The Voynich “albarello” Deconstructing a phantom Pt 3

Header –  An early example of red glass in Latin Europe. From Lausanne in modern Switzerland, it occurs in the context of the Opus Francigenum. Dated variously to 1179 and 1220, it is the earliest certain image in Latin works of a completely human, standing archer  for Sagittarius.  Another window, believed to have come from Braine Abbey (built in the twelfth century) and now in Soissons, shows a less unambiguous version.  The idea of Sagittarius as completely human may have come to mainland Europe with the secret of how to make red glass – from the eastern Mediterranean.

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


Red glass is not actually stained red.

detail fol 88r
detail from folio 88r. The ring suggests that some parts of this vessel, at least, might be meant for glass.

Pane glass appears either yellow or red depending on whether silver nitrate or gold chloride, respectively, is added to molten glass.  Glass cullet, and tesserae, were brought to various centres in medieval Europe, Greece, Byzantium and the Black Sea where they were re-worked, but the secret of how the colours were made did not necessarily travel too.   Much of that pre-processed glass appears (from archaeological and documentary evidence) to have come from Syria and although one or two centres, including Venice, imported the raw materials for glassmaking, they could not create red glass.

That is why one sees red stained glass, red glass enamel and red tesserae in mosaics within Europe considerably earlier than any European-made ‘ruby’ glass.

This is a very brief idea of a subject which is one of current  research and debate. To get some idea of the subject’s complexity and of the networks which criss-crossed the Mediterranean and Black Sea in service to the industry, you might like to read the following paper.  It is not the most recent on the subject but is still solid, and has the advantage that it is available online as a pdf.

Liz James, ‘Byzantine glass mosaic tesserae: some material considerations’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 30 No. 1 (2006) 29–47.

As late as October 2014, Rehren and Freestone write,

“nearly nothing is known about the distribution processes that ensured a more-or-less steady supply of glass across the Roman and Byzantine Empires, from what appears to be a restricted production region along the eastern Mediterranean coastline”.

Thilo Rehren, Ian Freestone, ‘Pattern in Glass Use in the Roman and Byzantine Worlds: A Report on Current Research at the Institute of Archaeology and UCL Qatar’, Archaeology International, Vol.17, August 2014. (available online)

Fortunately, our task in evaluating the artefacts pictured in MS Beiencke 408 is assisted by other internal evidence from the manuscript and a wider range of comparative material than that relating to its glass.


One of the sites where tesserae had been “gathered apparently for re-use” during the Byzantine period is Beth-Shean near Lake Tiberius.  Referring to it,  James dates the finds of collected tesserae to the 5th-6thC AD. ( ibid. p.39).

This is precisely when our earliest known instances occur of Sagittarius as a human archer, an expression evidently first used by Jews in this region, for whom a half-human and half-animal form may have been found offensive.  One of very earliest instances comes from a synagogue in Beth Shean.Beth Alpha Sagittarius and Scorpio

From Beth Shean again, though dated to three centuries earlier (1st-3rdC AD), comes a rare example of a glass vessel with what seems to be a white ring.  Most examples are coloured in the range dark-green-to-pale-blue. (see picture at end of post). I say ‘seems’ because centuries in the soil may have leached some of the colour, just as it has stained the glass.[a glass with white patina, made in the Byzantine period, here]

And although I cannot reproduce a picture of it here, a vessel of red blown glass was also recovered from Beth Shean.

Beth Shean iridescent glass 1dt-3rdC AD
Beth Shean 1st-3rdC AD

Each of these three items is rare; that two and possibly all three ( given uncertainty about the ring) should be found at the same site is remarkable; that all three should also be represented in a fifteenth century manuscript which is presumed to have been made in Europe is extraordinary, but is not incredible given that we have already seen parallels for some items in the botanical section in Jewish works from southern Europe and both Jewish- and Christian-made imagery from northern Palestine and Syria.

It is also telling, I think, that these iconographic links refer chiefly to the botanical and lading (so called ‘pharma’) sections, and that they should particularly indicate a mid-twelfth-  to-  thirteenth century context for an important phase in that imagery’s evolution and transmission.

