The Voynich “albarello”. Deconstructing a phantom. Pt 4

Header – Glass for a suspended lamp. Venetian crystallo glass. Dated to the end of the 15th or beginning of the 16thC.  The imagery is informed by an equation between Genesis’ “Fiat Lux” and “Lumine Christi” – the latter gained from John 8:12,  central to the Easter ceremonies, and commonly used by missionaries in describing their activities. Such associations were part of Europe’s common culture to this time, a matter of everyday allusion and do not of themselves imply religious context for use.



“Astronomical albarelli”

Another reference to ‘albarelli’ – pharmacy jars – occurs in that post I mentioned by another Voynich writer, and many might think it unobjectionable:

“The presence of Islamic-influenced geometric designs on the albarelli-like “barrels” in the zodiac section suggest a date range of 1450-1475”.

Apart from referring to yet another Voynich myth, namely that the manuscript contains a zodiac, this idea that there is a parallel to be drawn between the ‘barils’ and the albarello is not particularly apt, as we’ll see. 

Stylistically, too, the calendar has nothing in common with the botanical section or the ‘roots and leaves’ sections.  If any connection was intended between the star-flower holding figures and the range of medieval pharmaceutical ingredients, it is embodied in the written text and leaves no trace in the imagery.

Patterns of themselves can’t be described as ‘Islamic’ when nothing in this section shows affect from the customs or attitudes of Muslim faith or art.  Speaking of pattern as “islamic-influenced” seems to depends on a theory about a link between the manuscript and Murano, whose relevance I am unable to see.

In any case, personal impressions may inform art criticism, but have little role in explaining what information the original maker intended should  gained from his image; to do that we have to look for clues within the image which send us to the correct time and place – to the appropriate range of informing ideas and terms.

In my opinion, there is  nothing in this calendar section to suggest influence from east of Arabia- or in fact any original influence from much further east than Syria, unless it were the old Greco-Bactrian region – nor anything that speaks of  the attitudes to art, or the religious philosophy of Islam.  

So I begin in the Roman period, before the empire adopted Christianity, and while there were certainly a number of classes of drum-shaped containers used, each having its particular name and purpose – some being religious and symbolic.

f70r detail barrels brightadj blog

That the barrels are formed as drums is clear: those in the lower register are drawn in full and show a cylinder with a rolled edge extending beyond the cylinder at the base and what appears to be another rolled edge near the rim.

Containers of that sort are still made, and versions of them are the only link between this section and the ‘lading’ or ‘pharma’ section. 

Since they have been around for almost two thousand years and are as well (or even better) known in India and southeast Asian tradition than in the medieval west, this is perhaps not especially telling.  Oddly enough,  I’ve never seen a drum shaped container of any substantial size pictured in a medieval work: have you?

containers rolled rims2container fibre drum








Let’s assume

  • that the first maker of this imagery did not expect his contemporary audience to respond to the drawing with bewilderment, scorn, accusations of incompetence, mental illness or anything of that sort.  These are modern reactions, and tell us mainly that the original maker did not come from the same tradition which underlies the evolution of western art.  We have no difficulty interpreting medieval or renaissance imagery, so we may begin by assuming that the original maker was not a medieval Latin.  The imagery itself appears to confirm that. Medieval Latins did not envisage stars or star-souls in drums or barils before 1440 though there later developed a temporary fad for imagery along those lines.

The obvious question is, therefore, “When and where would it have seemed normal to depict stars, or angels, or star-souls etc. as being carried about the sky in cylindrical containers?”


The Roman Sitella/cista

We describe such containers as drums, but the Romans described various forms of drum differently.  One type was called a ‘sitella‘ or ‘cista‘ by the ancient and medieval writers, and although classical historians today get hot under the collar about using the terms indifferently as ancient and medieval authors did, we can expect that the idea of the sitella and cista being the same informed general perceptions and thus may inform our imagery. 

In the older way of thought, the similarity in sound between ‘sitella‘ and ‘stella‘ (star) may have led to an idea of their being naturally connected.

Etymology worked that way before the invention of modern etymology.  Let me illustrate the difference.

Modern etymology for the Latin ‘stella’ (star)  reads like this.

… from Proto-Italic *stērolā, from Proto-Indo-European *h₂stḗr.

Medieval etymology like this:

Stars (stella) are named from ‘standing’ (stare), because they always stand fixed in the sky and do not fall. Stars are not able to fall, since they are immobile… and are carried with the sky since they are fixed in it.

So that’s one reason for the ‘barils’ – to hold the stars “immobile”. It also explains their withered and rubbery-looking limbs. They are imagined to be without the sinews of physical strength: not only held immobile but incapable of autonomous movement.

So here, apparently, we have ‘sitellae‘ as containers of the ‘stellae‘.  And the mindset doesn’t appear to be fifteenth century, but something rather older.

rolled rims details

Here’s an image of a sitella, with a winged figure in a Greek peplos above it, pouring water into a dish.  The sitella has a pattern of small bosses about the upper rim, too. Did it look a little to you as if the winged creature was a spirit risen from the ‘sitella‘ or like the angel associated with the tomb of a risen Christ?  I expect that’s how it might have seemed to the passing population in later, Christian, Rome. Not that this was the intent of the makers, but it would have seemed “common sense” in medieval Europe just as it may do now. By default, and without any additional effort invested, we rely on our existing range of general knowledge – which is all “common sense” really is.

