Clear vision

This is the first post of a six-part series. The rest of the series provides the analysis of folio 5v, including its mnemonic elements, consideration of stylistics and an explanation of why, although the image might have held interest for certain medieval Europeans, it could not have been composed in Latin Europe. For the other posts in the series, use the ‘search’ function accessible through the side-bar. Note added 7th April 2017.


There are some things we don’t talk about when provenancing an object, especially a picture.  In explaining why one painting is by a master and another by a minor painter, or why one work is genuine and another isn’t, we may talk to the client about canvas and threads per inch, about scientific analyses, about brush-strokes and documentation.

What we don’t talk about very often, because the matter  is not transferable, is something easily mistaken for “instinct’ – though it isn’t.  It’s a level of perception not learned, but a faculty that some people have and others happen not to have, and which is not quantifiable in the way that clients and ‘the man on the street’ expect information to be. So we don’t talk about it often, and when we do it is usually dressed in the less unnerving clothing of details.  We may talk about the Voynich feline’s having rounded ears, and crossed eyes.  Put that differently – though it is apparent to me that while the image of the Voynich feline could have been in mainland Europe (perhaps even in a manuscript) as early as the tenth century, it still radiates a Greek-and-Semitic cast of mind.  In looking at it there is first that instant sense of recognition, followed by what I suppose I could describe as a fast-motion ‘film’ of as few as a dozen or as many as a couple of hundred concordant examples.  I don’t say “matches” but ‘concordances’ because what is being ‘matched’ isn’t the two-dimensional form or any particular set of details, so much as this item with a myriad other enunciations of the same attitude or cast of mind.  (See I what I mean? That’s why we don’t talk about it).

If you’re musical, you might understand what I mean; if an unknown piece of music was discovered and played to a maestro, then he might say, “It’s Mozart!” or “It’s French Baroque!” even though it is not exactly like any other known piece from Mozart or the Baroque corpus.  Just as he might identify it purely by sound, so here, by that aptitude for perception.  What is recognised, I can only describe as something like the informing  ‘cast of mind’ or ‘worldview’; you simply know where it fits.  Then, of course, the task is to explain that to a person who may, or may not, be able to connect with what you’re saying.  Some people are – as it were ‘tone deaf’.  They simply can’t see why all pictures of a black cat aren’t equivalent images.  And explanation doesn’t help.  Sometimes it’s a case of “you see it or you don’t” – though again the usual practice is to talk details.

In recent days and by different routes, several researchers have come by discernible and clearly independent routes to a similar opinion about the Voynich feline as I did; one by the very simple means of going to the Getty and asking the curator if the style reminded her of anything.  She directed him to a Syrian mosaic, made during the period of Byzantine rule.

Another who in my opinion has a real talent for this sort of work found for themselves an example in a north African mosaic – again one made during the period of Byzantine rule.

Through the Aegean, the line between North Africa and Syria is one with an extensive and continuous history of cultural connections and it is along the same line that my preferred comparisons have come.  That below is from Delos, and again a mosaic.

beast leopard Dionysus Delos small mosaic Hellenistic

National borders and the strange in-house custom of limiting the search for comparative images to medieval European manuscript art, added to a habit of less seeking to find the imagery’s antecedents than to find an instance supportive of a preferred theory have badly skewed this type of discussion in Voynich studies.  It is less a matter of seeking “more black cats” than of seeking evidence of what I can only call ‘cast of mind’.

Once or twice before, I have tried to convey this but not, I think, with any great success.   Only today I think I’ve found a way to do it: using the words of a classical historian, H.D.F Kitto.

Speaking of Greek art,  he once wrote of it as expressing the same qualities that mark the structure and form of the Greeks’ language, and how language relates, in turn, to that quality of mind which informs a people’s way of seeing the world.  Though, of course, I use his words as analogy they very well express that character in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical imagery which – as it strikes me – puts it in a class apart from the imagery in the Latin herbals.

He says:

.. in the Greek language – in its very structure – are to be found that clarity and control, that command of structure… it is the nature of Greek to express with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning.  .. Both Greek and Latin have an architectural quality. But there is a significant difference between them. …  Greek  is well stocked with little words, conjunctions that hunt in couples or in packs, whose sole function is to make the structure clear. They act, as it were, as signposts… we always have a perfectly limpid and unambiguous ordering of the sentence, as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words. It is the nature of the Greek language to be exact, subtle and clear. The imprecision and the lack of immediate perspicuity in which English occasionally deviates and from which German occasionally emerges, is quite foreign to Greek..

-and that’s it, you see. That ‘first flash’ and the same exactitude, subtlety and clarity.  It is something quite different from fussiness or detail or simple ‘realism’ in imagery.

Let me contrast those qualities, that ‘cast of mind’ with that in the sort of imagery usually compared with figures in the botanical section.  I hope you will see that the Latin herbal imagery comes… how shall I say … as it if were heavy with baggage. A little overladen with the weight of earlier models; with a focus on form rather than on being.  The great majority of it is lumpen as the Voynich images are not.

Take, for example, the following composite made by Marco Ponzi and which he knows I’ve been obliged to use taking his consent from the principle qui tacet consentur.

Can you see how much heavier the  images are which here  flank the detail from folio 43v?  You can feel the Latin scribe’s  “being a painter” –  a sense of labouring; of physical effort.  It is as if you feel how the the painter toils and the picture grows heavy from it.  The Voynich image by contrast lifts itself with a lightness due to something other than  lighter pigments; there’s an effortlessness of apprehension there – and yet one combined with greater precision despite the seeming indifference to literalism.

snakey-roots The root coils in a way  less immediately reminiscent of some dead creature’s intestine than the energetic coiling of some strangely hairy viper, about to defend itself.  And, of course, the Voynich picture was painted rather earlier, uses pigment differently and depicts a plant having a different leaf, a different habit and different flower/fruit from either of the other two.  But that’s about the subject of the image, not this quality of mind I’m trying to explain.  In any case, I expect Marco was focusing their all having more or less S-shaped roots.

Folio 5v is one which I’ve mentioned again recently, and it may still be fairly fresh in reader’s minds, so  I’ll use that again to demonstrate how well  Kitto’s description works by analogy, the  “…clarity and control … with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning…. as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words“.

That first flash which gives the ground-plan can be expressed as “... Protectors of the ship” and to that first ‘sentence’  every element relates with clarity, control, accuracy and shades of meaning.  Details in the next part.

folio 5v all

I must add that while the characteristic quality of mind might be immediately evident, reading that ‘sentence’ isn’t instantaneous.  In fact, like a primary school child struggling through a passage in another language, the process was slow, step-by-step parsing of each separate part – until finally the ‘sentence’ was translated.   Luckily, these images appear to be largely independent of any one language – quite unlike mnemonic elements in the Latin herbals.




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