This post was written in collaboration with Cary Rapaport. It is part three of our series about the Rosettes foldout, and we highly recommend reading part one and part two first.
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.
Note: WordPress’ spam filter is eating comments regularly without alerting me. I will try to check the spam folder regularly.
Fascinating! The falling stars, the world to perish etc., is this image a preacher’s crib? In your opinion, Koen, were the Christian Kabbalists interested in the book of Revelation? If so, could this explain the resemblance of the tortuous path between the rosettes with the tortuous path of Olam sefirot?
Thanks, Ruby. I certainly think it is possible that the VM was made by preachers, or at least monks or nuns. Cary and I believe there is a certain interest in Pentecost and the expanse of Ecclesia in the Rosettes foldout, which would fit well since they saw themselves as followers of the apostles. But for now I remain agnostic about which kind of persons made it, there are too many options left.
Regarding Kabbalah, Cary stumbled across this subject, but we did not spend much time yet studying it. It is a deep rabbit hole that requires immense specialisation. It is not easy to find the right information about Kabbalah in the time of the VM, much of it comes later. So unfortunately I cannot answer this question, though I agree that the resemblances with the sefirot diagram are very interesting.
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Hi Ruby, thanks.
Since we have not yet studied enough about Christian Kabbalah, it’s too difficult to say right now. I also remain agnostic for now about what kind of persons made the VM. I do think it may be a subject worth looking into further, though as Koen says it is very complex and it would take a good deal of time to find the right information about Christian Kabbalah that is early enough for the VM. This recent research into the Rosettes has brought up questions about Kabbalah more than once though, so it’s something I’m thinking about, too.
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Cary, Koen, In searching for the transcription of the text of the rosette page, I found that Stolfi, in presenting the page, wondered if it was the vision of Ezra? Have you compared Ezra’s Apocalypse with John’s Apocalypse, if there are big differences?
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Hi Ruby, that is very interesting, do you have a link to what Stolfi wrote?
So far we have considered mostly Revelation, but we have also often come across Ezekiel – another apocalypse. We think another bible book is also important, but we have not mentioned this yet because it will be the subject of post 4.
I am not familiar with the vision of Ezra, apparently there are several texts with a similar name. Probably he means this one? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_of_Ezra
An interesting detail from the wiki page: “Ezra walks down three floors or 72 steps and is shown hell.” I don’t think the 72 “pipes” around the central rosette can be seen as steps leading to hell, but it is interesting that this rather specific number appears here again.
That’s right, I failed to mention that the rosette transcription I found on Rene’s site on the Text Analysis – Transliteration of the Text page, at the very bottom of the page in table 12. The mention of Ezra’s apocalyptic vision is made in the comments of the transription file. I understand that the comments are by Stolfi, unless they are René’s comments.
Koen and Cory, I want to congratulate you on what I think is an important and excellent piece of work. It’s often been said there is little obvious religious imagery in the manuscript, but you have convincingly demonstrated that the foldout is describing the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation 21 superimposed onto a Byzantine style Greek-Cross church layout.
You have persuaded me that there is more Christian and less Jewish imagery than I had believed up to now.
One of my initial thoughts on having read your Rosettes posts, is what other biblical texts may have influenced the foldout? The first being the Ezekiel 48 which names each of the gates from the 12 tribes of Israel. I wonder if these names are written around the central circle?
I found the comments about the T-O map tau-symbol interesting, but I think there is more to be learned from this map.
The Rosette T-O map also contains some text labels, and I would anticipate these to also have a biblical connection. The wikipedia page on T-O maps (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T_and_O_map) shows a 1472 woodcut from Isidore’s Etymologiae and the 3 known continents as populated by Noah’s descendants : Sem (Shem), Iafeth (Japheth) and Cham (Ham). These continents are synonymous with their qualities : Ham/Africa is hot; Shem/Asia is neither hot or cold, and Japheth/Europe is cold.
I haven’t analysed the Rosette T-O map labels, but in 2014 the results of an attempt to analyse the f68v3 T-O map text was posted on stephenbax.net. It can be accessed on archive.org : https://web.archive.org/web/20210304213340/https://stephenbax.net/?p=1275. That analysis suggested a biblical connection.
