Analysing – three examples – triptych

The triptych


Constructed in three panels (a triptych, so to speak) the maker selected details from the ‘leaf and root’ section of Beinecke MS 408 for the left and centre panels. For the third panel, he chose a detail from one of Pisanello’s drawings, preserved in the Codex Vallardi.

Transmission: A small, circular, grey area, with inset white question mark, does not appear in the original manuscript. Its addition, or more exactly its retention, may have been deliberate. An external boundary line was added to the triptych by the present author.

Observation and notes

Between the content of the first two panels and the third,  there are marked and significant differences, some among these being:   ¬relative value placed on precise symmetry; ¬  conception of ‘realism’ and concomitant literal form; ¬attitude towards representation of three- dimensional form on two-dimensional medium.  These differences (with others not specified) are substantive and not attributable to relative technical ability.  The maker’s setting the three details in juxtaposition, and in  selecting Pisanello’s work, is not something formally argued or explained by the maker, but must be explained by us through contemporary works on the same subject that are found in association with it. The imprint of attitudes and ideas assists accurate assignment of a piece:  time, place, intellectual and social context and informing languages.

Questions arising –

The triptych’s content has been excerpted from other, original, sources (viz.  the Voynich manuscript and Pisanello’s oeuvre) presented with neither explanation nor accompanying argument concerning either. The maker’s attitudes are expressed by his decisions about what to take from the original and the calculated re-use here. His omission of any  explanation or formal argument also sheds light on first enuncation of this composite work.


If the maker were aware of the disparities noted above, construction of the triptych would constitute implicit rejection of narratives attributing the Voynich manuscript’s content to an author or artist (etc.) of the Italian Renaissance. If, however, he were oblivious of, or indifferent to, the significance of such differences, then his intention would be presumably to provide his tacit approval for such narratives.

Clarifying intended message: Context. 

The triptych was published in a page titled ‘Analysis of the illustrations’.  The same page refers the reader to selected sites, on all of which we found certain consistent habits and attitudes. Though these need not be itemised here, we are able to conclude from the views, method and assumptions they exhibit in common, that the maker’s intent was – as in those others – to attract the viewer’s  assent to a specific non-rational argument: i.e. that a number of images, selected from within a pre-determined range and asserted ‘like’ a detail from the Voynich manuscript, constitute an acceptable substitute for formal exposition, and further that to grant such assent implies assent to the same theoretical narrative which determined the range within which the images had been sought.

In relation to assertions about the Voynich manuscript, and the resources used to collect pictures of that sort, we should add that such methodology distorts the purpose for which the relevant picture catalogues and description-systems were designed.

Errors found in the sources so closely associated with the triptych are chiefly, but consistently, errors of omission.

external similarity of form,  pose, or attributes is not enough to argue causal connection.

For our present purpose, it is enough to know that the ethos informing the selection of sources recommended  under the head ‘Analysis of the illustrations’ permits us to conclude that, in this case too, the mere juxtaposition of items from the Voynich manuscript with others, was  intended to manufacture consent for a proposition of ‘like’-ness which the maker invites readers to explain for themselves.


Manufacturing consent is not new idea. Nor is it an ineffectual method for having an idea gain widespread acceptance, regardless of any inherent error or irrationality. By declining to provide any formal exposition, the proponent leads the reader to both invent that argument on his behalf and thereafter to promote it, for as both Augustine and  Tertullian observed, we are never so inflexible as when we first believe and then later rationalise.

The triptych expresses a particular combination of attitudes – to the original works in question; to the notion of popular assertion as proof of validity; argument by suggestion; inculcation of belief (and loyalty as collateral ); definition of the image as ‘illustration’; abrogation of responsibility to the viewer.. and other notions not itemised. These altogether  signal the maker’s way of thought as one descending from post-1990s developments from a nineteenth-century Anglo-German ‘rationalist’ school, ancillary variants occurring chiefly in English-speaking groups of north America.

American or Anglo-German enunciation?

