The Voynich albarello. Deconstructing a phantom.Pt 5

Introductory remarks

It is a little difficult to know what information about pattern might be of use to those working on the written text, or attempting to make a history for the manuscript. To show that the patterns are not inconsistent with relics of antique custom is easy enough.  As a rule, though, I shouldn’t bother because in theory the patterns could have been added at any time, in any place during the evolution of the manuscript’s content.

It is perhaps worthwhile to show that the patterns are consistent with definition of the objects as ‘sitella’ or more generally containers for the dead in the pre-Christian world, and thus that  the copyists evidently reproduced not only these forms in the tiers of folo 70r, but with equal care – in all probability – the patterns original to them. As we’ve seen, such funerary vessels were considered not only pre-Christian but antithetical to Christian practice, though used throughout most of the pre-Christian world in one form and another.

I should not suppose that these ‘sitellae’ have anything to do with fortunetelling lots, but it is not impossible and for those intrigued by the possibility, I would recommend beginning with study of the curious work published in Venice in 1527: Fanti’s Trionfi Della Fortuna.


Before European expansion after 1492, and wherever it failed to alter traditional arts, certain maxims apply:

  • Monochrome media invite (but do not inevitably develop) a broad vocabulary of pattern.
  • a vocabulary of non-representational pattern once established becomes habitual in a given use and/or region.
  • individual patterns often carry significance.
  • significance aids preservation of a given motif or form.
  • transmission of a traditional form typically sees transmission of associated pattern, with or without its significance.
  • Practices related to marriage and death remain constant over millennia.
  • Presence of a pattern-vocabulary in one time or place does not of itself imply exclusivity.

Failure to consider the last point, with regard to imagery as well as pattern, has seen more than one enthusiast come to grief in Voynich studies.


I’ve chosen a few among the more informative patterns, only from folio 70r and although one might consider the whole range of ornament found wherever funerary urns were made, I’ll stay within the Greek and Roman world – mostly.

barils patterns

The two patterns seen to the lower right (above), and another (below, left) are most plainly derived from woven work – although patterned  cylinders are also depicted in  ivory and in metal. In the case of the Voynich calendar, I should not rule out the possibility that its so well preserving non-classical and non-Roman attitudes may be due to the original’s having been copied from a series in mosaic, only the central emblems having been fairly consistently altered to accord with later western mores.

vertical rib





cinerary urn early Imperial Roman 10BC-10AD Met Mus

cinerary urn. marble. early Imperial Roman 10BC-10AD. Met Mus

ivory detail remorse blog









diaper pattern folio 70rThe pattern shown  (left)  incorporates the common elements in decoration of western funerary urns and not only those of  mainland Europe.  The elements are: diagonal lines and bands, with diaper.

For reasons to be explained in the next (and last) of this series’ posts, it is probable that the higher  ‘sitellae’ were meant to be read as made of basketry –  though coated, painted and sealed – while the lower show a plain earthenware surface.

Diagonal and banded patterns for basketry are illustrated below from a Byzantine mural, and a Byzantine mosaic, respectively. The context suggests that these designs might have been characteristic of Syria and Palestine, both scenes referring to  Judaea during the Roman occupation.

baskets blog detailcontainer baskets bread Byz Chora mosaic







In other cinerary urns from Europe, variations on diaper are the norm.  The higher register will commonly show diagonal lines or diaper, in which the first line is provided parallel ‘paths’ formed of smaller elements: shorter lines, or dots, or something of that type.  Below it, and inevitably separated from it by one or more continuous rings, an area of hatching, or of hatched motifs may then be added, although not inevitably. Examples below  from  (a) stone age England (b) Anglo-Saxon England. (c) Armenia. All are cinerary urns.

shaw-hill-urn-halifax from megalithix wordpress blog Oct 2010

Megalithic burial, Shaw Hill, Halifax. From megalithix (wordpress blog) October 30th., 2010.

Anglo-Saxon burial urns were typically hand-made out of pottery, and often decorated with various motifs. These included bosses, stamps and linear incised marks, as well as freehand designs.