I look forward to reading your next post on Rosettes page.
Hi Darren, thank you for your comment, this is very nice to hear.
Yes, Ezekiel is often closely linked to Revelation. Both works are examples of “Apocalypses”, which was a popular genre among Jews at the time. There were certain conventions and recurring themes, so one apocalyptic text naturally supplements the other.
We did not find much specifically about Ezekiel yet, but maybe there is one thing. In both revelation and Ezekiel, there are four “living creatures”, which traditionally became the symbols of the evangelists. Ezekiel compares these to wheels, which is a motif found in some manuscripts. The shape of the canopies on the Greek Cross may have been chosen in such a way that a reading as wheels is also possible. We have better ideas about these though, and if the meaning is intended then it is probably secondary.
Cary did find an amazing Ezekiel manuscript which is definitely worth a look. It shares some diagrammatic properties with the Rosettes foldout.
There is one other book from the Bible which we think is represented more clearly. I don’t want to get ahead of myself though; we will write about this in part 4.
We are also considering that the authors may have been of Jewish-Christian background, so I would not dismiss a certain jewishness yet. If everything goes according to plan, we will write about this in post 5.
Koen, I agree that the Ezekiel manuscript found by Cary is amazing. I think it’s a really important find, so thanks to you both for sharing. I’m pleased that a medieval parallel to the Rosettes page has been found, as it lends weight to my belief that the imagery found in the VM has parallels with other medieval manuscripts.
Its ironic that the Rosettes page has frequently been called the most otherworldly image in the manuscript, but its taken until now for this to be shown to be true (because its an image not of the physical world, but of the divine heavenly realm!)
Your recent post presents many interesting directions for further enquiry – how did Henrico de Carreto’s “De Rotis Ezechielis” influence other works of Medieval Christian Exegesis? Does it have any antecedents (I believe it does), and how was it later received?
I’ve been wondering what your recent posts might tell us about the VM creator(s) – they clearly seem to have detailed knowledge of Biblical scripture and an interest in cosmology and creation. This would seem to be the thread that connects the zodiacal, cosmological and the “bathing section” (which appears to be influenced by Ovid Metamorphosis – a work containing myths of creation). This suggests to me, that there’s a stronger cosmological/literary influence at play here, rather than just apocalyptic religious content. Furthermore, there seems to be a certain playfulness in the VM that’s not found in purely religious works.
I wonder, therefore, if the VM might be more closely related to a work like the illustrated mid-13th century encyclopedic poem L’Image du Monde (“The Mirror of the World”) by the French poet and priest Gossuin (or Gautier) du Metz. In verse its describes the creation, the Earth and the universe, where facts are mixed with fantasy. It exists in numerous manuscript copies, but the most colourful one I’ve found is :
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. Ms-3516, ff. 160-179v
The poem, as well as containing a T-O diagram (f166r), and VM-like cosmological diagrams it also contains what appears to be an antecedent to the “De Rotis Ezechielis” diagram on f179r, with a single inner ring, with 8 surrounding circles, where 4 are oriented in a linked-diamond alignment, and 4 in a square. It’d be useful to understand the purpose of this diagram.
A later 15th-century example of a playfully-illustrated literary work containing a cosmological theme is the astronomical-geographic poem by the Dominican Friar Leonardo de Piero Dati, La Sfera (The Sphere). I believe it exists in multiple manuscripts but a nice example is found in the Wellcome Collection MS.230. It contains possibly the most playfully-illustrated zodiac I’ve seen, a T-O styled diagram and numerous cosmological themed illustrations. Again, this shows cosmological diagrams and themes set in a literary work (and both written by churchmen).
Wellcome Collection MS.230
I look forward to your next posts.
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To be honest we have not looked too deeply into the Ezekiel MS yet, there are so many things to study and so little spare time (for each thing that makes it into a post, there are many more “dead ends” that were omitted).
