For the few examples I ‘ll give below, I might cite dozens – even hundreds – more and for that reason I’ll emphasise the combination of design elements.
‘Knife-blade’ legs are more common from sites on the higher, overland roads, though the style was later revived.
In folio 99r, the simpler vessels’ form and ornament can be broken down as follows:
- cylindrical, red, formed in two sections.
- with / set on a base having out-turned feet.
- line of ‘dots’ parallel to rim and/or base.
- base has rolled rim, some incised.
Red-coloured ceramics are unusual; few red pigments survive the heat needed to produce ceramics. In China, a purplish-red occurs for a time in the Shang, and a ruby glaze is seen for time in the fifteenth century (1426-1435). The colour alone if taken literally effectively discounts [European] ceramics, including the sort of albarellos to which the Voynich containers have sometimes been compared – not a few of which were imported from Syria.
No very early examples exist of cylindrical, red-glazed vessels in the Tang dynasty period, some distilling vessels from the western Han (shown below) owe their red colour – as far as I’ve been able to determine – to recent conservation.
What we do find throughout the centuries is red lacquer-ware.
So to consider each element ~
1. Red Cylinders & cylinders in two sections:
Thailand, Burma, Java,China
The bright red lacquer is a specialty of Burma, contrasting with the darker or duller red of other Asian lacquers. I’d suggest the Voynich ‘blue’ is another instance of avoiding colours in the purple-back range. The ‘sagging’ appearance of the Voynich containers may be due to the avoidance of closed rectangular forms in drawing but equally might represent more flexible fabric, or even metal. Red is the colour of youth, health, sexuality, celebration and happiness in Chinese and other Asian communities.
Woven split bamboo and grasses might be lacquered, partly to strengthen the container and partly to make it more nearly light- and water proof, extending the life of perishable goods.
On this point – Plain cylinders are less well suited to transporting vegetable produce than forms having a raised lid, which allows some circulation of air. ‘Yar-measure baskets’ were so accomplished in design that lacquer was unnecessary, and the lid itself was held exactly one or more ‘yar’ – a standard measure. In the oldest spice markets accessed by the Mediterranean, a custom for displaying the finest suggests transport in baskets of that ‘yar’ type. Powdered spices are still formed into a conical pile and set on the reversed lid, even when the container is a modern, flat-ended metal drum.
Some may be incense-burners – often highly complex in southeast Asia and China.
One folio shows a series which resembles the sort of stacked, nestable sets of boxes used for gifts and donations to e.g. temples, mendicants, weddings. Most would be set on stands. These are found throughout the regions most influenced by Buddhism – below, the example on the left is Burmese, that on the right, Tibetan. Relations between Tibet and western Europe were especially open in the thirteenth century, and Tibet was a major centre of the trade in medicines, on which much Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine relies.
These regions were not unknown to the Hellenistic world. Some communities in Nepal trace their ancestry to group of Alexander’s soldiers who became lost while sent to explore the mountain paths.
Providing free-standing vessels, especially cylindrical vessels, with dedicated legged stands was not a custom in medieval Europe but was routine in the east.
2. set on / on base having out-turned feet
Out-turned feet were and are still common but not invariable.
4. line of ‘dots’ parallel to rim and/or base.
Similarly, a line of dots or bosses just below the upper rim and just above the base originally imitated metal rivets, and is thus seen in many forms of metal work. Only in the east did it become conventional in both metal and ceramic. Here again the closest to the complex type of Voynich vessel is seen in the Tibetan style, elements from are later found incorporated into the deliberately exotic forms which Portuguese commissioned from east African workers, mostly in ivory. It is not impossible that drawings like those in the Voynich manuscript once served as ‘model books’ for that trade.
I don’t think the Voynich ‘pharma’ vessels show painted dots, except perhaps on glass items, but that most are bosses or metal fittings. Ordinary metal in some cases – as folio 101v2 where in my opinion the first two plants have pedestrian uses: the kapok and the luffa. (There’s a misconception that kapok was introduced to Asia by Europeans, but it is attested centuries earlier).
For more impressive items in the pharma section, we might posit silver. Skilled silverwork had come to China, in the first instance, directly from Jewish silversmiths working in Sassanid Persia, but a substantial number of Jews, including silversmiths, came to settle in Kaifeng [Pien-Liang]. Examples below are here only to illustrate the use of silver with other media.
Cloisonné known introduced to China during the tenth century (Tang dynasty), though from where is debated. With it come certain motifs already conventional in central Asia, and that intense interest in pattern and line which typically comes with fine work in any monochromatic material: metal, ivory or ceramic.
Apart from a bare possibility that one detail in the pharma section depicts tricolour glaze, the vessels forms in both the botanical and ‘pharma’ sections seem to me to require no later date than the end of the Sassanid period (224 CE to 651 CE). I should be more inclined to the lower end of that range by reference to the manuscript’s imagery overall.
Sassanid silver (1st-3rd C) like coins of the Kushans and Indo-Greeks use similar proportions to the Vms ‘nymphs’ (as we’ve seen) though we see them again in the old deities of Kiev, dated to the tenth century (i.e Tang dynasty/Ottonian period). We’ve seen something similar in the marginal art of 1stC Alexandria which some believe work of the Therepeutae.
This interval – from the 1st-2ndC AD to the 10thC AD – is constant through those sections of the manuscript which show strongest affect of eastern mores on the basic early Hellenistic/late Achaemenid stratum. By reference to it, and to the content of the various sections, I do not consider the work explicable except as a compilation whose purpose was to serve a peripatetic class and profession. Content also suggests the roads travelled coincide with those through which the east-west trade was conducted, its ‘west’ sometimes terminating in Egypt, Baghdad, northern Syria or the Black Sea’s shore. To this the map on folio 86v conforms, though it does include a great structure in the south west shown with remarkable detail, and the to one site in what I read as the Iberian peninsula, one marked by a triangular court and lighthouse. This I have been unable to identify certainly. Complete absence of any other reference to Continental Europe including Rome, nor to Jerusalem is noteworthy.
But to return to bodily proportions. In the examples mentioned above, as in the Sassanid example shown below (left), the proportion of head to torso is artificial, with the head constantly equal in height to the distance between neckline and navel.
Overall, evidence of eastern affect in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is so clear, consistent and pronounced that I must suppose it was not recognised before I began explaining each section in detail only because studies of this manuscript had long before diverged from the normal routines of provenancing a manuscript.Some later, ornate, works in Chinese cloissoné here.
I do not think the Voynich is particularly Chinese but in regions of inner and of southeast Asia of most interest here, Chinese style was highly influential, melding there with native and with Buddhist forms.