Excursus: “Christian imagery in the Voynich”
Addition – December 3rd., 2014. Some time after writing the original post, other indications in the ms allowed me to narrow the search for emblems held by figures in the ‘bathy-‘ section. Here is an example of the ‘near-cross’ – similar to what is drawn on folio 79v, but which the person who added pigments to the manuscript attempted to re-present in a way that was in keeping with much later, and Christian, expectations.
Addition – Monday Aug.29th 2011-
Following reference is helpful:
M. C. Miller, “The Parasol: An Oriental Status-Symbol in Late Archaic and Classical Athens”,The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 112, (1992), pp. 91-105. (JSTOR)
remainder of post is as originally published in 2010.
I have not found any obviously Christian imagery in the Voynich manuscript, and it would be a great relief to find something in it which is plainly of that millieu, and yet demonstrably not a late addition.A sense of “recognition” is not the same as an identification. When we feel we “recognise” an element in a picture – without further investigation – it must be sowell known that we do not have toformallyidentify it, or we must be aware that our ‘recognition’ may be no more than the misinterpretation of a coincidence.The figure which some have supposed a Christian figure at the top of fol.79v is a very good example of the sort of problem presented by this manuscript.On an admirable site devoted to a discussion of it, the following detail is noted and a comment made that it shows a woman holding a crucifix, while light streams down upon her.
The writer of that page is clear about having no training in pictorial analysis, and the following is not at all intended as a criticism of that person – but this is such a good example of the type of question constantly raised during consideration of the work, that I should like to address it in detail.
We must begin by looking more closely at what the woman holds.
Nor, in fact, does the manuscript show her holding a Latin cross. Whether by accident or design, one arm of the cross terminates with a vertical addition, or a lump of some kind, so that the whole looks a little like a traffic warden signalling “stop”. [see in ‘zoom’ on the Beinecke Library’s website]
Since I don’t particularly want to spend a couple of days, just now, establishing whether or not such a formal device has ever been recorded, we will suppose, for the sake of argument and just for the moment, that the extension is a slip of the pen, or due to some other accident, and that the female was meant to be holding a cruciform object.
This still does not make it a Christian symbol.
What we have isn’t a crucifix, nor even certainly a “cross”.
We have a cross-shaped object, with a small and perhaps accidental addition to one arm. The object’s length is about the length of the woman’s forearm, and the cross-arm is about two-thirds as long.
Of course such a form will remind us – instantly, immediately and powerfully – of a similar sign that is familiar and immensely meaningful in our own culture. But objectively speaking, there is nothing else in this part of the drawing to confirm that reflexive identification, and a good deal to mitigate against it.
It must be repeated that we do not know when the content of this manuscript was first composed, or first selected. This means that any argument about the imagery or possible content which assumes they are contemporary with the physical construction of the manuscript, begs the question which is most urgently in need of an answer: is the Voynich manuscript the copy of an older work, or is it an original fifteenth-century composition?
Since we do not even know so much, the thing we perceive as a ‘cross’ could represent any one of a hundred things – from a letter in a foreign alphabet, to a sign for the Pole star, a sign for the cross in Cygnus, a Jacob’s staff or a ship-mast, or a lightning-conductor, an axle-tree … and these are just some from the visual vocabularies of navigation and astronomy.
Approaching the image from an opposite perspective:-
Is there anything about the picture arguing against its being regarded as a Latin Christian cross? (only the Latin rite used the plain cross).
Several elements do:
First, of course, is that this ‘cross’ is being held at arm’s length by a naked female figure. Even if one supposes the figure fairly typical hellenistic type, the combination would not appear in the medieval art of western Christendom.
Other points include:
(i) the form given the object above her head, and
(ii) the nail set in its centre
– but those items have been considered in a later post.
On the issue of the figure’s Christian origins I am open to correction, on the first point, and I will certainly research the topic in more depth later, but offhand I cannot recall a single instance in the history of Roman Christian imagery where an unclothed figure is shown holding a Christian cross, nor one where the cross is held in this way.
Apart from Eve, who never holds a cross, I can think of only Mary Magdalen as a possible type here, and while I don’t claim to have eidetic memory, nor to have seen every Latin image of Mary Magdalen, I believe that she is always dressed, at the very least in some sort of cloak, or rough ascetic garb.
More importantly, the cross is not one of Mary Magdalen’s emblems, and medieval religious imagery is heraldic: each figure has his or her character and history, identified by certain assigned emblems. Not all of the emblems need be included in every representation, but those included had to come from the correct ‘heraldic’ set, to avoid confusion.
Since this figure is not in keeping with the appropriate conventions – iconographic or theological – one would now have to hunt the full range of western Christian imagery to see if we have any other instance of such a depiction, even in amateur notebooks – though no-one else has suggested (to my knowledge) that any part of the manuscript is an amateur’s or student’s notebook.