What I found very interesting about those diagrams as well is that each of the “living creatures” is associated with its own “element”. I first thought these where four classical elements, but apparently these are references to Christian scenes from the same MS. For example, here you can see that the “man” is on top in the scene where Christ is born. The background is blue/green with gold lines. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10025464s/f541.item.zoom
The Bull’s color is red, which stands for blood, sacrifice, this is Christ’s crucifixion. The eagle: sky, ascension. The Lion gets the fiery tongues of the Pentecost. It’s a fascinating manuscript with lots of unique symbolism, but we are not planning to study it further now.
As for the background of the VM creators, I am looking at two different tracks and keeping both of them open right now.
An important starting point when looking at the imagery is to keep in mind that the text is obscured. This lends credibility to the assumption that the images should not be taken literally. Indeed, if we are correct in assuming Christian themes, then the imagery has been obscured as well, just like the text.
So I think we must first ask ourselves why the MS as a whole has been obscured. And like I said, I think there are two main options: for intellectual satisfaction on the one hand, or out of necessity on the other. I have a slight preference for the former, but there are good arguments for the latter as well.
Encryption out of necessity is what people most intuitively think of, and they tend to name some heretical sect. The idea would be that the devotional nature of the VM is hidden because it would have been considered inappropriate by the Catholic authorities.
However, I think this is rather unlikely since this degree of obfuscation seems excessive. It looks as if Christianity as a whole is obscured, not just some flavor of it. For a variety of reasons, Cary and I are primarily considering a Jewish Christian background, but we have not written about this yet. One argument in favor may be that the images show some aniconic tendencies (Diane has written about this) but I am not entirely sure if this is the case. The living creatures in the VM are often flawed (animals’ legs bending the wrong way, imperfect and weirdly proportioned human figures.. even the flowers of the exceptionally recognizable viola (f9v) are upside down. However, one might say that those drawings like the bull with its anatomically incorrect legs are simply bad. Rather than an avoidance of depicting flawless living things, there may simply be a lack of skill or interest.
Anyway, in general the idea would be that the VM is obscured because these persons were not able to overtly practice their (newfound?) Christian belief in their home community. There are other reasons why we’d think of Jewish Christians in the first place, but we may still blog about this.
The alternative is a form of intellectual exercise. You might know of the “mnemonic bible” tradition. These bibles were illustrated in weird ways, full of puns on the text, as a challenge for those who were already familiar with the text. This kind of exercise was implicitly encouraged by Augustine, who praised the bible’s obscurity. He said that the process of trying to find out the true meaning would enhance one’s intellectual satisfaction. I can imagine a situation where one hides Christian truths or morals in flowers as a challenge for themselves or their peers.
The context would then be either a religious order (monks or nuns) or a school. Ovid was popular in Latin school, but this still leaves both options open.
Something similar to the Image du Monde is certainly possible. (This page shows a 9 circle diagram which, like the rosettes foldout, also looks like a combination of two tetradic diagrams https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b55000507q/f363.item.zoom )
All our focus on Q13 would almost make us forget that the vast majority of the VM is full-page plant pictures. We haven’t really figured out yet why this is the case. Certainly, the plants cannot all be real plants, but it also takes a lot of imagination and risky speculation to see hidden meanings in all of them. The best I can do for now is something like the Liber Floridus, where the “flowers” are not literal flowers but rather “things of beauty”. (For the medieval viewer, a thing of beauty may also be Christ being tortured – as long as a devotional or moral lesson can be learned). There may also be the thought of New Jerusalem as a return to Paradise, a new Eden. This idea was prominent in the early 15th century, as expressed for example in the central panel of the Ghent altarpiece.
I agree that La Sfera also has a certain VM feel to it, and some of its illustrations are very similar to those in the VM. We had a thread about that over at ninja: https://www.voynich.ninja/thread-2296.html
This brings us again to a school context, so I think it is very likely that the VM makers either were attending or had attended Latin school. This still doesn’t rule out much, but it does lead to certain directions.
The question I am asking myself is this: if it is true that the VM assumes intimate familiarity with certain common texts (the bible, for starters), what could this mean for the VM text? A reference to a certain chapter of a certain work might be enough to make the viewer understand the image, without the need to include actual full text. I’m not saying that this is the case, but it might be one way the VM still contains meaning without using actual language.