What leads me to think that the triptych unlikely to have been constructed by an American ‘Voynichero’ is that where the triptych expresses towards the enunciation of the Voynich imagery a severely critical attitude,  that found in American writings since the 1970s is consistently and somewhat surprisingly, tolerant.

Thus, the work of Edith Sherwood – another  Voynich writer recommended by that site –  displays the usual set of characteristics: assertion by juxtaposition; failure to present informing argument and reasoning; absence of evidence etc.. yet her approach to the imagery itself is more than tolerant; it seems to ask the reader’s indulgence for the fact that the imagery does not use the visual language of modern botany, whether photographic-literalistic, or scientific-synthetic. Like a kindly adult excusing a child’s not drawing ‘right’, Sherwood seems to say, “ it’s all right, really ..I understand what he meant to draw.. ”







The triptych has not that air  but one more self-assertive and critical, whether against or (as is the case) for similarity to Pisanello’s drawing.  Now we know the maker’s intention, the content and tone of the piece may be expressed as:  ” Voynich drawings are inferior drawings. Nothing more. Had the person drawn these things correctly, they would better resemble  Pisanello’s .. One need only perform corrections. It is not difficult.”

[section omitted to shorten]

We then provenance the triptych:

Modern, post-1990s, using a form of visual language which is non-academic, affected by modern sub-texts aimed at  manufacturing consent; within the  parameters of Voynich studies, the triptych is attributed to an older member of the ‘Germanic-rationalist’ school.

Not a remarkable conclusion, of course.  And in the same connection, I’d  add that the younger generation have not the same attachment to the Renaissance-classical ideal of how drawing ‘should be’. The renaissance-classical ideal in art is harder to maintain when peers show an active  appreciation for non-Renaissance forms: Celtic ink on skin;  anime on the tablet.. you know, that sort of thing.

Part 2… Further and more interesting questions.

Further questions:

The triptych presents another, less obvious, but even more  curious problem, if  one declines the invitation to believe and find ‘likeness’ but instead asks questions which should have been obvious – and which should have been answered by the maker.

  1.  Why Pisanello?
  2. Why that particular drawing by Pisanello?
  3. Why that particular detail from that drawing?

Had the aim of the tiptych’s maker been to find an object so like the Voynich containers as to elucidate a point of provenance, then the usual spectrum of sources might have allowed it: art-history,  histories of technology, numismatics, archaeology, ethnology and much more. But all that wealth of documentation and pictorial material the maker ignored.

He also chose to pass over a century’s evaluations, research and opinion about the Voynich manuscript in particular.

What is still more intriguing is that even supposing a fixation with Pisanello, or with that particular drawing by Pisanello, the detail he chose to select from it is the least apt of the three.  On the face of it, the selection of matter for his third panel is inexplicable – if the aim had been to explain anything in the manuscript.

None of the Voynich containers carry pictorial ornament so at the very least, the obvious selection is the plainest of Pisanello’s objects: that on the far right.

So the maker not only put an inapt comparison up but the most inapt within its range. Again .. Why? We have only the drawing itself to provide the explanation.

The first of its pictorial registers shows  the arms of Aragon, which were also those of Catalonia in Pisanello’s time.  Another of Pisanello’s objects shows them too, but with angelic supporters. This apparently pleased the triptych- maker less.

Background – Voynich-related: Catalonia.

Possible links to Catalonia were noted by two German-born students of art even before the Friedman period.  One was a Paulist priest named Fr. Theodore Petersen C.S.P. and the other the  eminent art-historian and art analyst, Irwin Panofsky.

Both were deeply versed in  medieval Christian art, with the German corpus their principal study before  the second world war.

It was his studying the Christian art of medieval Germany that led Theodore Petersen to a decision to join the priesthood rather than – as he had intended – becoming a pastor in the Lutheran church.[1]  Neither he, nor Panofsky, considered the Voynich manuscript to resemble a product of the medieval German Christian environment, whose art they knew so well.