When analysing imagery of which virtually nothing is know by way of provenance, half one’s time, at least, has to be spent hunting through a subtantial number of other images to see where a given type belongs. For this manuscript, we have a limited provenancing, but for the first creation of the imagery, none.
I am reasonably certain, in any case, that no Christian image existed – certainly not before 1438 – in which an unclothed female figure holds a cross at arm’s length, so I would say with some confidence that the chief figure in this picture does not belong within the traditions of medieval imagery of the Latin sphere.
That means, of course, that I do not believe it represents any conscious distortions or subversions of that tradition, either. Indeed, as far as I can see, the work’s original stratum probably belongs to the classical period, and more likely to the Hellenistic than to the Roman. While it might contain religious matter, that matter – so far as it relates to the imagery – could be expected to refer to some religion appropriate to the period in which the pictures were first composed. This, however, is an hypothesis which is not yet proven, where the date of the manuscript is.
The second part of the description runs:
“light streaming down on her”
If those vertical lines did represent light, it would certainly be of interest. Is there an example of Latin imagery, earlier than 1480, in which (i) light is shown descending in parallel vertical lines, and (ii) descending in parallel lines from an object similar to that shown in the manuscript?
For the classical period, I have to say that I am not sure. About the medieval period, I can speak more comfortably.
A description of how parallel lines are used in drawings of later western Christendom is at:
I don’t agree that parallel lines were not used or seen earlier, but it’s fair to say that they had not been used earlier by western individuals working in this graphic style during the Christian era. Parallel lines were used to indicate depth and form, to add variety and modelling to certain styles of ivory carving, and so forth -but not to represent lines of light.
‘Lines’ of light were depicted in western medieval Christian art [with some few early and imitative exceptions] either as solid halos and/or as lines of radiance emerging from a specific point. Here both conventions are used together by Giotto:
In an example mentioned in an earlier post, beams of light are shown as parallel lines, but the imagery is not native to Latin Christianity, and the spear-like beams are being extrapolated horizontally from a presumed point at the centre of the circle. They are intended to represent a circle of defence, and these ‘beams’ are not imagined dropping at all, let alone dropping to earth as water falls from a shower-rose.
So: far from being a Christian figure holding a Latin crucifix, we have a markedly different type of figure holding some sort of cruciform object, or sign, or letter, the meaning and origin of which are still unknown.
One might, for argument’s sake suggest it represented the precursor of the backstaff – which is similarly formed and which (according to William May) was probably in use in Ionia by 600bce.
But the first-given description being rejected, one must agree that it need not have been reached impulsively.
Christian literature certainly does include reference to clouds’ overshadowing people and light emerging from clouds to shine on holy people, and ‘visions’ which include visions of Christ’s cross and so forth. We also have pictures in which saints reach forward to grap or touch a cross that appears miraculously before them. In each case, however, the figure is fully, and modestly dressed, and the cross is usually a crucifix, and it is always a centre from which light radiates.
It is of course very easy to read such allusions into one’s unprovenanced picture backwards: in this case to interpret the cruciform object as a cross, and by reference to later and more familiar imagery to then suppose the object over the female’s head ‘ust be’ a cloud, and the vertical lines ‘must represent’ light.
But one has to test such associations.
Context, and precedent, and cultural affect must all be taken into account to decide whether a figure is superficially like some other, or whether does mean to represents the same matter. This is where precedents and conventions become important.
There is no appropriate precedent for such a figure in western Christian religious imagery, to my knowledge (though I am open to contrary examples).
That there is no appropriate context for such a figure within mainstream western Christian culture to 1440 I am certain.
Cultural affect, in my view, would render such an image quite shocking at that time; the nubile naked nymph belongs to the pagan classical tradition, and was acceptable – at the time the Voynich manuscript was made – only within such a context.
Naked female figures were, in themselves, offensive to the more modest mind and I attribute to that kind of sensitivity the obvious, and late, efforts at bowdlerisation: some figures were entirely re-dawn and a number have been provided with hats, dresses and coats.
Ref: May, William Edward, A History of Marine Navigation, Oxfordshire: G. T. Foulis & Co.,1973.
I had to look up the details of May’s book, since I don’t have it by me. Here’s the web page on which I found it:
Know that red coral has these virtues: everyone who will carry a piece on himself, and put the other half on the top of the house, or the tower, or the bell-tower, or the mast of a ship, will, by the power of God, as it says in the Book of Properties, be safe from the flash of lightning from the clouds, and from whirlwinds, and from misfortune, and from sinking ships where the coral is. And also know that red coral is good against loss of blood, and against epilepsy..and apparition, and it is worth much to a man to expedite [his business].
quoted from the Liber de proprietatibus by Bartholmeus Anglicus, quoted in Dotson, John E. (ed. and trans.), Merchant Culture in Fourteenth Century Venice: The Zibaldone da Canal, New York (1994) p.145