Koen, Thanks for the mention.
Afterthought – Koen, I’d be glad if you should happen to refer to me if you’d kindly include my surname, since there is another ‘Diane’ around – her surname given as Jones – and I should not like her writings to be confused for mine. A page she put up at academia.edu gives an email address, but my efforts at contact had no result .
This is pretty much a token protest, made without heat or hostility and I do realise that you are wholly convinced by the ideas which you and Carey have developed. Simply for the sake of it, then, I feel obliged to say publicly that in my opinion, which is informed by almost forty years work in the field of art history and iconographic analysis, and by thirteen years’ active interest in this particular manuscript’s images – there is no way that the drawing can be asserted wholly an original product of western Christian culture and its artistic traditions.
I note that are not addressing the drawing, or making a case for what you have simply assumed as its cultural and artistic origins, but simply narrating a well elaborated allegory which you are imposing on the drawing.
In the process, you ignore all other work done on that drawing and fail to address the reasons that we find so little evidence of Latin traditions in drawing, and so very little overt allusion to Christian (or indeed to Muslim) belief.
Among the items you have chosen ignore I might mention, in particular, the explanation – given in considerable detail – against the validity of that common impression of the North emblem as a ‘T-O’ diagram. It doesn’t accord with any known Latin version of that diagram. The whole point of a T-O diagram is that it represents the whole world. It is always completely isolate and ringed with an unbroken line.
There are objective facts, and objective standards in this sort of work.
But, as I say, these points are made without any particular passion, or any hope that they’ll change your direction.
I’ll just counter this with a question. If the T-O diagram is not that found in the Christian world, then where do you have a better example? The literature (see the Mauntel article referred here) calls the T-in-O shape not a representation of the world, but a representation of the world through Christian eyes. Do you have an article that argues a non-Latin-Christian use of the form?
I see that I should have taken the point more slowly.
What I said is that among the points you have chosen to ignore is
” explanation – given in considerable detail – against the validity of that common impression of the North emblem as a ‘T-O’ diagram”.
What I mean is that the North emblem is NOT a ‘t-o’ diagram and part of the proof is that this North emblem “doesn’t accord with any known Latin version of that diagram”.
As I’m sure you know, we don’t actually know the origin of the ‘T-O’. All we know is that our earliest version of it appears in a copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.
I’m perfectly content with your source’s saying it represents the world as seen according to a Christian world-view, though as we learn from the record of one of Rhabanus Maurus’ lectures to his fellow monks, reconciliation of the Biblical ‘four winds/quarters’ with the circular horizon also permitted a conception of the world in four parts and ‘4’ became the number habitually associated, in western Christian thought, with the mundane world. All well and good.
My point is much simpler – that the common habit, in Voynich studies, of calling the map’s North emblem a ‘T-O’ is mistaken. Certainly its centre is divided into three parts, but what defines a T-O diagram is that its circumference is a finite – an absolutely finite – boundary. The outer ring is there to represent the all encompassing, surrounding Ocean.
But what you see in that detail in the Voynich map has palisades built on two sides, a major highroad which passes out and is built as an elevated highway, and another and lesser ‘two-way’ path leading out in a different direction. I take the second as a lesser path, a rutted track, but it is ornamented with a motif signifying ‘water’ here and elsewhere in the manuscript.
It cannot, therefore, be intended as a T-O diagram of the whole world, Christian-vision or otherwise.
Of course it is always possible to invent some theory-compatible storyline from pure imagination, such as .. oh I don’t know.. say that one is the ‘highway’ of the evil-doer and the other ‘the narrow path’ of virtue, it’s possible of course. One could produce a hundred allegorical interpretations, from every religion on earth. The point is that if you want to argue that the maker’s intention, before 1440, was to distort the ‘T-O’ diagram to that end, you must show historical evidence in proof. The fact that it is an idea doesn’t make it a faithful account of the maker’s intention – and that’s what you must prove.
