A matter of scale – methodology note

The method in one part of art analysis requires the analyst to bring their existing knowledge and ongoing research to bear in interpreting an image.

However, beyond that, the aim is to effectively use that knowledge to render the analyst all but invisible in the process of enabling others to accurately hear and see the message which the maker of that image intended to convey. The analyst’s aim is to accurately understand and communicate that intention, by reference to the historical context, traditional and local customs and so on.

It doesn’t matter one whit, in that process, if maker was an ‘artist’ or a competent scribe, a noble or a navvy, a Christian or a Hindu, a bad person or one we would find congenial .. except if those traits are directly embodied in the image itself.

That is, the picture’s  ‘author’ scarcely matters. This is because this particular aspect of art-analysis ~ as distinct from art-history ~ is concerned solely about this object as an item of material culture, and as a narrative form.

What is it made of? What was it meant to say? When was it enunciated? To what purpose?


Defining purpose is usually critical to any right interpretation.

A star-shape in the hand of a naked female figure might – when made to one purpose – mean a star, but in another place it is nothing but an assertion that one hand-cream is better than another.


Scale is another important element for accurate interpretations.

It doesn’t take long before anyone interested in the Voynich manuscript hears about the sad example provided by one University professor who, in seeking the key to its presumed encipherment, began putting the folios to higher and higher magnifications until he began seeing (and reading) the bleed-lines from the ink.

What is sometimes overlooked is that the moral of that story is less to ‘keep your own sense of proportion’ than to keep your own out of the equation.

The relevant issue in that case was: Given the known technologies of the time (no matter when), does any documentary evidence permit an assumption that such microscopic writing had been  (not ‘could have been’) achieved in the posited place ~ in this instance, thirteenth-century England?

And that should have stopped the line of enquiry. The answer was simply, ‘no’. The professor had to invent a new history of magnification techniques in England to explain his opinions.

What seems to a viewer at first glance to be a large detail, or a small, or a significant one, or a trivial one scarcely matters enough to be worth discussing, as a rule. Neither the reader nor the ‘artist’ is the primary subject of art analysis.

In the present case the subject is ms Beinecke 408 and in my more limited study, its imagery. If investigation of them results in a better idea of the original source/s and/or makers, that is all the better. But it is not essential to know exactly which person made an image in order to ‘read’ it correctly. The cultural environment it expresses, and the maker’s physical ability matters more.


On the issue of scale, for example, what matters is only the scale with which the maker of a given folio evidently felt comfortable. In the end, we are talking about muscular control, hand-eye coordination and practice.

These are what determine the ‘comfortable’ scale in drawing, that is, the maker’s idea of ‘normal’ size, and what is  ‘too small’ or ‘accidental’, or even ‘too large’ for his or her comfort.

This is  an matter quite apart from the issue of perspective in drawing: drawing a small object remains the same exercise, regardless of why it is made ‘small’.

The ‘flaming beacon’ – again

As example:

Emerging from the sunken tower on fol.86v (see previous post) is a form which I’ve described as a flame, pointing out that not only is it made with twisting lines, but its flickering tip is drawn like a candle- flame.

If that last element were so small that it was beyond the maker’s comfort-scale in drawing, then we might consider it   ‘too small’ to have carried any significance for him. Or, we might dismiss it as too small to have been intentional, and dismiss it as a slip of the hand.

(Of course scribes could scrape mistakes off parchment, but let that go for the moment).

How does one tell the difference?

Not too difficult ~ establish the lower end of the maker’s comfort- scale, in this folio, and preferably in the same section.

Easily done..  there is included in the same section, on the same folio, a look-out, or guard-house, or pigeon-house, set upon the boundary wall. Let’s assume for the moment that it was man-height, though it may have been half as high.

Here it is …  at nearly double the size that it was drawn. I don’t know whether you think it looks a well-controlled drawing, but I surely do; even the additions to the roofline, and the way the wall connects to the lower part of the roof is pretty clear. But it was drawn half the size shown, near enough. So we may suppose that the maker of the drawing had good muscular control,  hand-eye coordination and sight, and that his ‘comfort scale’ was a good deal finer than most of ours.

Here is that house, in the same scale, compared with the flame from the sunken beacon.

If we suppose it a guard-house which allowed a man to stand upright with some space to spare, then the flame is drawn more than three times a man’s height, approximately, and its  ‘candle-flame’ tip is the height of one. If it represents a pigeon-house, then perhaps the measures are halved.

To put it another way, the tip covers the same vertical distance as that between the opening in the guardhouse wall and the point of its eaves. By the maker’s scale, it is not a small detail, even if it is to our’s.

The line of the pen (as we suppose it was) shows the ‘candle- tip’ drawn smoothly, using a movement which is recognisable from other parts of the manuscript.  No signs at all of a pen  ‘slipping’ out of control.

Even if one dismissed that tip itself (and I see no reason to suppose its inclusion unintentional), the painter has given the main body of the flame the typically irregular curves, narrowing upwards to the base and its tip.  This is a near-universal way of representing flame. The  curve is accentuated, too, by the draughtsman, chiefly by adding a small curve in dark brown ink, half-way up the left side. and negatively by stopping the first level of drawing well below the apex. (The image to left has been adjusted, to clarify  distinctions between drawn lines, and ‘lines’ produced by the way paint is applied, usually after all the drawing is done.

If the original curves or the tip had been a mistake, they could have been scraped off, or if that was for some reason impossible, they could have been drawn-over.

Could it be a ‘roof’ above the tower? No; not given the sureness with which the straight lines and angles are drawn on the ‘guardhouse’;  if what emerges from the great tower doesn’t have the straight sides and the usual angles for a roof, it’s simply because the maker did not intend to convey the idea of a roof, but of what he drew: a great flame, rising to perhaps fifteen or sixteen feet above the tower’s rim.

The object is a beacon-tower, with a fluted column below a smoother upper section – and with the addition of an external spiral.

Who says so? –   the maker of the image. Whoever s/he was.

I’m just the translator.

(That said, no translator is infallible)


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