Sagittarius fol 73v (starting from scratch #12b/2)

Correction: for “The design of that figure has nothing to do with our ‘standing archer’ as Sagittarius” read “in terms of iconographic lineage, the design of that figure… etc.” There is no doubt that de Pretis meant it for Sagittarius.

Summary: The standing human archer for Sagittarius appears in Europe first in the region of Picardy and Laon in the twelfth century, spreading north during the thirteenth, to appear by the early fourteenth near Constance and then in German manuscript art only from the fifteenth –  four hundred years after the earliest Latin example and at least eight centuries after its first enunciation in northern Israel..

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Saggitarius MS Ludwig XII 8 folio56 German shortly after 1464

MS Ludwig XII 8 folio56. shortly after 1464

With regard to peoples of Mesopotamia, and the centres of ‘Babylonia/Baghdad’, our German manuscript artist was surely aware that all the Jews of the diaspora looked to the splendid scholars – the Geonim – of ‘Babylonia’ and Baghdad  for authoritative judgements in matters of the Law; perhaps too he knew that the founder of  Ashkenazic Judaism in Germany was called (as he is to this day) the ‘last of the Geonim’. [1] Another reason that might lead him to connect that region to Jews he saw about him in fifteenth-century Germany.

And if he had read Ibn Botlan’s text, he would also believe that the same ‘land of the Medes’ was the place where the antique citron grew naturally, as it did not in Europe. We now call it Citron medica, and it is intrinsic to Rabbinic celebration of the annual feast of Sukkot, during which both the Rabbinic and the Karaite Jews live in temporary outdoor shelters for seven or eight days.[2]

Lulav and etrog detail

Altogether, his forming the Sagittarius as a standing archer – with that pointed hat –  intentionally speaks to the reader of that ‘Chaldean’ region according to contemporary conflation of Medes and Parthians, Mesopotamians and Jews, the Bow and the ‘Chaldean’ arts. A curious idea of European Jews as  ‘Asiatic’ would persist into the nineteenth century in western writings.

But do we carry our interpretation too far? Can we be sure that he associated his text’s ‘Chaldean’ arts with legends of ancient Babylonian people, and with Jews, more than with  Greco-Roman astrology?  But the most interesting question of all is: had he somehow learned that this non-classical Sagittarius originated in a particular area in northern Israel, whose ancient tribes had gone  ‘to the land of the Medes’ and which later, in the post-exilic period, had seen the settlement of Scythian bowmen in Bet She’an/Scythopolis?  Had he learned that this was the territory assigned Manasseh, to whom Jewish tradition  gave the bow? Perhaps the information had come together with the image. If so, it is most likely to have come through France.

The ‘standing archer’ in France.

Unless he learned of these things from Jewish sources, the most probable route by which they reached him was that which brought a specific expression for this novel idea  – from the region around Braisne, Laon[3] and Picardy.[4]

We have so little remaining of earlier Jewish works from Spain, England and France that it is impossible to know exactly where and when the northern Jewish image arrived in the west.  It is certainly within the Latin corpus of France by the twelfth century.

1130: Braine Abbey

Our oldest figure has the least certain provenance. It is now in Soissons, but the glass is believed to have been acquired from Braine (Braisne) Abbey, established in the ninth century as a combination of chapel and mausoleum for certain French nobles. Originally in the care of secular canons, it was given over to the Premonstratensian order in 1130, as the Gothic style with its marvellous glass was being adopted through Europe.

Sagittarius - from 12thC Braine [Braisne] Abbey(?). Installed in Soissons in the nineteenth century

Sagittarius – from 12thC Braine [Braisne] Abbey(?). Installed in Soissons in the nineteenth century

Connection to the Premonstratensians is very interesting in this context, since the order had a direct link to the Holy Land, establishing abbeys in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Acre.  This figure for Sagittarius – if it was gained from Braine – is surely one of the earliest representations of the standing archer in Latin Christian art. Interestingly, it shows the figure dressed in knee-length shorts of a kind that would be represented for a version of the ‘Pan’ Sagittarius a century later at Amiens, and within a few years of that, in a German manuscript as I’ve already shown.  I’m sorry not to have a larger picture of this glass.