On the subject of red glass, both archaeologists working in Palestine, and Gotein from his study of commercial documents preserved in the Cairo geniza, agree that knowledge of how to make red glass had been entirely lost to the Mediterranean world except that it was known to glassblowers in Beirut and by them apparently kept so well as a trade secret that none of their neighbours ever learned it.  In the first century, a deep red variety of ‘aubergine’ glass was made in Samaria too, but by default one assumes that found in Beth Shean was made in Beirut.

Thus, when we find, in that same (12th) century, that red glass is being produced for the new architecture in France, and that it appears together with a previously unheard-of form for Sagittarius, one suspects that among the glassmakers brought from the Holy Land to France, and others who had travelled to set up glassworks near Oxford, some were from Beirut.

It is sometimes asserted, nonetheless (see e.g. here) that at this time, “by alchemical experiment” Latins had discovered that colloidal gold must be added to the molten glass.  Given the state of both alchemical knowledge and knowledge of glassmaking at the time, this idea seems to smack a little of the old notion that the Latin European world was a sort of cultural “fortress Europe”.

History and archaeology show a very different picture: one of constant interaction, settlement, movement and exchange between Latin Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, even if there is sometimes a lag before the mainland Latins adopt other forms in imagery, modes of technology or intellectual progress.

MOREA: Corinth

By the thirteenth century, Frankish rule in Corinth had already seen locally-made albarelli, works in imitation of Sankai ware, and locally made glassware.  In the last decades of that century –  in about 1280 – fine enamelled glasses are being made in Syria and the Venetian records speak of a certain Greek, a master enameller from Napoli in the Morea, painting glassware in Venice, and no doubt passing on what he knew of the “Frankish” nobility’s latest fads and favoured styles.  Still, albarelli only begin to be made by Latins in Europe from about a century and a half later, so far as we know. Just two years later –  1282 – and even before moving to Murano, the glassmakers of Venice were exporting their ‘Syrian style’ enamelled glass to Germany.

Restrictions placed on the glassmakers of Murano would certainly justify development of a cipher; these included a prohibition against allowing foreigners to make glass in Murano, against any glassblower’s leaving Venetian territory, and a penalty of death for those who attempted to leave or to impart trade secrets.  The prohibitions were enforced and remained in place well into the sixteenth century.

On this see

  1. Natalija Ristovska, ‘Distribution patterns of middle Byzantine Painted Glass’, in Marlia Mundell Mango, Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange : Papers of the Thirty-eighth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, St John’s College, University of Oxford, March 2004, (2009) pp.199-220. (p.208)

from the same volume I would also recommend warmly the paper by

2.       Hiromi Kinoshita, ‘Foreign glass excavated in China from the 4thC – 12thC’ ibid. pp.253-262.   She notes that “locally produced glass [in China] is lead glass, where foreign glass is predominantly soda-lime glass” (pp. 253 ).

see also in that volume the paper by

3.       Emilie Savage Smith about the ‘Book of Curiosities’ .

For background on Corinth under Frankish rule,

4.        G.D.R Sanders’ article ‘Corinth’ from Dumbarton Oaks’ The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century (Angeliki E. Laiou, ed.) is available online as a pdf.

Red glassware of Beirut see

  1. Adrian J. Boas, Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East , Routledge, 2005. Boas also notes that distribution of the early tin-glazed (‘majolica’) ware is centred around Acco (Acre), arriving about the thirteenth century and decreasing in frequency as one moves back from the coast.
  2. Goitein, “The Main Industries of the Mediterranean area as Reflected in the Records of the Cairo Geniza,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 1961, 187.


The other important centres for glass, in the eastern Mediterranean, were Fustat (old Cairo); Acco (Acre); Antioch and Tyre.

Links to Sephardi of France, Spain and England.

“…dyeing and glass making were the major industries among Jews, as well as metalwork. In Tyre there were many Jewish settlers from as far away as Morocco and Spain. Glass making and dyeing were, again, the main trades [of the Tyrian Jews].”

Norman Roth, Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia, Routledge (2014) p.180.

