Posted on 4 June 2015 by Anton Alipov

Last edited on 5 June 2015 by Anton Alipov

Categories: Art, History

Good Heavens of the Voynich Manuscript

The awkward drawings of the Voynich Manuscript are the subject of ongoing discussion. In most cases it is not clear what exactly is depicted. If it is a plant, then we are not sure what plant it is. If it is a person, then we do not know whether she is a nymph or a bathing woman. If it is a map, then we are at a loss about where is Africa in that strange world.

I heard that one space mission carries certain plates containing visual imagery, with the aim to present to extraterrestrials some ideas about our planet. I wonder whether the inhabitants of other planets will be as stupefied looking at our pictures as we are - looking at the VMS drawings.

In the absense of plain-text labeling (with very few exceptions such as colour codes or the supposed rennet-bag in f116v), we are left to search for patterns and for analogies with plain-text manuscripts of the respective era. The pattern that attracted my attention is found in the illustrations accompanying the works of Lyranus who lived in 14th century and was a famous commentator of the Bible.

One such illustration is contained in Basel A II 2, a manuscript written (as its description suggests) in 1397 by the Freiburg priest Rüdiger Schopf. The illustration depicts the scene from Deuteronomy 34:1, where Moses ascends mount Nevo, and there God shows him the promised land. (One may inquire why Moses is horned - well, that is the well-known story of the translation error in the Vulgate). In this illustration, God is depicted on some thing which resembles a flying carpet. Since it is quite absurd that God would travel on a carpet, it is natural to suppose that this object is intended to represent heavens. Note how the "edge of heavens" is characteristically bent and twirled.

Here is another example of Luzern Msc. 41, which was produced in central Switzerland in mid-15th century. The same scene, I suppose, and the same twirled "edge of heavens".

If we locate a similar pattern in the VMS, we can then consider if the context supports the hypothesis of its representing heavens. In fact, this pattern appears in the VMS several times.

Consider, in the first place, f79v, which features a complex drawing containing female figures, beasts and curious pipe structures. On top of the whole construct, the "heavens" object is located, and, interestingly, it is with some spindle, thus making the whole stuff look as the roof of a carousel. That all depicted objects are situated below this "roof" most probably designates that they are located under heavens. It looks like, further, that water is pouring from heavens. The water is dropping into the eyes of the lady second from the top, or, alternatively, the lady is beholding the downpour, which is depicted by means of the dots (this latter idea was suggested by Dr. Wastl, albeit on another occasion). The lady looks not quite well, or, probably, she is just sleeping. Interestingly, she holds some ring (?) which re-appears in other places of the VMS.

In f75r we have essentially the same "carousel roof" (which is even motley-painted). Unrecognized green substance is pouring down from heavens or opening the road to heavens, and nymphs take advantage of that.

F80v is yet more characteristic. In the two upper corners there are two female figures placed above the "heavens" object each - exactly like God in the scene on Mount Nevo. This readily suggests them as creatures heavenly. Note that they are both placed not just on one "carpet", but on two "layers" thereof. For sure, this has some special meaning. Note also the curious object held by the lady on the left. Might that be an awkward picture of spindle or distaff? In that case, this might be Clotho. Below we have another "carpet" with a creature looking like a gryphon upon it. One may argue why the gryphon would be wingless, but (as Wikipedia asserts) it is quite OK for a gryphon to be wingless - this just means that it is a male gryphon. Below that heavenly gryphon we have a lady with a ring (again!).

Other instances of the pattern are less obvious in their supposed role of heavens.

F75v introduces a complex structure. Its right portion is with a "spindle", and the left one is without, but the "focal point" (not in the geometric sense, but anyway) is introduced in the left portion as well. From between the two portions, a kind of drainage lifts upwards, while downwards some cords (or are they water streams?) connect the "heavens" with ten female figures.

In f79r our supposed heavens are braced by a ring, and the topmost nymph lifts her left hand as if pulling the "heavens" forward.

In f77v the twirled-edge pattern is encountered thrice in the context which it is difficult to associate with heavens.

Beside the described pictures, we meet this pattern in planar charts. The left portion of f68v is the geocentric worldview, with the T-O map (Earth) in its centre and the stars affixed. Ellie Velinska dedicated a post to this (in my opinion) quite obvious fact, but the valuable finding is the same twirled-edge pattern in the European manuscripts that she reports!

In f86v there are two occurrences of the pattern. One is in the centre, surrounding what is considered by Wastl & Feger to be "Heavenly Jerusalem". Considering that "Heavenly Jerusalem" is probably in heavens, this is a good match. Yet the other occurrence - in the element to the right of Jerusalem - is not a ready match. Wastl & Feger identify it as the classical Element of Water. Surely this cannot be both Water and heavens at the same time.