Sibyl sitella
sitella and ‘angel’ Sibyl, Palatine

In any case – the sitella‘s form offers a close parallel for the ‘barils’ and one reason why they might be linked with the stars in the imagination of the original draughtsman. However, since we know that as early as the fifth century AD, the purpose of these old cylindrical containers was almost forgotten, so we may suppose that this imagery was first made earlier than the fifth century.

There was reason, though, for later people to associate such containers with the dead, because items of similar form had been used as funerary urns and some were depicted on public monuments, while others were doubtless discovered from time to time, as they continue to be.

The pair of shown below are cistae used as funerary urns. In Christian Europe the nearest to this was a reliquary, but since the bones of the saints were not usually burned, and the church disapproved of cremating the dearly departed, such cistae would have been regarded with distaste, horror or fear depending on how the individual felt about pre-Christian practices.

Having items of this sort on public monuments, and old coins, where it was associated with the snake would hardly have endeared the population. The inscription on the right hand example doesn’t mean “sacred star’ but ‘holy Isis’. A medieval person with minimal education was unlikely ever to have heard of Isis and we can be fairly sure that rudimentary Latin would have given the first and erroneous interpretation.  But in a way it wasn’t wrong – the bodies in the cistae were believed to be reborn as stars.

In one way and another, both these forms of cista/sitella relate to the idea of life after death, but where the first contained human remains, the other probably didn’t. It was supposed to hold the head of Osiris.  The second type is described more exactly as the cista mystica and it might be made of metal, but equally made as a cylindrical basket of woven reeds or something of that sort.container cista mystica and griffin Capitoline Museum Rome 2ndC

tax bucket burial urns Praeneste









I hope this basic information makes clear some of the thinking which underlies the imagery, why stars (as star-souls, or even as angels) might be depicted circling the heavens in containers of this type, and why they would be drawn with such seemingly boneless limbs. Not by a Latin Christian artist, of course, but originally by someone for whom the idea that a body burned became a star was normal.

fol 70r Sirius tiers


That the cista/sitella might be made of basket work, and not only of metal, is evident. Older Greek and Roman custom kept the ornament fairly simple, mostly rib and horizontal banding.  The detail below comes from a work made in the reign of Caracalla after a Greek original  dated to c.160-150 BC. It is now in the Farnese Tower. It is a form of sitella.

Torre Farnese detail

Again made of basketry, and again from the second century, the ‘oriental’ version of the cista mystica on a coin for Tralleis in Lydia.  The example is also of interest because it shows a bull of Indian breed, noted for its hump. ( I first  showed this example back in 2010, too). coin Tralleis Lydia 2ndC bce berries bow

Metal cista  might be taller, or shorter, the one on the left used to collect and transport taxes. It is this type which most resembles those in the lading, or ‘pharma’ section.   Another which was meant for the same purpose, but which is shorter, was found below the agora in Agai, the former capital of Macedonia. This tells us either that the practice is older than the Roman presence or, perhaps, that Roman tax collectors were unwelcome.

coin Gordion III reverse
coin of Gordion III (reverse). Image of a tax-collection container, sometimes called a ‘cista’ and in modern works, often, a ‘tax bucket’.

Macedonia Agai










In the next post, I’ll look at patterns in more detail, on the sitella/cista, and on other forms of burial urn used in the west. The range and nature of the patterns might surprise you.

There is also some evidence that as late as the twelfth century, some native populations around Rheims were more familiar with the idea of cremation and urn burial than they ought to have been. It was a distinctly pagan practice, yet the director of works thought it necessary to have the tympanum’s “Judgement” emphasise its wickedness.

All the figures in this register are intended for pre-Christians who arise on the Last Day, some emerging from crypts, others from sarcophagi.   Only those in the terracotta urns beg frantically for mercy, asking Mary to intervene.  They are asking only to have the opportunity to be judged with everyone else, but their bodies having been burned would appear to have signified, in the eyes of the church, that they were inevitably consigned to hell.

souls of the dearly departed Urn, coffin and crypt burials from Rheims Cathedral north transept west arch tympanum
Rheims, north transept west arch tympanum.

container cista mystica and griffin Capitoline Museum Rome 2ndCAnd to make that message even clearer, the lower register shows a “devils’ cauldron” whose shape is  exactly the same.

Rheims Hells cauldron










In fact, funerary urns which have been found are not usually cauldron-shaped or so plain.  Those pictured at Rheims may have been made so because that was the forbidden local practice, or perhaps just to emphasise equation with the cauldron of hell.

The Phoenician type had handles and painted decoration, while the Anglo-Saxon version had no handles and a surface stamped with patterns, usually geometric.

… as we’ll see in the next post.

For whoever first made the image on folio 70r, though, the idea of star-souls in cylindrical containers of the cista/sitella sort was evidently not objectionable, but quite ordinary.  Presumably a person who lived before the Christian era. And for all we know, that is why later folios show no such thing.  The notion implied the sort of heresy which a copyist might not recognise, but which the theologian who issued permission for copying works from suspect sources certainly would.

A degree in theology required, first, mastery of every other subject of the curriculum, barring only medicine.  Education, then as now, added to the store of what a person knew, but couldn’t add to his humanity.  Witness Kircher’s behaviour towards Galileo; Kircher was so used to being the brightest kid in school that he felt those who disagreed with an opinion he held were – as it were – guilty of  lèse majesté.









Pt. 5… Patterns.





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