1231-45: Picardy/ Laon.

Our next example is from nearby Picardy, in the early thirteenth century,  when the south Rose window of Lausanne Cathedral shows the figure  in a simple tunic, intended perhaps to represent a shepherd, and apparently by reference to late classical dress. Again, his arrow points towards the ground. His fierce face suggests the wolf-killer more than the bird-shooter. Here the inscription reads “Arcitenens” – suggesting reference to Ausonius,[5] or perhaps Cicero’s translation of Aratus, though as we’ve seen, copies of the Aratea suppose it an epithet of the Centaur.

Sagittarius Lausanne South Rose Window Sagittarius Lausanne south Rose window. [1231–35]. By a 'wandering artist from Picardy, Pierre d'Arras

Sagittarius Lausanne south Rose window. [1231–35]. By a ‘wandering artist from Picardy, Pierre d’Arras

The Lausanne figure carries, already, a connection to prognostication. It is placed below a figure for Earth, and grouped with Libra and Scorpio to surround another labelled ‘Aero-‘ with seven doves. Modern interpreters see the grouping as reference to Aeromancy and its means of prediction. [6]

In classical languages the ‘speech of birds’ referred both to the language of prophecy and to the seemingly senseless sound of a foreign language.

Less easy to explain is why birds became a trope by which Jews were referred to, not only by others, but sometimes by Jews themselves, in avoiding representation of a Jewish face. The best known example today is the ‘Birdshead Haggadah‘ made in thirteenth-century Germany.

1320: Constance

Sagittarius Jewish BL MSAdditional 22413 f. 141v Prayer for rain

B.L. MS Additional 22413 f. 141v. Lake Constance area c.1320

From almost exactly a century later we have perhaps our oldest surviving European Jewish image of the non-Centaur Sagittarius (c.1320). Avoiding any reference to the Greco-Roman figures, and omitting the human face, it comes from a manuscript made in the region of Constance – to which a number of Voynich researchers have been led.

The point for us is that there is a recognised connection between the windows of Lausanne and the first introduction of the 12 constellations into early Gothic ornament, the Lausanne window designed by an itinerant craftsman called “Pierre d’Arras” whose work is closely related to that from Laon.[5]

The very earliest examples of ‘Gothic’* works in France have no series of zodiac constellations. Even though introduction of the Gothic and its great windows owes much to Abbot Suger of St.Denys and what has been termed his ‘high theology of light’, yet the ‘labours’ series in St.Denys, made early in the twelfth century, is no more than that: a series of the monthly labours. No parallel series of constellations is shown. The two are combined forty years later in the Otranto Cathedral mosaics (c.1165) but Sagittarius is there the classical Centaur.  Altogether it would appear that we owe our standing archer’s dissemination in Christian imagery less to the Gothic style as such than to sources which informed Pierre d’Arras or those who commissioned the work from him.

* Gothic is a late term, originally derogatory, applied to the ‘Frenchwork’ style (Opus Francigenum) by writers who didn’t much like it, and wanted retro-classical applied everywhere.

Whether arriving first through the Premonstratensians, or gained more directly from Jewish customs, the new form for Sagittarius then spreads north from Aine, Picardy and Laon, appearing by the early fourteenth century near Constance and then in German manuscript art from the fifteenth century –  four hundred years after the posited Premonstratensian figure in Braine and eight centuries from its first creation in northern Israel. The path from Picardy to Germany was also that taken, in the thirteenth century, by the ‘Pan’.

15thC: Germany (and Italy)

It was, undeniably, a popular type in fifteenth century German manuscripts and books, but prevalence does not define a style as ‘characteristically’ or ‘typically’ of that area.  Rather, a fifteenth century book in which this type was  found along with other indicators, might allow description of the book as ‘typical of fifteenth century German printed works’. A similar confusion has occurred in Voynich studies over other motifs such as the cloud-band pattern, whose use in German manuscripts and books became common, but which is in no sense ‘characteristically German’ itself – or characteristically French or English for that matter; it is normally read as a sign of eastern affect on western taste.

