- The head’s having what appears to be a bird’s beak or long nose.
- Blade-like wings – revisiting the ‘Persian Pole’. In the next post:
- The rosa mundi.
- The ‘mirroring’ (near-symmetry) by the position of the rose.
I’m not sure how much – or how little – detail I should include here, but I’ll try to include enough to prevent my conclusions seeming arbitrary. This makes the post one in the TDL;DR category, but there seems no point to breaking the line of thought and argument. Any reader who would like a copy of the post is welcome to write to me. The email address is in the footer.
To begin: should the elongated nose be seen as that of a fox or a bird? It can’t be meant for a fish; the back of the head is plainly not that type. I won’t take you through the details of these possibilities (i.e. bird vs fox), but say that I found that these themes converge.
We are looking on the one hand at the fanak (from which we get our ‘fennec’ fox) a North African species, and on the other Fenike, Phoenice, ‘phoenix’ – both expressing the character of one ‘canny’ in the ways of men and of the world. In the medieval world, the canny character might also be expressed as a fox, but there with pejorative intent.
The uplifted nose on the Voynich ‘angel’ might be argued that of the ‘dog’ in a dog-and-dragon pair, but other imagery available from the Mediterranean world makes clear that the more usual custom had always been to represent the winged figure overseeing the ways of men and earth by a bird, this expressed in Egypt by the benu bird, and in Anatolia by the eagle, and in this case (as we’ll see) by the ‘phoenix’ identified simultaneously with the star we call Polaris, whose names among the Romans included ‘Phoenice’. This is, or should be, Soler’s great star.
The term ‘phoenix’ in our case must serve as a generic, because in different regions the same “overseer and recorder” character is expressed using the local iconic bird. It is clear, however, that the original maker had not been referring to the phoenix of Asian-and-Persian type. In those traditions the bird invariably has very long tail feathers and its beak is usually like that of the peacock or the bird of Paradise ~ even if, as it moves westward, the beak sometimes become that of an eaglet, and occasionally the bird’s stance becomes that of the rooster.
I might mention here in passing that the opposite is true of the bird-like mnemonic in folio 46v. This is one of many indications that the imagery in the botanical section has been strongly influenced, over some considerable time, by eastern customs in drawing. The long tail-feathers, single head and widely separated feathers are all hallmarks of Asian custom.
Of the Voynich ‘phoenix’ some might object that something in the Latin corpus could explain the figure more conveniently (i.e. conveniently for a “Latin” thesis); that it might be explained as an example of comic marginalia of a type found often enough in Latin manuscripts, or that is a figure akin to those in the ‘Bird’s Head’ Haggadah, made in Germany in 1300AD.
The idea of a ‘comic’ figure can be dismissed immediately. Such figures rely for their effect on appeals to the audience’s interest in relative position of one class and another in the social hierarchies and to that essentially xenophobic attitude to the stranger and non-Latin so typical of medieval Latin works. No such preoccupation is evident in this manuscript’s imagery – a fact so notable that, alone, it could be taken to argue first enunciation outside the medieval Latin domain.
For the ‘tabu’ argument more can be said. In the astronomical folios and save for one notable exception (right) and some occasional errors by the fifteenth-century copyists, there is evident an aversion to any realistic depiction of living creatures. The same is true of the botanical section and of the complementary lading section, the latter commonly called the ‘pharma’ section.
The impression of human character is an illusion, created by its being provided with hat, the body’s being vertical, and an object’s being enfolded in a shapeless ‘hand’. I’d suggest the hat is that of the mariner and traveller, a form attested in the Aegean as early as the 5thC BC and a version of which occurs again in folio 75r.
So much for identifying the subject: Our ‘angel of the rose’ is Phoenice, the Pole star.
More important than its identity is its implied character, for as that accorded the Phoenix altered over time, so by considering those alterations in the Mediterranean world, we can establish more nearly the time of first enunciation.
Before the Christian era, as Claudius Ptolemy’s astronomical and geographic works were becoming more widely known, coins minted for Faustina I, (139-141 AD) include the emblem of the Phoenix upon the globe.
It is always a globe, and always held by Aeternitas. The globe is sometimes made star-studded, with that reverse alternating with another that shows a single, large eight-pointed star. The implied equivalence is thus the same that we have seen between the Voynich “Angel” and the ‘North’ star of Soler’s chart etc.