Gilding turreted crowns might make them more theory-compatible too, but I wonder how many of the manuscript’s drawings have that type of crown coloured yellow.
Right, I see. First of all, I do not wish to come up with an explanation – theory-compatible or otherwise – for things that are yet unexplained. It is better to leave them unexplained, because the alternative is to write a fiction.
So let us look at the evidence. We do know from medieval illustrations that there was some freedom to use the T-O diagram in new, symbolically-laden contexts. For example in this manuscript, which we mentioned before, the diagram appears at the centre of a cosmos, which is also the table of the Last Supper. The plates (?) of the apostles are arranged around the tripartite host like the planets around a tripartite earth.
Edit: forgot link: https://digital.ub.uni-duesseldorf.de/ms/content/pageview/274864
Following your argument, you would say that this is not a T-O diagram, because those generally don’t appear on tables. But in this case we know the symbolism, and we know that the earth is equated to the body of Christ and so on. We know that the cosmic meaning was present in the maker’s mind, down to the starry blue background of the table.
The point I am trying to make is that it was clearly possible to integrate the T-O shape into another context, without nullifying its meaning. The fact that we don’t understand the novel context of the VM’s T-O does not automatically mean that it is something else altogether.
The other point I want to make is something I regularly notice in your arguments, which is that you easily dismiss an idea based on something that doesn’t match, but then offer no better explanation. My argument is that the use of the T-O (in whichever meaning) points towards a medieval Christian milieu, or at least familiarity with its customs. The evidence is overwhelming, and the fact that this diagram appears in an unusual context is not sufficient to dismiss it: other T-O diagrams can occur in unusual contexts as well. If you want to dismiss this argument, you will have to find a counterexample with a better explanatory power, but as far as I’m aware there is no such thing.
Koen, There are two quite separate issues here. One is the drawing in Beinecke MS 408. The other is the form and significance, within Latin Christianity, of the T-O form.
So, setting aside the Voynich drawing which, as I say, has no T-O diagram in it, we turn to the significance of ‘T-O’ form and what additional associations it might bear. Since I do not know how much exposure you’ve had to medieval thought, religious practice and culture, please excuse me if I explain things already familiar to you.
In that inhabited initial you linked to, and which is illustrating the lyrics (did you read them?) the T-O motif is a normal, totally-enclosed, T-O and therefore a symbol for the whole world.
It is placed in the middle of the table to remind the reader of several things simultaneously. I’ll mention just a few.
One is that the disciples (not only these twelve, but 72, though the 12 are accepted as representing the 72) are to divide the world between them and preach the good news to all. With that theme brought forward, the centre ‘T-O’ speaks of infusing the whole world with the ‘universal’ faith.
Secondly, because this is an image of the Last Supper, it recalls the passage: “As they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, Take, eat, this is my body.” (Matt.26:26)
This may seem an arcane choice, but in fact it was recalled at every mass, every day, because as symbol of those words, the host (the sacred wafer-bread) was first broken in half, and then one of those halves broken in half. Thus the world, the body of Christ and the bread are all recalled by that image of the T-O placed in the table’s centre.
Medieval Christian thought – or at least religious thought and preaching – gloried in speaking to at least the first two, and often the full three levels by which the world itself, and religious texts were read: the literal, the metaphorical, and the allegorical.
But the point you’re trying to make doesn’t quite work, I’m afraid. That ‘T-O’ form (in the linked ms) is still drawn with an unbroken outer ring. It’s a symbolic allusion to the ‘world’ in that cases, though in other cases used more literally. But it’s not what is drawn as the North emblem in the Voynich map.
As drawings, your linked example is a clear, easily read, typical instance of Christian art from the Latin west. The Voynich map has a few late additions – buildings – which are intelligible by the conventions of Mediterranean and Latin medieval art, but most of it isn’t.
Normally, when we set out to analyse and explain the intention of a medieval European drawing, we begin by discussing the style in which it is drawn – all of it – and proving by producing comparisons for the stylistics where it fits within the history of that tradition.
