True to type, the figure here is a relentless hunter, with a face drawn in such a way that it might be read as a mask. The killer smiles, one who delights in slaughter. What is more, the accompanying text makes clear that the crossbowman is one to be described as generic – “an evil one”.
No such message appears to the superficial gaze, nor if one hasn’t first traced Sagittarius’ older lineage, or again if one is unable to read the accompanying text, but now we are equipped with all three parts of the apparatus.
The text accompanying the image is the first section of Psalm 109, which is, in effect, a curse whose verses would have been known by heart by most literate persons in Europe.
The petitioner is seen in the upper left, and his words are these:
My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
2 for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
3 With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
4 In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.
6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
8 May his days be few;
9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children …be driven from their ruined homes.
The figure with the crossbow represents, at once, the unjust and cruel oppressor of the innocent petitioner and the nemesis now invoked to pursue and destroy to the same degree.
The message is actually reinforced by his being dressed in the height of fashion, redolent of wealth and power. As Annelisa Stephan said so well:
The most fashionable people in medieval art are often the bad guys. For women’s clothing, look to what the temptresses and prostitutes are wearing. For the men, look at the teenage boys and executioners. The tormentors of Christ are usually dressed to the nines.
(This might be an opportune moment to recall that the Hebrew term which the Latins pronounced as ‘satanus’ described one causing disturbance and disruption.)
Even so far north and so late, the crossbow too denotes an ‘evil one’; it is not just the means to fetch home some birds for supper, as in the Tacuinum. The weapon of itself serves in this case as a device to denote evil nature, as it often does, being always somehow a weapon illegitimate. In other medieval works it is provided as emblem for the figure Discord; another French book of hours assigns it to an Owl, a Latin trope for the Jew. It was plainly an idea that was common currency in France, as had been the figure of an ‘evil’ Sagittarius in earlier centuries and in the south.
We cannot attribute this reputation solely to the second Lateran Council, whose pronouncement makes no reference to Sagittarius and was in any case two centuries in the past. Of course, medieval people kept long memories – even if they did as they liked and repented later. The edict said:
“We forbid under penalty of anathema that deadly and God-detested art of slingers and -archers be in the future exercised against Christians and Catholics.”
Although Muslims in Sicily had manufactured crossbows for Christians, the group most identified with that weapon from before the time of the first crusades until the late fourteenth century were the Genoese.
Our task is to understand the figure on folio 73v as it was understood by those who made it, and who assumed an audience able to read it easily by reference to a shared time and culture. From our own, the work of translation requires more effort though that effort is necessary, given that in the early fifteenth century pictures are still “pictures about” the subject, not merely “pictures of” their objects. The latter position has been too often assumed by those working on the Voynich manuscript.
To me, even this range of uses for the Sagittarius, and models for the archer, have yet to make clear how the Voynich archer was intended. If as the ‘evil’ figure it might employ an early exemplar; if as astrological type, it may be more superficial – merely an allusion to the astrological “sagittarian”. It might, possibly, be meant for James of Aragon, or for a generic Genoese, but so far we have found no decisive element in this image.
One clue may be that maritime character to which reference is constant, if quiet, in the medieval texts. The passage from Aratus, for example, might be assumed known to most literate persons in Europe – that where he warns that ships should find a safe haven when the Sagittarius becomes “inflamed”. Perhaps it will help to discover whether our figure has he been dressed in the clothes of a hunter, a soldier, or of some other class or profession.
… concluded in the next post …