I’m so glad you asked me that…

A casual reader sends this well-known picture, asking if it isn’t a good match for Voynich archer’s dress?

The short answer is “sort-of” and “maybe not” – and this is why.

First, the image is within a series of paintings in a medieval hospice in Siena. At present they are credited, universally, to Domenico di Bartolo, and this means that they are dated to the mid fifteenth century.

However, within the images credited to him in that site are a number of figures with a Spanish sort of beard; one (or possibly two different Spaniards) appear among the indigent figures – curious enough but perhaps explicable given the two centuries of struggle between Siena and its neighbours, which saw the latter sometimes bring in Spanish mercenaries.

However one image appears to show the ‘Spanish’ beard and a very long chin on one of the hospital’s benefactors, and he wears clothing of the sort which one might fairly describe as royal.  The difficulty here is that there is no eminent Spaniard mentioned in Siena’s history before the 1530s, when the notably long-chinned emperor Charles V, also known as Charles I of Spain, arrived with several hundred mercenaries, ostensibly using Siena to prosecute a war against their neighbour. Siena Spaniard beard Charles V query

Charles was born in 1500 in Flanders.  By the 1530s, the Spanish flag was already flying over Siena, it having come in 1529/30[1] with four hundred Spaniards on behalf of “the Caesarian Majesty of the Emperor and the Catholic Majesty of Spain, combined in the person of Charles V”.

Charles V HolRomEmp CharlesI Spain

Remaining just a few days in Siena, Charles had left, but in addition to a garrison of Spanish soldiers, appointed a series of governors, beginning with Don Lopez de Soria.

The paintings in the hospice in Siena appear better suited to this period than that to which they are attributed. As to the curled hair of the Sienese painting, I cannot tell whether it is a formality or not, for while Charles seems to have kept his hair very short, another early painting shows that it tended naturally to curl. Perhaps in Spain naturally curled hair suggested the Morisco.

Charles was fluent in several languages and seems to have used them in different contexts, for he once said:

“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

The Sienese were generally very slow to warm to foreigners, preferring the Frenchman to the Spaniard as a rule, but one of the latter won their hearts by his sheer integrity and .. well.. niceness.

For a time, the tyrannical Diego Hurtado de Mendoza was away from his post in Siena,  his responsibilities falling then to one Don Franzese de Avila as maestro di campo. This representative had manners so gentle and modest that the writer Sozzini describes them as chè veramente era come una donzella. “Truly, like those of a gracious young lady.”  de Avila was in charge when the French and the Florentines took the city, the Spaniards being driven to refuge in a newly-built tower, and generally being set upon savagely by the Sienese.  However, when the remnant were marched through the city to be expelled, Don Franzese found Ottavio Sozzini and a number of other young nobles waiting to say farewell to him near the city gate.[1]  Sozzini recorded his remarks, “You brave Sienese,” he said, “have made a most beautiful coup; but in future try to exercise forethought, for you have offended too great a man.”

great robe

The interest in reddened hair also seems to me to suggest the sixteenth century rather than the fifteenth, as does the ferret(?) about the figure’s neck.  Overall, the painter present this figure as the reverse view of the ‘Knave’ from packs of certain playing cards, and as early as the late fourteenth century. A ‘Knave’ , like de Avila, stands after the king, queen and Cavalier in such packs. In every case we’ve seen, therefore, this sort of dress belongs to the courtly environment, and to persons who serve in it.

I’m simply not convinced that what we see now in the Sienese mural was just what was painted in 1445.

Again from the sixteenth century, the following ‘bird-shooter’ Knave appears on a playing card printed in Germany. That it, the print was made in the sixteenth century; the block’s date and origin is unknown, and nothing whatever is known about any sources used by the block-maker. To me this figure’s body is longer and more elegant than one sees on most packs of German cards, and the slender leg, little slippers and striped hat are evocative of non-European style – but as I say, we don’t know what sources were used. The oldest written reference to playing cards in Europe is a ban placed on their use in Spain.

Victoria and Albert Museum E.989-1920

Victoria and Albert Museum E.989-1920 (1546-1550)

The following image is taken from a manuscript made in the mid-fourteenth century and shows three French court musicians. One, at least, has a longer skirt. In this case the difficulty here not the similar dress, but the fashion in facial hair, which in that environment did not include beards of the narrow, pointed type indicated for the Voynich archer.

costume France 14thC

Of the European examples for this type of court-dress I think the next is by far the best, but I remain convinced that the Voynich archer’s skirt is a separate article and is meant for the regional Greek military type.

However, the following painting is securely dated to 1437-1438, made by Fra Angelico as part of an altarpiece in Perugia.  (1437-8 is the end of the range gained by radiocarbon testing four folios from MS Beinecke 408). the end of the range which radiocarbon tests return from testing four folios of the Voynich manuscript.  The story told in the painting is this….

grain ship captain fra Angelico 14thC Miracle of StNicholas

Fra Angelico. Miracle of St. Nicholas. 14thC. (the lighter print makes some details clearer).

A ship on the grain run between Egypt and Constantinople anchored overnight in the town of Myra. Myra is on the southern shore of Asia Minor (the ‘astronomers coast’). The town was labouring under a dreadful famine, and its bishop Nicholas asked the  ‘sailors’ to give the people some of the wheat.  They did not wish to do so, explaining that they were accountable to the Emperor in Constantinople, and that the weight delivered must be that recorded in the record of lading. Nicholas prevailed, eventually, and they left behind enough wheat to keep the town for two years, with extra to use for sowing.  On arriving in Constantinople, and no doubt in some trepidation, those on board found that the load delivered weighed exactly what it had done when they left Egypt ~ just as Nicholas had promised.

So the figure standing by his ship in the picture is either the master mariner, or more likely a factor for Constantinople on board to oversee the transaction.  And that garment is the type which Fra Angelico imagined would have been worn by such a Greek-speaking person in the eastern Mediterranean during the time of Constantine.

Altogether,

Between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries, some artists in Europe gave to secular figures, acting as agents or servants of the emperor or king, a kind of ‘court dress’ whose skirt can be compared with that of the Voynich archer, but which does not usually have similar sleeves.  Until the mid-fifteenth century, the Voynich archer’s ensemble, including beard and hat, indicate rather the south (Spain) and/or to the eastern, Greek-speaking regions.

As yet, however, these examples have offered no reason why such a figure should be read as a version of Sagittarius, nor why in no other case do we find Sagittarius (as such) with a crossbow.

——————-

1.Timothy B. Smith, Judith Belle Steinhoff (eds.), Art as Politics in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena,

2. A good, if old history of Siena is available in English through the internet archive,

Edmund G. Gardner, ‘The Story of Siena and San Gimignano … illustrated by Helen M. James‘, London: Dent & Co., (1902)

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