Anglo-Saxon burial urns were typically hand-made out of pottery, and often decorated with various motifs. These included bosses, stamps and linear incised marks, as well as freehand designs.

urn Armenian

The following details  from artefcts made a thousand years apart; one in ancient Lombardy and the other in Anglo-Saxon England.

pattern diagonals and crosshatching top Chiusi Mus lower Snape urn

Pattern: diagonals and hatching on cinerary urns.     Upper register – Golasecca culture 9th-4thC BC (Chiusi Museum);  Lower register – Anglo Saxon c.600 AD (Snape urn)

To keep a sense of perspective, here, I should add that cremation is a practice found across most of the world before the Christian era, and which remained common in the eastern sphere through the ancient and medieval centuries as it remains today.  To ornament the urn is normal too. The example below is from 8thC Korea – which is not an effort to argue that our sitellae were drawn in Korea, but only to emphasise that what is found in Europe is not exclusive to Europe, athough the custom of the Egyptians, later Greeks and Romans was to use pictorial ornament. Linear patterning is found on Celtic, Angl0-Saxon and eastern urns, and some distant connection between the last two has been posited by archaeologists, by reason of the Indian symbols used – apparently with significance – on many Anglo-saxon urns.

cinerary urn Korea 8thC Freer and Sackler Galleries Washington

In addition, and with particular bearing on the implication that the ‘barils’ carry star-souls, we find in parts of the western Mediterranean clear evidence of affect from dynastic Egypt and its idea of the afterlife, in which the deceased ascends to the stars.  Such traces do not occur everywhere, but their range is wide: from the Niger valley through pre-Roman Italy, to as far as Germany. In addition, the Egypto-Mesopotamian style, and particularly the Sag or ‘sphinx’ occurs throughout the east affected by Hellenism, to as far as tenth-century northern China.


Canopic Jars, dynastic Egypt. The four creatures represent the world’s four winds or quarters, and the four together the complete boundary of Egypt’s world, of which the king’s body was a microcosm. The bird represents Qebehsenuef – icon for the direction West.

Egypt in Italy

Necropolis, Olmo Bello, Bisenzio, Italy. In Egypt, this form of headcover was worn with a veil. (see AllPosters)












funerary urn Niger Burkino faso

Funerary urn, Niger Burkino faso.

Canopic jar Met

Canopic urn, Egypt.













Presence of the winged ‘sphinx’ in a funerary context is found across the world affected by the Egypto-Mesopotamian beliefs.  In this case the creature is probably better described as the ‘Sag-Khnum type’. On the left it is  is shown carved into the base of a Roman work mentioned in the previous post, and again in a marble figure unearthed in a tomb in northern China, dated to the 10thC AD.  In the latter the Mesopotamian influence is stronger, the creature being given bovine feet, rather than the Egyptian and Phoenician feline type.  For those who find it difficult to appreciate that medieval Europe might have been affected greatly by such customs, one might recall that the Assyrian style of helmet was well represented in the Abbey Church of St.Geneviève, and in some fifteenth century French manuscripts, and the Sag-Khnem ‘griffin’, pictured with nicely ambivalent feet,  in some southern medieval Cathedrals.

container cista mystica and griffin Capitoline Museum Rome 2ndCSphinx china marble sideview2











Sag Khem medieval cathedral

Connection with Egyptian customs  is also relevant to the pattern on folio 70r which I describe as the ‘ingot’ pattern, after those of cobaUluburun cobalt glasslt blue glass whose use is attested from the second milllennium BC. But don’t fret; we’ll soon be back in France. 🙂

ingot pattern fol 70r An example of its use in Egyptian penwork is shown (below right) in an illustration from a text known as the Book of the Fayum.  (click an image to enlarge it).

Fayum ingot pattern






Graves excavated near Tyre, at al-Bass, include artefacts ornamented with a related pattern, though rather more Cycladic. More to the present point, they also show a way of representing the deceased comparable to the Etruscan, together with a container whose form is like that of the medieval albarello though in this case it is antecedent to the grain-measure which the Romans would call a ‘modius’.  The example from Tyre is dated to the 8th-6thC BC. The following illustration is from a tomb in Egypt.  I refer to it now in anticipation of a later post mentioning a detail on folio 89v.

shield against the fire funerary practices Phoenician Etruscan pattern

vessels from a tomb of the V Dynasty

There is no dispute among scholars about the links between pre-Roman Etruria and Egypt, or that these links included ideas in common about the after life; the debate is chiefly about the degree to which they are mediated by Phoenician and other agents of Egypt under Persian or Hellenistic rule.  Not only are Etruscan forms affected by the Egyptian, as we’ve seen, but a mummy found in Egypt was wrapped together with an Etruscan text.

Altogether, then, there is nothing to prevent our arguing that the patterns on the Voynich ‘barils’ reflect a custom contemporary with the use of sitellae and cistae, not only in connection with funerary goods as artefacts but as ones implying particular  ideas of a celestial afterlife.

Such beliefs were not pronounced in classical Greece, nor in Rome, where the dead were imagined to inhabit a pale and dreary region, but at nearer or more distant remove, the notion of a celestial life after death came from the oldest stratum of religious thought in Egypt.

On this subject, the seminal work is by R.O. Faulkiner, translator of the Pyramid texts.  See R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.

