The Rosettes foldout is a complex, multi-facetted composition, and when we started researching it in-depth, we soon realized we would require more than one post to explain our findings. The overarching thought is that the foldout can be read as a schematic commentary on the book of Revelation and its theological implications.
- Part one demonstrates that the walls connecting the rosettes and forming a square, have a lot in common with the description of New Jerusalem, the Heavenly city, in Revelation 21
- Part two shows how the traditional theological interpretation of Rev. 21 is integrated into the folio. Following Augustine’s City of God, New Jerusalem was equated with the worldwide Church, the faithful followers of Christ. Visual references to Pentecost (the birth of the Church) and the importance of the number four as the “number of the world” underline this connection.
Part three will continue this line of investigation by focusing on one of the clearest references to Revelation on the foldout: the top right rosette as a reference to Rev. 6.
A destructive spiral
Let us first have a look at this rosette and its elements.
It contains four distinct buildings, including the “castle”, one of the Voynich manuscript’s most iconic drawings. The identity of this building has not yet been determined with certainty. Is it really a castle, or a whole city, or a different type of building like a city hall? Does it refer to an existing building or is it a more generic reference? Whatever may be the case, it most probably indicates a seat of worldly power, a sign of the ruling class and its wealth. The position of the castle, and all elements around it, is confusing, and the stars lie at its feet instead of above its head.
In fact, the whole composition appears distorted and displaced, all elements spiraling out of their natural order. Giant waves (?) move left and right, the wall twists along with the swirling movement, buildings don’t quite seem to understand where the ground is. The starry sky, which is also kind of the ground (?) is dominated by a central spiral of text.
In short, we have catastrophic forces of nature, strangely behaved buildings, strangely behaved stars and spiraling text – what could this mean? We will start by looking for examples of text spirals in other contexts.
Circular bands of text are very frequent in medieval art, including the VM, but spirals are much harder to find. These are the examples we encountered, though readers may certainly know of others. One relatively common example of spiraling text is found in the medieval equivalent of speech bubbles, called banderoles. We found the example below particularly striking, because it “spirals” much more than usual. It is a 13th century mosaic fragment from the Last Judgement scene on the ceiling of the Florence baptistery.
We see an angel leading the elect (those lucky few to be saved from eternal damnation at the end of times) to the gates of New Jerusalem (see Earenfight 2013). The scroll reads “VENITE BENEDITTI PATRIS MEI/POSSIDETE PREPARATUM (Come, Blessed of my father, inherit [the kingdom] prepared [for you]).” (Matt. 25:24)
In this case, it is clear that the banderole is a scroll held in hand by the angel, while the other end spirals into darkness. The text spirals as well, presumably because it follows the natural movement of the scroll.
Text that spirals by itself can sometimes be found in Jewish works, like in the below example from a 1396 Hebrew manuscript (BL Additional 19776). As explained here, the spirals in the scroll on the right are “verses containing the Hebrew word Vayiqra (‘and he called’) which opens Leviticus and is the name given to the entire book in Jewish tradition”. We have not been able to find out why exactly these verses are written as spirals though.
A final example of text that runs in a spiral is from Corpus Christi College MS 255A. This diagram, titled “Misterium Ecclesie” is from Joachim of Fiore’s Liber Figurarum. It illustrates the history of the church. The spiral may have been chosen because it combines the cyclical nature of time (four seasons) with the linear progress of salvation history.
The above are some diverse examples of how text spirals appear in medieval art. To fully understand the Voynich spiral, however, we may also need to take into account where it occurs: in the middle of a starry sky.
Our initial idea upon seeing a spiral in the sky might be to link it to the natural movement of the heavens or heavenly bodies. The problem with this solution is that astronomical movement was universally understood to be circular. The cosmos was made up of concentric spheres with the earth at their center. If anything in these spheres decided to start spiraling inward, the results would be catastrophic.
The first parallel for a spiral sky we found was part of a Byzantine fresco from the early 14th century (Chora church, Istanbul). The context of this detail is the Last Judgement, a recurring theme in this series.