This isn’t a battle of ‘your ideas’ versus’ our ideas’ – it’s about taking seriously the responsibility you adopt when saying that you can understand accurately the origin, nature, purpose and meaning of a six-hundred year old drawing first created at a time and in a context which has not been established.
Yes, I think your analysis of the miniature is correct. It’s a shame that the author of the article I linked earlier apparently didn’t know about this, because it would have served well to illustrate how the T-O shape is interwoven with Christian thought.
I am not sure whether the interruption of the complete circle would have transformed the shape into something else entirely. But we can even leave this matter aside, because there are other T-O diagrams in the VM. Most exemplary, the one on f68v (surrounded by a circle of stars on blue background, bordered by a cloud band). I don’t think you will deny that this is a T-O diagram, or at least reveals a strong awareness of the form. If the T-O diagram is indeed typical for medieval Christianity, as the literature and the examples we find indicate, then we can safely say that the VM refers to the Christian world view here.
This does not help us to interpret the shapes surrounding the T-O in the rosettes foldout, but it does show that the VM is familiar with the T-O in its traditional usage. Knowing this, it is not a stretch to assume a similar background.
That said, I would in all honesty find it very interesting if any examples of a T-in-O (or something as close as we see attached to the top right rosette) exist in different cultural contexts, but I don’t know of any.
Koen – Sorry, the new foliation is not very practical. On none of its ’86v part’s can I see any T-O diagram. A diagram like this works like a numeral; it’s either what’s on the page or it isn’t. If the thing to which your imagnation immediately likens the map’s north emblem is a ‘T-O’ diagram, you’re not alone. The mistake is to presume the same must be true for whoever drew the map. Or I should say ‘those people who worked on the map’ because, as I explained carefully, in working through the map, stage by stage, it wasn’t made all at once, but shows evidence of three major recensions, the last of which saw the ‘angel’ moved, at the cost of one ‘rosette’ to the NW in order to make way for inclusion of the itinerary vignette which contains the only allusion to western Europe. Stylistically of course it is obviously not of Latin origins, which I suppose is why, over the century from 1912 until 2012, no-one could make any sense of it at all. The only valid observation had been by the person who noted there were two details showing the sun. In a hundred years. Only from about eighteen months after I’d published an outline of my analytical study did others start trying to hop on the bandwagon or to invent alternatives. Seems a waste of time to me.
Diane, I wrote 68v, not 86v 🙂 Here is the jasondavies link https://www.jasondavies.com/voynich/#f68v3_f68v2_f68v1/0.269/0.486/4.10
Is this not a T-O diagram?
Sorry, I assumed it a mis-typing because 86v was the former, and more convenient foliation for the Voynich map.
Sorry but no, it’ not actually a ‘T-O’ but an alternative for it, and from different origins.
Ellie Velinska noticed the difference between them some years ago, but not having the right term for it, described this as an ‘inverted T-O’.
As I showed when explaining its emergence and increasing popularity in Latin works, the intention is an orb – like the orb of England’s royal insignia – and had come to be preferred for the book formerly shown in images of the Creator.
On checking, I see I treated this issue of the orb-as-world in two posts of November 2017, the first disputing a posited origin in Oresme’s anti-astrological Tractatus, while the second considering the range and time when the orb used in this way emerges in art of the medieval west. It was especially popular in the late 13thC-14thC in England and France, later being taken up as works from that time were printed in Germany (as Oresme’s was)..
One among the fourteenth-century examples of the ‘Orb’ which I cited is easily found online: Brit Lib Arundel 83 f. 130 (c. (d.1310 – c. 1320).
That’s a date I’m satisfied with for the Vms’ exemplar/s, since the last layer of alterations visible in the Voynich map cannot be earlier than 1349. I’m sure you don’t need me to offer your readers a potted history of ‘orb’ imagery in older, and in non-Latin Christian works, so I’ll say no more.
Alright, let’s use a more general term, the “tripartite world”. Both the literature and the pictoral evidence suggest that the view of the world as tripartite is essentially a Christian view. Since in both the Rosettes foldout and the f68 “Oresme” diagram, the tripartite world is an integral part of the drawing, it may be hard to argue that these are just a result of a bumbling copyist interpreting his exemplar wrong, or adding his own details on a whim. This implies that even you must accept a Latin/Christian redaction at some point in the material’s history.