Of Tyre, Benjamin of Tudela wrote:

The Jews own sea-going vessels and there are glassmakers among them who make that fine Tyrian glassware which is prized in all countries….

He describes Tyre as a port within which traders “from all parts” were then active, and in which about 400 Jews (i.e. heads of families) lived, among them a certain Rabbi Meir who had migrated to there from  Carcassone in Provence.

Then we hear from Jacques de Vitry, who is thought to have been born near Rheims, and who was the (somewhat desultory) Bishop of Acco in the thirteenth century, that:

“in the neighbourhood of Tyre and Acco they make the purest glass with cunning workmanship out of the sands of the sea: that is, out of sands and sea gravel.”

Rheims Cathedral and its glass might have provided some very interesting images for us, but the Cathedral was devastated during the first world war and the medieval town reduced almost to rubble.


We do, however, find an allusion to Tyre in a southern French (Occitan) manuscript; it shows an image of Sagittarius which derives from the old Phoenician emblem for Tyre as ‘Lord’ or ‘Lion’ of the Sea.  That figure for the city is so ancient that it is referenced in the Biblical text and so formalised that it appears on the Phoenician coins of Tyre itself. One is shown below.  As a rule it is not the ‘sea scorpion’ which appears below the figure, but dolphins. (I apologise for the reversed text of the manuscript, but I preferred to have the figures face as nearly as possible in the same direction).

Occitan, or Judeo-Catalan, is thought to be the language in which the Voynich manuscript’s calendar is inscribed with its month-names. Occitan was first proposed by Jorge Stolfi; Judeo-Catalan argued by Artur Sixto. There is no obvious indication in the Voynich manuscript’s calendar fold-outs that it is meant for astrological calculations; the number of its months do co-incide with the western Mediterranean sailing year – which formally ended in November but (as records show) actually continued to mid- or late December, resuming in March.

It was not easy sailing late in the year. Gregory XI departed from Avignon on  September 13th., 1376, took ship from Marseilles on ships of Portovendres on October 2nd. of that year, but reached Genoa more than two months later, on December 6th.   The distance between Marseilles and Genoa is roughly 190 nautical miles – about 350 kilometers. They had advanced, on average, 5 kilometers each 24 hours.

One sees why the months of January and February might be omitted from some types of calendar, and they are absent from the Voynich manuscript’s.

Sagittarius Occitan MS detailsea lord








Jacques de Vitry first alarmed the Latin world by telling it that the Church of the East, whose refusal to accept that any human female could give birth to the deity had seen it declared heretical, were not extinct, but flourishing eastwards in numbers “exceeding the numbers of Latins and Greeks taken together, and within the Muslim lands, apart from Egypt and Syria, far exceeding the number of Mohammedan believers.”

On Jacques de Vitry and his works see John Frederick Hinnebusch, The Historia Occidentalis of Jacques de Vitry: A Critical Edition.(1972).

The Jews of Iberia and, apparently, also those in England as in north-western France were Sephardic Jews.  When England expelled the Jews in 1290, those who had earlier created and then maintained glassworks near Oxford were obliged to abandon all their possessions, and these fell to the masters of the university – during Roger Bacon’s lifetime. Our manuscript’s appearance: vellum, hand and page-layout as well as its imagery led to its being initially assigned to this period, and by a majority to England, though by Panofsky to southern (Sephardi) Jews.

Many English Jews then found refuge among fellow Sephardis in northern France, and perhaps some joined the glassmakers of the Vosges, for Samuel Kurinsky mentions that glassmakers of that French district were among the more notable emigrees who later left France for Tudor England.

In speaking of England’s Royal Gold Cup, Blair mentions that the composition of certain red glass which was inserted into its stem between 1486 and 1521 has a composition very close to ruby glass used on a fourteenth century French cup. (yes, he says ‘ruby glass’).

John Blair, W. John Blair, Nigel Ramsay (eds.), English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products (1991).

Avignon and Lyons had been two other cities where Jews were relatively safe from attack, being lands held by the papacy.


