Welcome to the diagrams

Fol.57v, the first of the manuscript’s diagrams,  has held a special fascination for researchers, for it appears to bridge the disjunction between the botanical, geographic and astronomical sections.

It suggests immediately the ‘four quarters’ of earth and/or heaven.

Those interested in botany see it as referring to the four seasons; those in herbal medicine, the four elements and humors.

Those interested in astronomy (sensu strictu) suggest it represents the night sky and its cardinal markers.

Cryptographers have often puzzled over its repetitive string of seventeen single glyphs, which evoke a sense of the cipher-key, or an alphabet, an impression so strong that the folio has come to be tacitly supposed something of this sort (a-i-i-e*) .

* assuming-it-is-enciphered - a caveat deserving abbreviation.

Even the position it occupies in the manuscript has provoked an unusual amount of enquiry and discussion – for a review of which I’ll add a couple of links at the end of the post.

It may be unexpected, or even annoying, but in many cases the diagrams will be discussed less in terms of their structure – the number of divisions and so on –  than in their specific details, many of which have no presence in the visual vocabulary of fifteenth-century western Christendom, and thus no apparent reason or meaning in a work still widely supposed to have been first created there.

When I come (in the next two posts) to the diagram on fol. 57v, I’ll be spending some time discussing the outer rings, and then consider the hair-style given one of the four central figures ~ because to determine any language(s) to which this might be a key, it is necessary to have a clearer idea of which language-groups these might be meant to represent,  even granted that the written text might be wholly independent of the imagery!

Because it may seem that in some cases, only a small and sometimes obscure detail is treated in depth here, I thought I’d explain why that is so.

In ancient and medieval imagery, the form that is chosen for a figure, and the figure which is chosen for representation, is determined chiefly by ts significance in what is assumed a shared culture between maker and ‘reader’.

This is not so often the case in the modern western world, where we are used to the idea of the painter expressing personal ideas in what may be an invented ‘visual vocabulary’.  But while ancient and medieval imagery may have embedded quite complex references, in the main they spoke clearly to their audience from a shared ‘vocabulary’ of meaningful items.

It is then the cultural context, and that visual vocabulary which the modern reader has to learn, and where we hit a ‘word’ for which we have no translation, or equivalent, the idea that imagery is some sort of universal language immediately breaks down.

But that is precisely the value of these ‘blanks’ in the imagery of the Vms. By finding where, and when, they held meaning (and what it was) we can learn more about the original makers’ context and the people with whom he conversed (as it were) through the medium of these pictures.

The idea that ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ could only have been enunciated in a modern industrial society. It is much more rarely so in the older world.

And in the case of the centre for fol.67v-ii , the ‘rose’ is in fact a waterlily. The diagram is speaking the visual language of dynastic Egypt.. in this case.




To understand these diagrams requires more than a matching of their appearance, more or less, to something that is already familiar. It means investigating what is actually shown, and particularly details which do not seem familiar.

Ignoring those is to risk overlooking our clearest clues about the work’s origins and earlier history – which may well be the same as those informing its written text.

A rough ‘match’ between figure ‘A’ from the manuscript and figure ‘B’ from the world most familiar to us is simply not enough. If we treated other pictures in that way, then the two shown below would be supposed ‘like enough’ to be considered ‘like’ in meaning, which of course they are not.  The one on the left  is  a figure of Christ’s mother and that on the right a portrait of  Jadwiga, king (sic) of Poland. That there are so many points of similarity between them may also be intentional ~ perhaps relating to the matter of agnatic succession that had riven Europe in a Hundred Years War during the time of Jadwiga’s rule and was again an issue when the paintings were made. But they still represent very different characters, and that difference conveyed in the sort of details which can be completely overlooked by someone not familiar with European style,  history or religion.

But even a casual viewer who does have the golden aureole in their ‘visual vocabulary, thus ‘hearing’ its reference to religion, will not necessarily understand the implications of this crown upon Mary’s head.

It refers not only to her role as ‘queen of heaven’ but in the way it has been painted, with the topmost jewel crossing the upper boundary, refers to the belief that Mary ascended body and soul into heaven after her death and, in parallel, to an identification of her (metaphorically) with the star Polaris, at the pinnacle of the visible heavens.

A European not well acquainted with the style of western Christianity before the western schism may not only fail to recognise the last allusion but having no existing experience of such a connection may refuse to accept the full extent of this narrative image. One would then have to refer him to Dante’s work, to the liturgical texts, common metaphors.. and so forth.

Imagery is not self-evident.

But assuming that what is familiar to the viewer defines a picture’s ‘important’ elements, and what is unfamiliar the ‘unimportant’ is not at all uncommon. In regard to the manuscript, it has for example led to the idea that the north emblem on fol.86v is a ‘typical medieval T-O map’.. which of course it isn’t. Not typical, and probably not a T-O map. The two have in common nothing but a tripartite division of the centre.

T-O map
north emblem fol.86v


Imagery is not self-evident and it is not an inherently ‘universal’ language, any more than a country’s adopting the Roman alphabet makes their language Latin.

I believe, then, that for any image to be described as ‘like’ another in these blog-posts, it must be like in content, even more than of like form.  And before deciding that an image was ‘like enough’ to one in the Vms, I also required that the environment from which it came show examples appropriate to the largest possible number of sections in the manuscript and preferably all.

It might be objected that only one or two comparative images are provided, where more might be cited from medieval European works. The bowman who forms the centre in the diagram on fol.73v is often cited as a typically medieval figure, for which great numbers of parallel figures can be adduced.

I don’t dispute that in many cases the same costume and hair-styles shown in the manuscript were to be seen in medieval Europe, but medieval Europe did not produce the sort of patternings seen in fol.86v, nor the sort of plant-pictures seen in the botanical section.

On the other hand, in regions where we do find similar habits in patterning and in botanical pictures, we also find similar costume – but during that period and over those regions which I concluded saw the original sources produced which are copied (at a couple of removes) in ms Beinecke 408.

To know whether a diagram and its imagery derive from the context of medieval European culture, or those more distant in place and/or time, the very details which are ‘blanks’ in our visual vocabulary are of greatest importance.

Time’s  inevitable attrition means that extant examples from earlier centuries or lost societies may be fewer,  but  the same factors mean that they must bear proportionally greater weight, for  outliers rarely survive millennia, and elements perceived as meaningless rarely survive translation.

Now for those links I promised..

The information maze and fol.57v

Fol.57v is within the 8th quire of the manuscript. For a first outline of its various interpretations and past discussion see




perhaps instead of separate links, I should just install an ‘ad’ for ciphermysteries in the sidebar. 🙂


2 Replies to “Welcome to the diagrams”

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