The fresco depicts an angel rolling up the sky, illustrating Rev. 6:14: “The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up”. As we noticed before, images of scrolls naturally tend to involve spirals. We encountered several examples from the Byzantine sphere, (like in this 12th century icon of the Last Judgement at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai) and initially we thought the image of a spiral “scroll” sky had not found its way into manuscript art at all. As it turns out though, manuscripts do illustrate this scene from Rev. 6, and the context of the spiral sky is essential for understanding the top right rosette.
The spiral sky in context
Let us zoom out a bit first: why is the sky being rolled up? This passage is from Revelation 6, one of the more apocalyptic scenes in the bible. The Lamb opens the sixth seal, and destruction occurs in the sky, in the sea and on the land. This passage corresponds to what we usually imagine when we hear “apocalypse”: societal order is overthrown amid full-scale chaos and destruction:
“I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.”
Those manuscript illustrations that attempt to stay close to the biblical text show remarkable similarities to the VM’s top right rosette. The Berlin Beatus, pictured above, was produced in southern Italy, making it one of the few manuscripts of the Beatus tradition from outside of the Iberian peninsula. It responds to Rev. 6 with “far more disciplined and accurate illustration” than other manuscripts in the tradition (Williams 2017, p. 161). We see a spiral in the sky and an amorphous mass of land toppling buildings and hiding kings, while the stars make their way down to earth.
A similar, clearer illustration is found in BNF lat. 14410, a late 13th century French Apocalypse. Note the two spirals in the sky. Various figures, including a nude king, hide among the tumbling rocks as their castles collapse. Meanwhile, two rivers haphazardly cross the scene, and stars rain from the sky.
Having seen these illustrations, we are now better equipped to understand how the top right rosette can be read as an illustration of Rev. 6:12-16, the results of the opening of the sixth seal. Let us go over the items one by one.
- There was a great earthquake and every mountain was moved from its place. The rosette includes what looks like great waves, but also unusually dynamic landmasses and three yellow peaks that look like they are falling over.
- The sun turned black and the moon turned red. There is, as far as we can see, no moon on the Rosettes foldout, nor is there any red. The sun is absent from the top right corner, which might be expected if it turns black. This would be one area where the VM differs from most traditional depictions, which love to include a sun and a moon as a reference to this line.
- “The stars in the sky fell to earth”. This is frequently depicted in medieval illustrations of the Apocalypse, and we can also see it in our top right rosette, where stars lie at the base of the castle and its wall.
- The castle is also a reference to “the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else” hiding in the caves. Architectural upheaval is found in almost every illustrated Apocalypse. While the VM castle does not appear ruined, its buildings do twist along with the spiraling sky, making it difficult to tell which way is up.
- We are not entirely sure what the detail below represents. Are they waves? Trees blown by the wind? More earthquakes? The bible also mentions all islands being “moved from their place”, something our manuscript illustrations do not include. If they are waves, they may reference the destruction of all islands.
In short, the elements that make up the top right rosette all closely resemble the effects of the sixth seal being opened. Falling mountains and waves threaten the buildings of the rich, while the sky rolls up like a scroll and stars forget their proper place.
The Church, Stars and Little Castles: Way of Salvation fresco
In the chapter house of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria Novella (Florence), there is a fresco that incorporates many of the themes we discussed so far in this series. It represents the triumph of the Church and the Dominican order. See this Wiki page for a much larger image.
At the base of the image lie Augustine’s “two cities” or rather two societies: people of God versus people “of the earth”. The structure is that of the Last Judgement, with Christ in Majesty above all. At his right hand (our left) are good Christian people who will be saved. At his left hand (our right) are sinners, whose souls would all be lost if it weren’t for the valiant efforts of the Dominicans.
At the left, members of the Church (clerics and all kinds of believers) assemble in front of the church (building). The dome of the church connects the earthly to the heavenly, where we see the saints waiting at heaven’s gate. The idea is that the Church is the ticket to salvation at the end of days. This further illustrates the theme of our previous post, about how Ecclesia, church buildings and the hope for New Jerusalem were all interconnected.
