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.