For its later impact through Greek perspective see  Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies), OUP. (1991)

The point in relation to folio 70r of the Voynich manuscript is that these ‘sitellae’ in relation to star-bearing figures suggest both antiquity and non-Christian origin.

Egypto-Mesopotamian style, probably mediated by Syrian custom, appears in association with the stars in objects dated to the early centuries AD and found in northern France, in the Haute-Marne district of the Vosges mountains –  high above the long valley which leads up from Lyon. There the windswept town of Grand appears to be isolated, and is still a small town, but it remains as it always was the strategic centre of roads passing north-south, or east to west.  In Grand once stood a temple which archaeologists describe as a ‘Celtic temple to Apollo’, and from it was recovered another instance of Egyptian  (or more exactly Egypto-Mesopotamian) presence in the form of ivory tabulae broken, probably by fanatical Christians, during the 2ndC or 3rdC AD.

Lombardy to London

I first mentioned these tabulae from Grand  in 2010, and showed the same detail then as is shown below, though then the point was less its use of patterns comparable to any in folio 70r, but its use of the same motif, with precisely the same significance, as in folio 86v.

Here, linear pattern is employed for the star-figures’ clothing in a way both ornamental and literal; the literal aspect clear by comparison with an older Egyptian depiction of Egypt’s enemies and their various distinctive styles of dress.

And here, I’ll end this post; explanation of the “X” motif must wait until next time – unless you’d like to look back through my old posts where it was explained and more copiously illustrated. In the next post I’ll explain why stars’ sitella might be perceived, in the Hellenistic world, as appropriately likened to the ‘modius’  – and to forms made in basketware.

patterns skirts ivory Tabula grand detail

agadir Miletos f86v west roundel


Hittite and Phoenician etc Rameses III temple Kom Ombo

Hittites, Phoenicians and others as Egypt’s enemies. From the temple of Rameses III at Kom Ombo



In 2010, when I first drew attention to the ivory tabula from Grand, and to the fact that the same motif is used on folio 86v, the  horizons of Voynich studies were more limited than they are now becoming.

At that time, the only prominent debate concerned when and where in late medieval Christian Europe the manuscript’s supposed author was born, Italy or Germany being then the only options taken seriously.

At that time, England Spain and even France were not mentioned, let alone anywhere beyond Latin Europe.  Even to mention Franciscans was to be considered a little outré and to refer to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond – as I did from the first, in 2008 – was to be considered a hopeless dreamer, to be ignored or discouraged lest the innocent have their attention distracted.

Thomas Spande first took up my references to the eastern world, and the possible role of the Church of the East, and thus of the Armenians.  It was he who worked on the Armenian possibility in detail and his trail-blazing has seen it become a popular idea although (as so often), Thomas’ work is often repeated without proper references, re-used without credit given, or duplicated in ignorance of the original – ignorance of that sort being what formal credits are supposed to relieve.

At present it looks unhappily as if Thomas’ exploration of the  ‘Armenian’ possibility is being taken up in some quarters (and I’m not referring to the ‘David’ who recently posted here) less for its own merits, which are considerable, than as a way to accept eastern influence in some sections, while continuing steadily to avoid the need to attribute active agency to any save northern and Latin Christians.  Some generic ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ influence is allowed, but always with the European presumed the only active agent in development and transmission of the matter. This does no justice to the manuscript which evinces are far less simplistic history, and clear evidence for both its Hellenistic foundation, subsequently diverse history for different sections, and plain influence in some sections of Jewish motifs and custom.

The imagery in MS Beinecke 408 is not in Armenian style and with regard to astronomical diagrams, it is a trusim of manuscript studies that  technical diagrams appear the same everywhere, whether the text is in Latin, Armenian, Arabic, Berber or Hebrew.

The most ‘Armenian’ characteristic of the manuscript is its use of a particular glyph which also appears in Armenian manuscripts, and can be seen in the particular diagram recently reproduced by David, and subsequently re-presented by Rene Zandbergen on his own site under the somewhat infelicitous heading “Analysis [sic] of the imagery”  Those accustomed to reading formal analytical discussions of imagery will be disappointed, but the page will at least illustrate the constraints under which the ‘all European’ theory labours.   🙂







2 thoughts on “The Voynich albarello. Deconstructing a phantom.Pt 5

  1. Diane, your investigations and comparisons are as meticulous as they are fascinating! I have never been able to go to a lecture, or a film, or a live play — and enjoy the event ! Hearing aids or not, I have always depended on lip-reading, postures, and written context (if any).
    Your ‘showings’ are always full of ‘new’ details and fascinating history.
    Please don’t get discouraged. So far, you appear to be the only person who accompanies your donations to the various blogs with illustrations and ‘history’ !
    Keep on keeping on.
    beady-eyed wonder


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