Dominican preachers, identifiable by their black and white habits and accompanied by black and white shepherd dogs (domini-canes, or “dogs of god”, a pun on Dominicans) can be seen venturing into the right side of the fresco, in an attempt to save lost sheep from the wolves. Again, the role of the Church, and of course especially the Dominicans, is made explicit here: do not ignore the preacher, or you will burn in hell.
This should be sufficient to get a feeling for the overall composition of the fresco: sinners to the right, good guys to the left, and the Dominicans will do their best to save your soul. These same thoughts (minus, perhaps, the Dominicans) exist in the Rosettes foldout, which also links the expanse of the worldwide Church to the end of times.
There is, however, a specific reason why we include this fresco in the current post: in the top right, above the worldly rulers who are too concerned with worldly pleasure, is another building, tiny in comparison to the massive cathedral on the left. It is a castle. Clearly, the Apocalypse is not upon its inhabitants yet, but the signs are there. The scene takes place during the day, and there are no stars in the rest of the sky, but here they are, looming directly above the castle like an ominous cloud and reminding the pious viewers of what is to come at the end of times. The earthly rulers will be overthrown, their castles crushed by earthquakes and “the stars in the sky will fall to earth”. And the righteous (including of course the Dominicans) will be saved.
The T-O diagram*
Attached to the top right rosette, in the corner of the foldout, is something known to medievalists as a T-O diagram. In their most basic form, T-O diagrams go back to an explanation of the known continents by Isidore, who wrote that the world was divided in three parts, “of which one part is Europe, another Asia, and the third is called Africa”. In other words, it represents the “circle of the lands”, the world.
In a medieval Christian worldview, the T-O diagram represents by extension, the spread of the Church to all corners of the world. “The simplistic form of the map suggests that its primary purpose could not have been to convey knowledge of the geography of the real world. Even in the Dark Ages, geographic knowledge exceeded that shown in the T-O map. Rather, the map was intended to show the world as an expression of Christian doctrine. Its circular form reflects the biblical reference to the circle of the earth. [Isaiah 40:22]” (Lanman, 1981, p. 18)
While the way Lanman refers to the “Dark Ages” may feel dated to modern readers, his point about simple T-O diagrams is a valid one: they are an expression of the Christian worldview rather than a means to convey knowledge of geography.
The T-O diagram is one of four objects in the corners of the foldout, together with two suns and something like a compass. Initially, we agreed with the opinion of other researchers (Diane O’Donovan, Yulia May) that these emblems mark the cardinal directions. Since the two suns occupy opposite corners, it might make sense to interpret these as sunrise and sunset, east and west. As a consequence, the T-O diagram would stand for north or south.
However, we have since started doubting the validity of this solution. The cardinal directions were seen as an integral part of the world’s structure. In every theoretical or practical application imaginable to a medieval audience, the cardinal directions point to parts of the world, relative to a certain position. So how can the whole world (T-O diagram) represent a part of itself? If the four corners represent the cardinal directions, then using “the whole world” as one of them would be a strange choice. To illustrate this point further, the cardinal directions were often added around T-O diagrams (Mauntel 2021, p. 59), which again makes the diagram’s reduction to just one of the cardinal directions an unlikely option.
In our previous post, we argued that one of the concepts expressed in the Rosettes foldout is the spread of the worldwide Church and its eschatological implications. Since T-O diagrams are representations of the same global impact of Christianity, the inclusion of one is not out of place here. Moreover, Lanman argues that the T itself would have been understood as a form of the cross called the tau-cross, named after the Greek letter shaped like a T. He concludes that “it is difficult, in view of the history and usage of the tau cross, to imagine that medieval Christians could have overlooked so obvious a Christian symbol on the world map.”
Mauntel (p. 71) tells of a monk named Micon who, upon pondering an image of a tripartite globe, wrote: “Here is seen pictured an image of the world destined to perish”. Such examples appear to link the world inscribed with the tau cross to the sacrifice of Christ. Just like Christ was meant to die on the cross, so too this world will perish to be remade at the end of time. With this in mind, it becomes clear how the T-O diagram and its theological connotations are an ideal match for the top right rosette: both would have reminded the medieval viewer directly of the fleeting nature of the material world. Mauntel (p. 76) concludes that from as early as the eighth century onward, “contemporaries closely associated the Latin letter T, the tau cross and the figure of Christ crucified (or holding the earth) and interpreted these forms as related.”