Here is another fifteenth century German example. You’ll see that the costume is made less biblical and less classical than the earliest versions, and where the older Latin versions show the arrow pointed towards the ground, here the hunting ‘gent’ points aimlessly (for how can he miss?) towards the sky.

Sagittarius standing archer Zurich, Zentralbibliothek MS C 54 Codex Schurstab e-codices. unifr. chenzbz C005422v

Zurich, Zentralbibliothek MS C 54 Codex Schurstab. 15thC  Nurnberg region.

?: MS Beinecke 408

Compare that with the figure in MS Beinecke 408 – ignoring the clothes for the moment.  As you see, the stance is that of the oldest figures (c.11th-13thC). The arrow points downwards.  But the clothing is a little peculiar – not altogether Latin, with that below-the-knee skirt, though not so far off.  And exactly what meaning were contemporary readers supposed to take from these different hats?

Archer f67v


Not much over the 1500-word limit, but I want to add a note about the header picture after the footnotes, and that lengthens the whole – sorry.  Next installment of the Archer’s story this time tomorrow…



1. “The geonim were considered the intellectual leaders of the entire diaspora and their decisions and responsa [with regard to the Law] had absolute .. validity in most Jewish communities”. JVL.

2. Ibn Botlan’s text includes the following: “Pliny observed that in his time there were no citrons growing in Italy, despite diligent efforts to transport the plants from Media. The ancients were convinced that citrons were highly efficacious as an antidote to poisons.”from the English summary and translation by Judith Spencer, The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti, NY, Facts on File publications 1983 (p.121). Spencer adds a botanical illustration where the citron is called ‘Medica Mallus’. The Hebrew term for the citron is etrog. On the four species of plant required for Sukkot, the wiki article ‘Four species’ is useful. In my opinion, a version of the lulav is shown in MS Beinecke 408, on folio 19r. I attribute the ‘lily’ to a substitution for the etrog in regions where the fruit was not available, though a non-Rabbinic tradition is equally possible, one which translated the ‘product of goodly [hadar] trees’ as its flower, not its fruit.  ” Hadar is not a botanical term.. ‘hadar’ is used synonymously … with adjectives such as majesty, beauty and splendour (hod, kavod, tiferet) … hadar may function even as a verb meaning “to bestow favour or honour”. quote from Rachel Adelman ‘The Etrog and the Tree of Knowledge’ online.

3. Jews of medieval Leon. See Lee Paterson, ‘ “The Living Witnesses of Our Redemption”: Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale’, in Harold Bloom (ed.), The Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer (2008). pp. 59-109, and especially p.104 n.109.

4. On these windows and Braine see: Jane Hayward, Radiance and Reflection: Medieval Art from the Raymond Pitcairn Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982) pp.124-134.

5. Ausonius names the 12 as: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libraque, Scorpius, Arcitenens, Caper, Amphora, Pisces. The names, of course, do not dictate the style of representation.

6. see

.. and Italy…

Header picture is a detail from the central roundel in a folio from a copy of Sacrobosco’s ‘de Sphaera’. This copy was produced in 15thC Italy well before Columbus’ voyage. Modena, Biblioteca Estense, Ms. lat. 209. The artist was Cristoforo de Predis (1440-1486).

de Sphera Jupiter smaller Christoforus de Predis 15thC Estense

The central figure is representative of Jupiter as the retrograde ‘Giant’, given a form which the reader was intended to take as allusion to the supposedly ‘backward’ peoples. The design of that figure has nothing to do with our ‘standing archer’ as Sagittarius, but belongs to a line of imagery which, for practical purposes, can be said to begin with Giotto in fourteenth century Italy and which then continues past the time of Athanasius Kircher to appear in the late seventeenth century, in Alain Manesson Mallet’s  Description de L’Univers in 5 volumes (1683). Here again, as you see, is the ‘simple’ Giant with Jovian crown, rod, and smaller supporter to carry his sharp-tipped weapons. In this case the embodiment of the type is king of Madagascar.