At different times, both men considered Catalonia and its sphere of influence likely, with Petersen looking into the matter of Ramon Llull, and Panofsky initially noting that the work presented as a thirteenth- or fourteenth century work while describing it as made in ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and noting an influence from Kabbalah. In the thirteenth and fourteenth  centuries, Kabbalah flourished in Gerona,a town in Catalonia near the border of France. At that time, Kabbalah scarcely known outside the Jewish communities.

So – back to the triptych. Might the selection of this object from Pisanello’s drawing have been chosen for with its royal shield, the arms of Aragon-Castile-Catalonia with supporters? If so, was it intended to imply a greater willingness than formerly on the maker’s part,  to accept a provenance for the Voynich manuscript which (unlike the line taken by that site and most sources recommended by it) neither Germanic nor linked with the line of Holy Roman Emperors?  It’s possible, but could represent a substantial shift in position.

From the Constitutions of 1492

In 2015, investigating the question of Catalonia, Avignon and Kabbalah,[2] I noted that  last of the Avignon ‘anti’-popes died in  Peñiscola in 1423, the Voynich manuscript’s date range being 1405-1438. Confiscation of all books owned by Jews in Gerona, under order from that pope, is one means by which the transfer of Jewish and Kabbalist texts to Latin hands occurred before the expulsion of 1492. Whether, in fact, there is Kabbalistic matter in the Voynich manuscript I am unable to say.

Pisanello’s drawing was probably made (for reasons explained below) in 1448, shortly before his death in 1450. Since Pisanello was born at some time between 1380 and 1395, the dates themselves are appropriate enough for comparison to the Vms – though to nothing else, as far as I’ve had time to determine.

Below the shield and its supporters, the two next registers are filled with motifs alluding to the Roman imperial era and Christianity, respectively.  So the three themes of this object are: a Spanish ‘nationalism’; Christianity; and the militaristic  character of imperial Rome (probably during the Carthaginian wars, though the detail is too small to be certain). The gorgon was a frequent imperial motif.

In the lowest register is a bird, so formed as to unite the upper registers’ themes.  It can read as another imperial Roman symbol, but Pisanello gives it a pose evoking the Latin bestiaries’ Pelican and Phoenix, symbolic respectively of pietas and of rebirth.   In that natural-looking representation, Pisanello  effortlessly unites ‘nationalism’ with imperialism and the characteristic sentimentality of contemporary Spanish religious sensibility.

‘ALFONSINA’ reads the inscription on the uppermost band, permitting that drawing to be to dated to the late 1440s (c.1448), when Pisanello also made his portrait of Alfonso V of Aragon.

An image may have more than one level of communication, to the larger, and to a smaller group of people. Renaissance art constantly formed public imagery to operate at the exoteric and esoteric levels.

Provenance and purpose – concluded.

We conclude that the triptych was not constructed to elucidate any item represented in the Voynich manuscript.


Postscript:  Alfonso X had been elected King of the Romans by a dissident faction in 1257. Alfonzo didn’t want the title, but  did not formally renounce the claim until 1274 AD.  On November 15th. and 16th., 2015, I brought to notice an alchemical poem by Alfonso via its English translation.  To the best of my knowledge it had not been mentioned before.


[1] Obituary notice.  Boston College, The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 54, Number 8  (7th. August, 1915) p.114 col.3. – I’m not sure that this has been noticed before.

[2] see among other posts, ‘Scriptorium…Bottega…Avignon…Spain Pt.1, (December 15th., 2015).


2 thoughts on “Analysing – three examples – triptych

  1. ‘Sea fire’ wasn’t saltpetre, as I understand it. Seafire or Greek fire etc. was introduced to Byzantium by a Syrian (or so the story goes) and its recipe was so well guarded that it is now lost – historians believe it was probably a mixture of bituminous material, oil, perhaps phosphorus etc. We just don’t know. Apropos of gunpowder etc… I recall, some years ago, being told by an historian of western military arts that to urinate on the raw powder was necessary before dropping the material from shot-towers (which produced a perfectly spherical ball). I am relying on memory of a conversation held more than thirty years ago, though, so I wouldn’t repeat the content unless it was checked. 🙂


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