Finally, the Greek letter tau itself was closely associated with salvation at the end of times since it was presumed to be the sign to be inscribed on the foreheads of those chosen to survive. A 14th century Florentine fresco represents the allegorical figure of Mercy. “To either side of the figure’s head, we discover the verse in Jesus’s description of the Last Judgement inviting the merciful to take possession of the eternal kingdom (Matthew 25:34), and on the crown of her tiara a prominent Greek letter ‘Tau’—in Ezekiel 9:3–9, those who were chosen to survive the destruction of Jerusalem were marked on their foreheads with the letter.” (Source).
In short, it appears that the T in T-O diagrams was understood as a form of the cross, more specifically a tau cross. It linked Jesus’ sacrifice to the eventual fate of the world. Moreover, the letter tau itself was seen as the sign of the elect, those that would be saved by God’s mercy. And even if these more advanced meanings were not intended by the VM artist who drew the T-O diagram attached to the top right rosette, there is still overwhelming evidence that the T-O diagram was in the first place a Christian symbol**.
After having interpreted the outer square of the Rosettes diagram as a rendition of New Jerusalem from the biblical book of Revelation, we have now shifted our attention to the top right rosette. It appears to focus one one specific aspect of the Apocalypse: the destruction of the physical world and the collapse of the established social order. We noticed especially strong resemblances to Rev. 6, the opening of the sixth seal. The VM omits the blackened sun and red moon from this passage, but includes all other aspects of terrestrial, aquatic and architectural upheaval. Especially striking are the inclusion of the heavens rolling up like a scroll, and fallen stars. We analyzed the Way of Salvation fresco as an example where a dense cloud of stars near opulent buildings is meant to remind the viewer of the End Times and the Last Judgement.
Finally, we argued that the T-O diagram is a suitable companion for this rosette. Most modern scholars agree that at the very least, simple T-O diagrams must be seen as expressions of a Christian worldview. Since it is a basic representation of the Christian world, it is a suitable emblem for the roundel that details the eventual fate of this world. We also learned that the medieval viewer most likely saw the T within the diagram as a form of the cross (tau cross), reminding them that just like Jesus Christ, their world was made to perish. It is not all doom and gloom though: the T (tau) itself was established as a sign of the elect, those who would be protected by God during apocalyptic events. We cannot be certain that the makers of the VM intended all these meanings to be read into the T-O diagram, but any one of them would be sufficient to explain its presence here.
This was the first individual rosette we focused on, and it is an example of how we believe the Rosettes diagram must be read: the overall plan is that of the New Jerusalem from Revelation and the worldwide Church (which are the same thing), while the rosettes treat related scenes and concepts. As such, we believe it is best to see the foldout as a diagram about Revelation and Christian eschatology, rather than a literal illustration of any known work. A visual commentary on Revelation with various connected chapters, contained within the overall framework of New Jerusalem and the Church.
In the next post, we will discuss a number of different rosettes connected by a common theme.
Phillip J. Earenfight. “CIVITAS FLORENTI[A]E” in A scarlet Renaissance. New York: Italica Press, 2013.
Jonathan T. Lanman. “The Religious Symbolism of the T in T-O Maps” in CARTOGRAPHICA Vol 18 No 4, 1981 pp 18-22.
Christoph Mauntel. “The T-O Diagram and its Religious Connotations” in Geography and Religious Knowledge in the Medieval World, De Gruyter, 2021.
John Williams. Visions of the End in Medieval Spain. Amsterdam University Press, 2017.
* We will follow Mauntel in using the term diagram rather than map. “As these most basic versions of the diagram do not really represent ‘true’ geographical features but rather an abstract idea, most scholars prefer to call the drawing a ‘diagram’ rather than a ‘map’” (p.59).
** We refer the one reader who will certainly comment that a T-O map is not a Christian symbol to Christoph Mauntel’s authoritative article on the matter.
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