So altogether, we may safely say that the Roman figure’s statement was that now even the most secret ‘wisdom’ that is, “know-how” of the Hellenistic world had passed into the possession of Rome. I have already cited in another post the various classical texts which assert that to use Polaris as the Pole star was considered a practice peculiar to the Phoenicians and especially noted of their mariners. It is telling, then, that Cresques’ figure does not set the angel’s head to the north, but to the mirroring line and South; makes it golden-haired, and renders the form abstract.
Rome succeeded in gaining knowledge of the ways of land and stars – and not least from Phoenicians of Tyre and their travelling traders – but in another matter Rome had signally failed. Despite all their diplomatic and military efforts, the Sassanids of Persia remained an independent nation, often described in the older works as Assyrian. The situation had not improved by the time of Constantine and his sons after him, and the Sassanids remained in the east until the death of the last in 641 AD, and the rise of the Arabs. The point for us is that during the Sassanid centuries, the Sassanid emblem, and the form of their crowns, had become common knowledge. That shown left incorporates another ‘winged star’ and in my opinion provides our closest parallel for the Voynich ‘angel’ in both form and implication. One might mention in this context that the form of a star-studded globe was associated in by Raphael with the Persian Zoroaster, but by Dürer with a top-hatted Egyptian Ptolemy.
Such symbolic forms had immense resonance in those times. They represented divine sanction, superior power and a promise of eternal rule. Empires made ‘war’ by means of such emblems and symbols, as by attempting to win the favour of other nations’ patron deities.
To subvert, and re-define the power-tokens of an opposition was another routine practice. It may form a sub-text of the Roman phoenix-on-globe imagery but is undoubtedly the reason for re-use of the motif by Constantine’s eldest and youngest sons.
In the mid-fourth century AD, on coins produced at Arles, Trier and Antioch, for circulation through an empire newly declared Christian, the Phoenix-on-globe was actively re-interpreted as an allegory for Christ. To modern eyes, only that produced in Antioch clearly carries this sense, but it is plain that to inhabitants of the western and eastern Roman empire, the well-known and pre-Roman emblem had carried already some character of the self-sacrificing ‘lord of all he surveyed’. The Antiochian coin keeps the eight-pointed star, but sets it low by the earth now, to emphasise that the star itself is not to be identified with deity.
The eldest of Constantine’s sons was killed near Aquilea in 340 AD and the youngest, Constans, in Gaul in 350. By the time of their deaths, the propaganda campaign had evidently been successful, for throughout the later history of the Latin west, we find the Phoenix of importance only as an allegory of Christ.
That such implications are absent from the Voynich ‘angel of the Rose’ makes it unlikely the figure was first enunciated later than the fourth-sixth centuries, though might have been first expressed much earlier. A few other details in the manuscript may refer to Persia. One is the half-rosette or the aigrette attached to the front of the Voynich angel’s hat, the aigrette having carried such historic significance in Persia that, together with the form of the Sassanian crown it was revived as symbolic of Persian rule in crowns made in the twentieth century, now for the Pahlevi dynasty of Iran. The Sassanid crown may be the reference intended by a crown shown in another folio in MS Beinecke 408 (below, centre). The comparisons shown are (left) the crown worn by Shapur I, whose successor lived in the days of Constantine and (right) one of the Pahlevi crowns and aigrette. Both these are possible interpretations of that detail; I would not say that no other explanation possible.
Associations which had once attached to older Phoenix-type were comprehensively attached by the Latins to the Christian allegorical figure on its pyre. The Byzantines instead took many of its characteristics and re-expressed them by the peacock. In the Mediterranean, then, the Phoenix as such becomes a meaningless image, significant only as allegory. Two examples of Byzantine work from the sixth century, however, deserve mention. One is found as part of a Theodoran mosaic in Aquilea and the another on the flyleaf of the Julia Anicia codex, although the date of its inclusion is problematic. It is, in any case, only in the Aquilea mosaic that we find any hint of the palm, intrinsic to the pre-Christian legend. Within the Christian west, this figure from the Aquilea mosaic has wings more like the Voynich figure’s than any other I’ve seen so far in the Latin and Byzantine Christian corpus.
Again with the botanical folios, the mnemonic on folio 32v I have interpreted as reference to the inclusion in this group of Delonix regia, the Peacock Tree, another eastern species.
No hint of Christian allegory being evident in the Voynich figure, or indeed evident to me in any folio of the manuscript, I cannot suppose the Voynich figure made after the phoenix had become re-interpreted as a symbol for Christ, nor is it presented as a peacock, despite the latter’s association with the night-sky its hours or watches.