Lyons deserves mention for another reason: it was from there that a fellow cleric sent Athanasius Kircher a letter in which we see a script reminiscent of Voynich script, as Berj Ensanian noted years ago. The context in which it appears, however, suggests it might relate to the coast of the Adriatic, and perhaps Dalmatia.

Another example of a similar-looking script appears in a manuscript from medieval Cairo (Fustat?).  Here a figure dressed in red and yellow stands before a kiln of some sort.  Credit for having first noticed this text and image in relation to Voynich studies due to Nick Pelling.

Altogether, the probability is high that the matter in this manuscript, and particularly in its botanical and lading (‘pharma’) sections had made its way from the eastern side of the Mediterranean to the western at some time between the mid-twelfth and mid-thirteenth centuries, and that it had not then entered the European corpus directly, but remained in all probability within the Sephardic Jewish communities, members of whom settled and re-settled in England, France and northern Spain, or north of the Alps as political and social changes required.

I find no evidence of influence from north of the Alps here, although (as has recently been demonstrated in much detail), the type of the standing archer would become –  somewhat later – popular in German Christian works. The version used in the Voynich manuscript however appears to reflect that original custom of eastern Jews as it had been adopted first in thirteenth century glass in France, and whose expression in MS Beinecke reflects a final version in which the crossbow and dress again refer to customs of the maritime environment from southern Europe to the Aegean. I have so far seen nothing similar in works from Constantinople or fifteenth century Germany. Other Voynich writers hold different views.

script Doclea Kircher Lyons

Okasha blog

Okasha El Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium : Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, Psychology Press, 2005.






For more on the history of Jews and  glassmaking, I refer readers to a series of online essays by Samuel Kurinsky.


Roman Byzantine period glass palestine
Glass finds from Palestine (Roman and Byzantine periods). “Byzantine” in this context means pre-Islamic. Note the deep aubergine-coloured glass. Since colours in the purple-black range are never coloured so in the Voynich manuscript, it is even possible that this is the colour indicated by its red.  I regret having no precise provenance for that find.


…. Pt 4: “Astronomical albarelli”



Postscript for Nick Pelling, who was asking about patterns and dots and things.

Found in Harappa in 1993 and on display in the Harappa Museum. The patterns are painted.
The patterns are painted.





2 Replies to “The Voynich “albarello” Deconstructing a phantom Pt 3”

  1. I would merely point out that there is considerably more evidence that the red paint on the pharma “containers” (let’s be neutral) was added by a later owner rather than the original creator. If you look at the badly applied red paint added to the containers on f99r and f99v, some of it covers up Voynichese labels, some of it doesn’t: it looks a mess, and entirely at odds with the drawing.

    Hence there seems to me no obvious reason to think that the history of red glass has any relevance to the content of the Voynich Manuscript.

    As to the dots: I’m reasonably sure a diligent search would also reveal dots in cave paintings somewhere. In the context of glassware of the second half of the 15th century, though, dots patterns were a distinctive Murano artisanal feature (as I’m certain you already know), which is no more and no less than what I was pointing out elsewhere.


    1. Nick,
      You may or may not be right about how long after the manuscript was made the red paint was added. I think it might just as easily have been added in the fifteenth century, but by the heavy painter who constantly tries to make the imagery seem more compatible with European Latin ideas, attitudes and beliefs than the original is. Why he added the colour is one interesting question. It is obvious enough that the result is meant to refer to red glass, so the question of when red glass was (a) known and (b) made in Europe has intrinsic interest. Besides which, for all we know, the text which we cannot read always said the glass was red.But if you go to the trouble of enciphering something that is genuinely a rare trade secret, it would seem sensible to colour the object yellow for ‘gold’ rather than plainly colouring it a give-away red.
      Rather than all this sort of slightly-snarky exchange of ‘might-be-could-be’ ideas, I would much prefer to find that some element in the red paint confirmed your view that the paint could only have been applied… whenever. I like details, and facts and as you know I like them more than theories.

      Anyway, see what you think of my treatment of the ‘barils’ theme. I’m sure it won’t meet with your approval, much less approbation, but it may help you see why I do not regard 15thC Murano as a likely context for first enunciation of this imagery. Cheers.


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