.. and one person noticed what he called ‘a path’. That was true too. There had been various bits of speculation and day-dreaming but no actual evidence offered. Now, on the one hand, I have the people for whom I did that work trying to invent some more Eurocentric story for the map AND others trying to make a buck by using only the late-phase information I provided, showing awareness of the Voynich map among a couple of western cartographers, one a Majorcan Jew and the other a Genoese Christian. Voynich studies – you have to smile.
For other professionals, may I add that, stylistically, the nearest in style seem to me to be works of the Balkhi school, but I’m open to correction on that point.
Testing, don’t want to lose text
Works like a charm.
Amazing interpretive work, Koen, I am particularly interested in the spiral, which I too did some research on. I had honed in on the Joachim of Fiore spiral, in terms of my interpretation of the rosette as representing Christ “the World” but more importantly Christ “the Word”. As the Word, one of two main biblical themes are usually implicit: the Word of Creation and the Word of Prophecy. In this case, I would argue, the spiral rosette symbols hint at both.
I agree with almost all of your detailed explanations. I did wonder about one more: at first glance, the spiral of words looks like it is placed at the center of a great somewhat globulous beast, reminding me not so much of Leviathan, but the closely-associated great fish of Jonah. A prophet (the word spiral) at the centre of the whale.
For me, who sees the entire production as more of a Christian alchemical – focus on distillation – text, it reflects the main themes of the Book of the Holy Trinity: Christ’s blood as quintessence, prophecy and eschatology, etc.
I also believe it is full of “chain metaphors” and a definite playfulness. But in context: this manuscript if placed in context of its most probable carbon 14 dating circa 1420, and its most commonly assumed Central European origin, with its eschatological and revelatory aspects, focus on the Trinity and Eucharist, and the Church/Ecclesia, as you yourself demonstrated, to my mind is rather squarely placed in the politico-religious melting pot of heresy and the most important event of its time – the Council of Constance.
With Joachim of Fiore a banner and huge influence on many of these heretical sects.
And one can’t ignore that the VMS astrology starts in Pisces. The age they lived in. I have always wondered if this is because the astrology pages are not more representative of Greek Aion – the ages of the world as Joachim himself describes them (as does the Church with variations) working backwards towards the age of Christ.
So obscured for heretical reasons perhaps.
Late for work! Gotta run, but as usual appreciating your work and hoping to enhance with my own observations, interpretations.
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I am not yet ready to commit to a “type” for the VM author(s). There are still so many unknowns, and I believe it would hinder me to say “it was an alchemical project” or “it was purely devotional”.
Moreover I simply don’t know enough about alchemy yet to judge. My impression is that alchemy is all about a developing standard set of metaphors and imagery, and our problem is that the VM sits kind of to the side of that. The alchemist Baresch did not recognize it for that reason, and modern alchemy specialists are also hesitant. So it’s all rather difficult.
I certainly agree that for the non-plant sections, it is important to think in terms of sustained metaphors. Cary and I wrote something new about this, but we cannot publish this yet. There is certainly more to be said.
Well, I say alchemy, but I don’t really mean the changing of metals, rather the wisdom and natural philosophy of it – based in monotheistic religion – and the newer process of distilling medicine. This actually becomes real chemistry.
The main teaching method for all the universities at the time was scholasticism. And what was scholasticism ?- a forced marriage of natural philosophy a la Aristotle /neo-Platonism and the Catholic religion.
Fundamentally, I believe that’s what the rosettes page depicts – the creation, transformation and end of the natural world. And then everything else!
At the time we’re speaking of, circa 1420, alchemical imagery was in its infancy. Barbara Oberst wrote a good article on the rarity of alchemical imagery before this time period, though some metaphors had emerged. Then suddenly you get Book of the Holy Trinity and Aurora Consurgens – different but startling alchemical-religious imagery – published in adjacent regions in a similar time period. Present day Germany and Austria between 1417 and 1420. Nobody had really seen these kinds of images before (tho Aurora based off of much older, some of it Islamic and Jewish, material). So I suppose I feel that you likely won’t find anything else completely similar to the VMS because it was new, like they were.