It follows, then, that that first enunciation is unlikely to have been in the Christian environment after that time, and not after the fourth-to-sixth centuries AD, after which time the ‘phoenix’ as such ceases to be related to to the North Star in western imagery. In addition, we have the evidence of the Chronograph of 354, the original having been composed shortly after the death of Constantine’s youngest son – to tell us that the top of the “Persian Pole” was formed, to that time, as a pair of blade-like wings. Those in the Chronograph, of which we have now only a much later version, are not formed identically to those of the Voynich ‘angel of the Rose’ but they do add to evidence which suggests reference to Persia before the end of Sassanid rule.
Thereafter, bestiaries and manuscripts of the Latin world offer nothing relevant to the form for the ‘angel of the rose’, though later we find (e.g. in sixteenth century Florence) imagery of an overseeing angel as ‘World Soul’ sometimes depicted as governor of a ship formed only of hull and tiller – the old Roman style for ‘Fortuna’ – and it is spoken of as “Il Angelo”.
Other fifteenth century works show an effort to imitate Asian and Persian style.
The example shown (left) nicely uses the eastern habit of emphasing the wing’s ulna, but as ever the western Phoenix is with its pyre.
Thus, to understand the implications of the Voynich “Phoenice” as a anthropomorphised bird, but not a winged human figure, we must turn to a description written before the Christianisation of the older type. Ovid’s refers not at all to the fire, but rather to the phoenix as emblematic of eastern wealth brought to Egypt, that wealth primarily in aromatics:
“… ..The Assyrians call it the phoenix. It does not live on seeds and herbs, but on drops of incense, and the sap of the cardamom plant. When it has lived for five centuries, it then builds a nest for itself in the topmost branches of a swaying palm tree…. As soon as it has lined [the nest] with cassia bark, and smooth spikes of nard, cinnamon fragments and yellow myrrh, it settles on top, and ends its life among the perfumes. They say that, from the father’s body, a young phoenix is reborn, destined to live the same number of years. When age has given it strength, and it can carry burdens, it lightens the branches of the tall palm of the heavy nest, and piously carries its own cradle, that was its father’s tomb, and, reaching the city of … [the sun-god], through the clear air, lays it down in front of the sacred doors of [the deity’s] temple [in Heliopolis, in Egypt].”
Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book 15, 391-417. (other texts cited at ‘The Medieval Bestiary‘)
Knowledge of these same eastern plants had been greater in the fifth century BC than would be the case throughout the first millennium of the Christian era. A case in point is the cinnamon which Ovid mentions. The true cinnamon was known in earlier Egypt, and its flower is believed that Karpion described by Ctesias in the fifth century BC. Yet to the Latin west, both cinnamon and its flower would remain unknown until centuries after our manuscript was made (see here Gernot Katzer‘s entries). The marginal illustration shown (above, left) confirms it; the rolls of the nest-and-pyre are those are of the rougher and slightly bitter cassia.
Among the Voynich botanical folios a considerable number of plants are shown that were, in the same way, unknown to Latin Europe until after our manuscript was made. Folio 7r may refer to the ‘cinnamon’-group, and specifically to the flower of Cinnamonum burmannii (right of the three above). For all we know, its makers knew it as karpion.
In Egypt, even before Alexander, cinnamon was being imported to Egypt and made an element in a mixture known as kyphi, burned as aromatic and air-freshener.
NOTES: a convenient reference for comparative studies is Jacob Burckhardt, Italian Renaissance Painting According to Genres.
 I am indebted here to Ellie Velinska, who raised the question of the manuscript’s “three crowns” fairly recently, and to Nick Pelling who then invited comment on their significance.
 Original identification by the present writer, published in Findings on Dec.11th., 2011. In southern India the tree was identified with Thomas. I would make the point once again that I do not make these identifications on the basis of the mnemonic devices, but from the way the plant’s habit, leaf, and petiole is drawn, the disposition of leaves and, where indicated, the plants’ habitat. Flowers are not always literally depicted in those folios, but where that appears to be the case, they are also taken into account. Mnemonics act as a final check, and often alert one to an initial identification’s being inappropriate, but are no basis for first premises in my opinion.
Postscript (picture). This truly beautiful image of a Persian peacock/phoenix comes from a fifteenth century manuscript made in southern Germany between 1475 and 1485 AD. (B.L., MS Egerton 1146 f. 233). One can tell immediately, of course, that it is a product of northern Medieval European attitudes, for the lovely thing has been given cloven hoofs, to reminded the intended audience that beauty is inherently false, and foreign things inherently evil. Characteristically Persian and Asian, this perfectly imitated Phoenix/Peacock is asserted, nonetheless, non-European and unChristian, a guise of the devil. The same manuscript’s depiction of plants is just as beautiful, and worth attention.