madagascar_giant Mallet 1683However, the type itself –  Giant as self-deluded ‘king’ –  derives from Latin interpretation of a Biblical passage where the Giant Orion (al-Gabbar) is called a great fool. Though the original text refers less to any deficiency than to the folly of hubis, and Orion’s backward-facing towards the east, a mistranslation into Latin saw it in terms of common folk-lore which supposed that a very tall and strong body must hold a feeble mind. Thus we have Giotto’s allegorical figure of 1306 entitled ‘Folly’, where a supposedly primitive person is shown, and from that derives a continual production of Latin imagery on the same theme. In fifteenth century Italy, it was a popular form for the ‘Giant Fool’ on playing cards, the hand-painted sort commissioned chiefly by the most fashionable and wealthy families – again the context for de Pretis’ illuminations of de Sphaera. Whether de Pretis intended to imply any close connection between the planet and the constellation [of Orion], historians of astrology are better able to say, but in classical myth at least, the name of Orion’s father is sometimes given as Jupiter – and at others as Poseidon, Apollo, Vulcan or Neptune. Orion himself is depicted as an archer in various pictorial traditions, including the Coptic.

Ethiop tarot card

Giotto ‘Folly’ 1306. Fresco, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.


playing card, ‘The Fool’, 15thC Italy. For the Visconti of Milan.

de Sphaera Jupiter smaller Christoforus de Predis 15thC Estense

‘Jupiter’, painted by Christoforo de Predis, illuminator for the court of the Sforza of Milan c.1471. Modena, Biblioteca Estense, Modena, MS Lat.209. Known as the Sphaera d’Este.



6 thoughts on “Sagittarius fol 73v (starting from scratch #12b/2)

  1. The Ludwig Twelve Archer has his very sharp arrowheads pointing upward — a vast NO-NO!
    In order to be able to draw an arrow from the pouch, and simultaneously nock and fire it, all in one motion, he would NOT touch the very sharp arrow point.
    Suleiman’s archers were known to be able to notch, draw, and fire, an arrow all in one motion, whether on horseback or not. I think the record was 15 arrows a minute. Considering how many manuscript illustrations were made by men who never saw battle fields or soldiers in action, I guess I can take a better attitude on the works of monasterial men.
    Beautiful artwork — to each his own.


    • Bobette,
      You will see the same convention in other imagery, including that made soon after Kircher’s death. I have read a comment somewhere – so sorry, I can’t recall exactly where – that Athanasius Kircher himself said that the Egyptians depicted Sagittarius as an up-pointing arrow. As in so many cases, one has to distinguish between the purely literal, the allegorial and the allusive elements in a picture. As many people have noted before me, medieval pictures are not “pictures of” but “pictures about” things.

      I cannot imagine, myself, being able to draw and fire so many shots in so short a time. Unless I was using the Chinese-invented repeating crossbow, that is.


      • I think it may be Phillip Neal’s archive where some of Fray Kircher’s material/correspondence is still ‘lurking’.


    • A number of the 10thC copies of Aratus show signs of eastern influence, probably mediated by Rome.

      I have a set of posts in the pipeline which consider the Saggitarius figure as an evil one, in contrast to the Chiron/Centaur image of the classical Greco-Roman series. Sources which I cite include some from the pre-Carolingian era, and indeed before the rise of Islam, when that view of the figure was evidently more common.

      In my opinion the central pair reprise the Gallo-Celtic type seen e.g. in the Coligny Calendar and ivory tablets found in the High Vosges, about which I’ve already written briefly here.

      I should have included the example from Cod.Sang 902, I suppose in the first ‘evil Sagittarius’ post, but it was already over 2,000 words – and who reads more?. If I think of it, I’ll add a footnote later, with thanks for the reminder.


      • Mr. Ponzi,
        I have an idea that Rene Zandbergen has referred to the same copy of the Arataea in making some argument about the Voynich manuscript. I may be mistaken, but you should take care about re-treading paths taken earlier by others. It might be easiest just to contact Rene and ask him. He makes a habit of collecting all the best work done, lest it be lost in the internet as he once said, so even if he isn’t the person who has adduced that manuscript in support of an argument of his own, he is sure to know who has.


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