But the themes weren’t completely new, and neither were some of the medieval stylistic choices that you’ve been so kind to illuminate.
It honestly startled me, after a year of medieval reading, to discover so many of the oddities and themes I had tentatively identified in the VMS symbolic narrative reflected in these two texts when I finally looked at them.
To me, the biggest puns in the VMS are our pregnant women. “Prima mater (ia).” “There is nothing more wonderful in the world, for it begets itself, conceives itself and gives birth to itself”. Prima materia is watery – buckets and water wheels – hermaphroditic, protean, body and soul, mother of the four elements with a fifth essence – sometimes compared to the Holy Spirit to generate them.
When you speak of the “actors” of the VMS, you’re referring to our female figures as somethings that can take on any form, male, female, thing, animal, angel, even instruments.
I also commented – I think you yourself noticed something of the same – that in the Wives of Bath pages, they seemed to serve as subject, verb and object. They started the action, they were the action, and they were the result of the action. Only slightly different in quantity or quality in each position. And this too is the fundamental of alchemy and the Prima materia. You basically start with a lump like cinnabar mixed of mercury and sulphur, then separate, purify, torture (like Christ), distill, etc. through alchemical processes – of fire and the chemicals’ own reactions -till you get the Philosphers Stone or Elixir of Life. But in the end, it’s still a mercury-sulphur combination. Subject, verb, object.
Have you wondered why the rosettes page is primarily coloured gold and blue? Some scholars of the Aurora Consurgens images say these colours indicate sulphur and mercury. And all our VMS stars in the rosette page? The “Silvery Water and the Starry Earth” – the Islamic text upon which Aurora Consurgens discourses – mercury and sulphur.
But I could write a book of examples, which is why I don’t.
These tangential comments are in response to your ‘alchemy’ comment but I don’t need you to convert to my way of thinking! I find yours and Cary’s observations so astute – they always give me food for thought – even wonder – and enhance my own observations/interpretations. Keep doing what you’re doing! I honestly believe your interpretations are the key to the ms, whether remaining with the illustrations or with the text itself.
Two last things: the T-O earth and the central city.
For me, the T-O earth is primarily interesting because of its funnel towards the zodiac rosette, and the metallic bands (I identify that pattern with metals, see the elements/metals rosette bottom right)) that connect it to the “word” spiral rosette proper.
This doesn’t exactly mirror the Christian creation myth, but it does exactly mirror the Hermetic creation myth – closely related to Greek – if you turn the page on its side. The “word” (of both Old Testament and Hermetica) creates the earth from prima materia, the earth funnels its lighter purer elements into the sky (zodiac) to create all things heavenly, while the heavier materials sink or stay as the earth itself.
The central city. I love the medicine bottle interpretation and believe it’s one level of our chain metaphor.
On another level: That the central city is some kind of New Jerusalem or holy city needs no attribution to anyone, as far as I’m concerned. That was my first guess, as it likely is for many, without ever reading a word about the VMS.
But I think the pregnant, possibly Coptic, crosses atop Muslim minarets tie in beautifully with Joachim eschatology, which was largely focused on a new age of the Holy Spirit intermixed with Marianology. Crosses pregnant with the Holy Spirit.
Even without going there: in the end days, all Muslims have a chance to be saved by converting to Christianity. Muslims have a similar belief, but the opposite way around of course. In the VMS’s time period, fear of Islamic conversion and invasion was considered the greatest danger to Christendom. Islam had already conquered and converted many of the main holy cities of the Catholic Church, they had a looming presence in Spain, and Constantinople already seemed doomed, an isolated Christian island in the midst of an Islamic sea.
The image says a lot more, of course, but I do think it tells us that ICXC Nike – Christ Conquers – in the end days, with a new age of the Holy Spirit about to ensue. You’d have to read the same sources I’ve been reading to come to that interpretation, so I don’t expect it to be accepted, but it does tie in well with your eschatology theme.