Starting from scratch #7e Afterwords

These comments on stylistics, including a brief comment on ‘hatching’, were part of the previous post, but they made it rather long.


Despite the richness of the two Jewish Miscellanies, and the outsourcing for their images, there appears to me to be retained that customary modesty with which human figures are represented in Jewish works.

For that reason I wonder whether, when Panofsky described the Voynich manuscript’s imagery as “crude” though he believed it a Jewish work, he was speaking in more than just the artistic sense, finding the style of its  “naked souls”  inappropriate. To illustrate the distinction – the first image is from the Rothschild Miscellany; the next, of course, from MS Beinecke 408.

script Rothschild Miscellany figure

detail. Rothschild Miscellany

detail from bathy section

detail of folio 78r

For various reasons, I believe that our present version did intend to maintain a convention of modesty. Our present manuscript may have been made by European scribes – for in one or two cases they fail to deprive the figures entirely of sexual attraction and  ‘realism’ –  but in the main an intention to avoid titillation appears to me retained.  The great majority remain generic and even deformed – thus un-earthly figures for all that they are drawn unclothed. It is certainly not due to incompetence; the backs, bellies and armpits are realised effortlessly.  A similar distaste may underlie the clothing added in some cases, additions argued by various commentators to be later than the informing works, and perhaps even later than our present manuscript. Needless, to say, the philosophy of deforming the appearance of anthropoform (human-shaped) figures is antithetical to that of Latin renaissance art.

detail women f78r


While I have this illustration in front of us, with its head-dresses and boundary lines marked by roughly parallel pen-strokes, I might mention one long-standing misapprehension in Voynich studies; that by which such patterns are defined as ‘hatching’ in the sense the term is used of a technique characteristic of Latins’ “renaissance” art.  This has then sometimes been taken as sufficient reason to argue a terminus a quo for the Voynich imagery’s first enunciation.

What we see here, however, is not that ‘renaissance’ technique – which uses long, straight lines laid in parallel to specify a plane.  These are formed as a fairly haphazard set of slightly curved, and only roughly parallel lines, intended (as always) to define curve and volume.

It can only be called ‘hatching’ in the very loosest sense; as a technique it is quite commonplace and was applied in many media from the ancient to the modern period.  When this series is finished, I’ll make a longer post on the subject and include more comparative examples but for now, three or four should be enough.

First: as penwork – detail from an initial in a fourteenth-century copy of the twelfth-century Fabulae of Gualterus Anglicus

detail Penwork Cod Bodmer 4 Gualterus Anglicus Fabulae Paper Italy 14thC

Cod Bodmer 4 Gualterus Anglicus Fabulae (Italy, 14thC)

Second – in paint.  Detail from a twelfth-century French wedding box painted in ‘provincial’ style.  Here again, it is seen in conjunction with cross-hatching (the latter never used in MS Beineke 408) and again the short, slightly curved lines are a means to indicate curve and volume: in this case of the woman’s plait.

detail from a 12thC 1180 French wedding box, Vannes Musee des Beaux-arts, Brittany

French wedding box. c.1180 AD. Vannes Musee des Beaux-arts, Brittany

C0mpare that usage, constant across media and centuries, with this very interesting early use of straight-line  “hatching” to convey depth as carving-out. It comes  from a pre-renaissance work, a twelfth-century manuscript now in the library of St.Gall.

hatching black ink

To suppose that ‘hatching’ even in the formal sense was an invention of Renaissance artists is an overstatement; to apply the description to the other type of line-work is inappropriate.  The use of straight-line hatching to refer to underlying planes is a separate technique, and one which certainly did become popular for a time among graphic artists acquainted with printing and its requirements. Part of the stimulus for that adoption was evidently, in some cases, a prior training in sculpting and relief-carving, where forms are first defined by the carver or sculptor by straight chiselling to define the underlying planes. Notice especially the hand of the Virgin and face of the Christ.  The result, as you see, is a mesh of straight lines independent and parallel though they may  ‘cross hatch’.

hatching carving pieta Michelangelo

Michelangelo – Rondanini pietà

It is true that in graphic art, straight-line planar hatching became a notable feature of Italian renaissance art.  It is not true that one may broaden its definition to include  any use of roughly-parallel lines, whether in penwork or other media. The Voynich manuscript’s imagery does not show ‘hatching’ of that sort, but reflects customs in art which were demonstrably present in works from southern Europe by the ninth century – and which even then had earlier antecedents, as I’ll discuss later.

Leonardo detail

(detail) Caricature. Leonardo da Vinci. c.1494. J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GA.647




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s