and an object inserted in it. Due to wear and tear, or perhaps some mistaken effort to ‘fix’ it, some of the ink is worn away, but the shape is still perfectly clear. Actually, it was Ellie Velinska (if I recall) who used this detail to try and argue for a Christian interpretation. It was as a result of that debate that it came to be pretty well agreed that apart from a couple of obviously late additions (like the cross on a Byzantine-style crown), there is are no elements of purely Christian iconography in the Vms. This is the position which you, Koen, and Cary, are now arguing against – which is fine. But the ‘nymph’ on folio 79v has quite another explanation. Cheers.