Another challenge – botanical imagery

It all comes down to evidence.

And whether the evidence is rightly understood, and applied.

Since it must be difficult for readers confronted with differences of opinion to decide which set of proposed id’s is worth testing against possible languages and codes, this challenge lets you compare how the various proponents are treating the primary evidence: i.e. the drawings.

This challenge is not about debating proposed botanical identifications or historical scenarios.

It’s about the first and most important issue: whether the original pictures are being well- or poorly interpreted, because errors at that stage will increase in subsequent stages and lessen the chance of any correct identification.

Anyone who’s game ~ answers to the questions below should be sent by email to voynichimageryAgmailDOTcom.

Don’t send photographs as attachments. I’ll get back to you about illustrations.

And – by the way – I haven’t looked at these four in depth myself yet, so no advantage for me here. Also – since there’s no point in a one-man challenge, if no-one else is game, I may take it as an all-round  ‘fold’ and claim the pot without showing  my hand, either.


Each of these four folios has some points in common with, and some points of difference from, one or more others among the four examples given.

1. Identify and explain the specific graphic elements which you  recognise as used in common to two or more of those four.

2. Identify and explain any mnemonic elements you see in these folios.  Comment on their form, their placement in the drawing and give your understanding of the maker’s intentions in each case.

3. Nominate the region to which you believe this imagery rightly belongs.

4.  Provide comparative examples from that region of similar drawing-style. Examples can refer to any graphic medium (e.g wall-paintings, vases, fabric designs… but not photographs of plants!).

5. Itemise any elements in the folios’ drawings that you could not explain (e.g. why the leaves are given this form; why the plant’s growth habit is shown in this way).

6. Nominate, if you can,  the  era in which – in your opinion – these four drawings gained their current form.  That era can be, but need not be, contemporary with manufacture of ms Beinecke 408.

7. From within your nominated region and  era, document examples of similar customs in art: i.e. similar forms, mnemonic devices, and/or stylistic habits.

8.  Botanical id and use -optional extra question:

(a) Give your proposed botanical identification.  Explain exactly how the drawing led you to that conclusion, and which elements in it (including drawing style) you took as  relevant.

(b) In less than ten words, list uses for your proposed plant – as documented for the region and era nominated in response to Q3 and Q6

In other words – if you believe the drawings gained their present form in 12thC France, your supporting evidence must refer to a time before the thirteenth century.


Hypothetical example of ‘bad’ versus ‘better’ reading:

botanical art mosaic

(Bad reading): this is a picture of a long-stemmed rose. Roses were used for perfume and medicine. The object which the figure holds is a basket of roses. Comparative illustration offered:  photograph of a modern hybrid rose, first created in twentieth-century England.


(Better reading). The mosaic in question is dated to the early centuries AD, and was found in  north Africa. The figure is known to represent the River Euphrates. At the time this mosaic was made, this type of container (‘the cornucopia’) was a stock symbol for agricultural wealth and plenty. The flower’s identity is uncertain, but given the time and location it is likely to be a version of the Punic ‘lily’ and more exactly (given the nature of the subject as ‘Euphrates’), a water-lily.

Comparative illustrations: Relief carvings of the ‘Punic lily’ from  gravestones found near Tunis, and in Sicily, all dated to centuries B.C; Carolingian-era mosaic in classical style.

so person ‘A’ identifies it as a rose; person ‘B’ as an unspecified lily, but probably a water-lily – no particular use for it is suggested.

Who are you going to believe?

– I’d say: neither till you check (or they demonstrate) what flowers were associated with the cornucopia and with Tunis or Euphrates before the date when this mosaic was made. –




2 thoughts on “Another challenge – botanical imagery

  1. Thomas,
    What we are seeing, I think, is the superimposition of a western style mnemonic upon images of eastern plants drawn by people living in the major ports of the southeast Asian and India trade.
    Obviously one possibility is that the person who included those ‘memory-jogs’ was Armenian. it is equally possible that he or she was not.

    There were other inheritors of the classical tradition apart from Muslims and western Christians.


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