So most of the occurrences of the "twirled-edge pattern" in the Voynich Manuscript do correspond well to the notion of heavens, but some do not. All in the vein of the VMS - something still does not fit.


View/add comments

  1. David Jackson · 7 June 2015, 09:35 · URL

    Re f79v, it is to my mind more of a Christian allegory about the goodness of Christ (note the Cross the top woman is holding) flowing down through water upon the different levels until finally it reaches the beasts of the field.
    Personally I think it is sin that is being depicted. Look at the opulence of the different women, which corresponds with their height in the graph. The top woman holding a Cross receives water directly from Heaven (as you correctly [to me anyway!] describe). She passes it onto the next social strata, not as rich, who are blessed to receive it upon their face. The water continues to flow onto a woman with no sign of wealth, before flowing onto a woman standing in a fish – the fallen woman between animal and humanity. Then it goes into a murky pond of Sin where strange animals, no doubt the lesser layers of humanity, frolic.

  2. Maxim Burlakov · 7 June 2015, 17:01 · URL

    Антон, на этих страницах у автора РВ присутствует какой-то необычный синтез европейских и восточных образов. Если тебе действительно интересно, что конкретно там изображено, то напиши мне на почту и я дам необходимый для этого материал.
    P.S. Мне очень нужно посоветоваться с образованным соотечественником, интересующимся РВ, но при этом не фриком.

  3. Anton Alipov · 7 June 2015, 22:24 · URL


    Interesting idea about strata. I did not think that way. To be honest, I did not even try to explain the whole f79v, this note has been narrowed to the “heavens” pattern exclusively.

    The “cross” is not universally recognized as a cross. E.g. Diane O’Donovan does not think that this is a Latin cross. Note the strange lump on its right hand. I think that the lump is occasional, and this is a Christian cross indeed. However, I am cautious about the woman’s “holding” the cross. Note she is not quite holding it. She is rather rejecting it with a gesture like “Thx, I don’t want this cross”. We could attribute this to the clumsiness of the scribe, of course. But with the woman below he did not have any difficulties. She is undoubtedly holding the ring.

    The animals. The rightmost animal is a lion. Would a lion represent lower layers of humanity? I doubt.

    The fallen woman is an interesting guess. Note she is not half-fish, she is being devoured by the fish or, alternatively, she is emerging out of the fish. I wonder whether there is a comparable pattern somewhere in other MSs.

  4. Anton Alipov · 8 June 2015, 20:52 · URL


    Как я отметил в комментарии выше, в данной заметке я не ставил задачу анализа перечисленных иллюстраций в целом; задачей было проследить все случаи употребления в РВ этой характерной структуры, напоминающей (по крайней мере, лично мне) ковер, и в каждом случае сопоставить ее с контекстом, в котором она появляется.

    Соответственно, я сделал вывод, что книжник посредством данной структуры изображает небо.

    Подобным же образом, то есть путем поиска в средневековой литературе аналогий других типовых структур, употребляющихся на рисунках в РВ, можно установить, каким образом изображается вода, земля, ветер, огонь и т.д. и т.п.

    Я более чем убежден, что всё ощущение “необычности” рисунков РВ является лишь следствием того, что человечество сегодня во многом забыло свое собственное творчество 600-летней давности.

    Если у вас есть какие-то вопросы, то можете их изложить в комментариях, попытаюсь на них ответить в меру компетенции, хотя не считаю себя каким-то передовым специалистом в области РВ.

  5. Anton Alipov · 9 June 2015, 00:36 · URL

    Follow-up about the “fallen woman”. Through some googling I found out that this looks very much like Matsya, the Avatar of Vishnu:

    With the exception that the figure in f79v is female.

    Diane O’Donovan also mentioned that in 2013:

  6. David Jackson · 9 June 2015, 23:09 · URL

    She does look a bit like Matsya, but I know nothing about her.
    I have pointed out in the past that the crossbow in the Zodiac is similar to Indian tradition.
    It features a human archer rather than a centuar, as is normal in European zodiacs. However, the Hindu zodiac traditionally depicted Dhanu (Sagittarius) as a human archer, as we have the VM. (In the last few centuries it seems he’s become corrupted into the centaur we all know and love – but until the 1800’s he was a human archer).

  7. D.N.O'Donovan · 10 June 2015, 17:08 · URL

    Anton and friends,
    The pattern was inherited by the fifteenth-century artists who used it, and they use it to mean the same as it always had: the limit of the human domain. As a rule it means that between the heavens of men, and that of the divine, but not invariably. I’ve treated it before in my blogs, but the main point is that it isn’t a peculiarly fifteenth-century motif, and most certainly not one either native to Europe or exclusive to it. It’s very well known in the history of art.

    I realise that for some time there has been an effort to use the motif as some sort of proof for German origins for the manuscript, but frankly if one tried to make that argument among professionals about any work of art, they’d think it was a bit of humour, since it became popular, we think by adoption from earlier Jewish works inherited after the expulsions, or more directly as an effort to imitate motifs found on eastern artefacts.

    In treating this motif, and trying to halt the erroneous idea that it was somehow a peculiarly German motif, I’ve even quoted two German scholars directly. With your permission, I’ll repeat:

    First, when describing work in marble from the Topkapi Serai (Istanbul), Viktoria Meinecke-Berg speaks of its ‘typical’ cloud-band motifs. “… hier das Marmorfeld durch ein bezeichnenderweise mit einem abstrakten Wolkenband gemustertes Fliesenfeld ersetzt ist “

    and more specifically still – and as has been general knowledge in the art world even longer than this quote from the 1970s – it was then that Volkmar Enderlein wrote: Das Wolkenband fand als Ornament durch mongolische Vermittlung aus China Eingang in die islamische Kunst. In einem persischen Manuskript der Chester Beatty Library aus der Zeit um 1400 bilden reich bewegte Wolkenbiinder den Hintergrund fur die Darstellung eines Vogel Phdnix. Ein 1436 in Herat geschriebenes Manuskript der Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris enthalt eine ganze Reihe von Miniaturen, auf denen Wolkenbander dargestellt sind. Auf den Miniaturen ist das Wolkenband noch ein landschaftliches Element. Auf persischen Erzeugnissen des Kunsthandwerks wird es aber allmahlich zum Ornament.

    I do want people to take the work of Voynich scholars seriously, which is why I try to correct basic errors in description of the Voynich images. I hope you won’t mind.

  8. Anton Alipov · 10 June 2015, 19:16 · URL


    Thank you for the explanation!

    My idea with this is not to link the pattern with the origins of the manuscript (this is absolutely not what is this note about). The idea is to distinguish generic patterns in the VMS drawings and then try to find direct analogies in other manuscripts – to make conclusions on “what means what”. Like this pattern of “heavens”, we might be able to locate patterns of water, air, fire etc. This way the meaning of the drawings may be gradually revealed, which, in turn, may assist in deciphering the text.

    The notion of the “limit of the human domain” is broader than the notion of “heavens”, so I like this meaning. Maybe this will help to interpret those figures where simple “heavens” do not fit in a straightforward way.

  9. Diane · 10 June 2015, 23:54 · URL

    I like your thinking. It’s pretty much how I began, too, back in 2008.

    At that time, I expected as everyone else did (many still do) that the work would be an original composition by a European Christian “author”.

    It was by tracing the history of the various elements in the imagery that I was able to demonstrate that the usual view simply could not be so. The manuscript’s imagery – if considered in proper historical perspective – simply refuses to support such an argument.

    As it happens, though, use of the ‘cloudband’ pattern is one of the less problematic items. The ones which offer the strongest objection to an all-Latin-European provenance for the content are rarely mentioned, and when mentioned, usually ignored, slid over, or attempts made to create other reasons for them. Like trying to explain the image of the figure holding the sort-of cruciform object. The image is not part of the Latin Christian, or any Christian iconographic tradition. I say that after forty years’ experience as an iconographic analyst. It is not an image which makes any sense in terms of Christian religious philosophy, theology or art: not the Latin, nor the Byzantine, nor Coptic.. etc. Unless someone turns up an exact equivalent, that will remain my opinion, too.

  10. D.N.O'Donovan · 11 June 2015, 00:28 · URL

    The point I’m making, a little diffusely, is that any meaning is culture-dependent, and this is very much so with imagery. It is not WYSIWYG, as people tend to suppose, but like a language it has to be studied, its grammar and vocabulary understood, and so properly recognised. Otherwise, people are doing the equivalent of looking at a text in, say, German and determinedly trying to decipher it as English, comparing it only with English texts, and claiming that because both contain the word “got” the meaning in each case must be identical. Not so.

    Until the ‘language’ of the Voynich imagery is rightly defined, then how can you know that the manuscripts you select for comparison are a valid set? Indeed, in this case, I think it is probably a major error to limit comparisons only to art in manuscripts, let alone only in Latin manuscripts. We think the artefact was manufactured in Europe. Where and when the content was first enunciated, by whom or for whom, and in what written language, we still don’t know. and the same is true of the imagery.

    Imagery isn’t trivial, and mostly it isn’t self-evident either – the Voynich imagery manifestly isn’t legible in terms of Latin visual language.. now, is it? :)

Add your comment (preview then submit):