“… Find[ing] a telling detail.”
‘Telling’ … compared to what? If you don’t know much about the subject how do identify a ‘telling’ from a ‘non-telling’ detail?
The problem, again, is not the manuscript’s imagery. It’s the attitude.
The first stage, in the real world, is the long years of study – six or seven years just to be competent enough in one specialist area such as French medieval manuscript art. It takes rather more before one can claim to be a specialist in comparative iconography.
So preparing to address, and evaluate imagery as problematic as that in the Voynich manuscript begins in fact at the second level – after those years of equipping yourself to recognise the various hallmarks of times, places and culture.
In considering the work at hand, one helpful practice is to survey the thing (or set of images) taking careful stock of how the maker relates to his own social and physical environment – normally also those of the intended audience.
What elements does the imagery show essential to their discourse, and what elements are absent that are essential in one or another of those visual languages familiar to you? Positive and negative indicators are equally important.
Such things are expressed in style of drawing and in disposition of items across the space, as much as by what a specific item or picture contains. One very ‘telling’ element – at this early stage – is the attitude shown to the living body.
How persons of a particular time and place perceive their bodies, and how they may adapt that form to denote higher or lesser status (actual or spiritual), is potent sign of where and when an image is likely to have been first enunciated and/or subsequently maintained. It isn’t necessarily the same time or place as the present medium; you can buy a modern plastic plate carrying an image of the Mona Lisa.
But consider how bodies appear in the illustrations below, and which do – or don’t – assume that perfection of physical form is an external expression of the naturally good, or the great.
Do any of those pictures include a ‘telling detail’ – reminiscent of a detail in the Voynich manuscript? (the correct answer is… sort of.. The ornate cover as headwear or canopy)
How about the Voynich figure’s flower? Should we suppose its having three buds was intended to convey any particular significance?
… at this early stage the only correct answer is … possibly.
Then, by reference to the range of headwear on the adjacent figures, we find that in addition to this possible allusion to Asian, and specifically Buddhist or Hindu customs in art, we have here allusion to the Hellenistic and Roman ‘tyche’ – something I first pointed out in 2011, when writing for some students. It is an idea since taken up by Koen Gheuens, though not quite in the same way, or drawing the same conclusions as I do.
About this time, one must pause and act as one’s own severest critic. Is there any evidence at all to that there ever existed a context or community in which the visual language combined such a fusion of Asian stylistics and Hellenistic ‘tyche’? It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘plausible’; it has to be demonstrably, and historically, factual. The imagery has to be read accurately if provenance is to be accurate.
So now – as ever – one turns to the great mass of primary and secondary studies: history, archaeology, coins and – of course – textual sources.
First, iconographic evidence. Yes, it does support the contention that a Hellenistic tyche might hold a three-bud flower.
Is one just spinning another of those semi-hypothetical, semi-imaginary ‘histories’?
Specifics – where and when is such fusion attested? It’s not about being believed; it’s about getting things right. Evidence, not argument.
Continually cross-examining one’s own reading of an image, and constantly cross-checking the objective comparative materials, keeps one from floating off into fantasy land, but even more it ensures honest representation of the object to a private client or the public.
In this case, the external evidence supports the internal. Among artefacts dated to time of Roman rule in the Mediterranean, there are found in the east one showing particular interest in the ‘Tyche’ and that later example (shown above, right) of the ‘Servant of the flower’.
Thus Himanshu Ray speaks of finds that include..
“… intaglios cut in stone such as carnelian and garnet.. the common motifs are Tyche, Heracles, Pallas helmeted and Apollo standing. The Tyche motif is especially widespread, and in addition to sites in Bengal and Andhra it has also been found at coastal sites in southern Thailand”.
Himanshu P. Ray, The Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia. OUP (1994; 1998; 2000) p.74.
And the particular form of ornate ‘canopy’ shown above the Voynich figure also occurs in Buddhist Thailand – I’m sorry I have no example to show you here.
So now, it is clear that we are not inventing history in recognising this visual langage as one informed by both the older traditions: of the Hellenistic Tyche and an Asian style which may be more aptly associated with the Buddhist rather than the Hindu of India. And so we may also posit a period between the 3rdC BC and 3rdC Ad for for first enunciation of the matter, with greater probability of the 1st-3rdC AD. And we are looking for the relevant community where the inheritance was both Hellenistic and Asian during that time.
But there are more questions to be addressed and, hopefully, answered.
Why has the Voynich figure a body so very unlike those derived from the Hellensitic, Hindu or Buddhist traditions, in which physical beauty was important?
Why these flat feet, un-drawn ankles and overlarge head? It is a reflection of cultural decay over time, or does it reflect the ideas of the inheriting community which – though accustomed to use a visual vocabulary gained from Hellenistic and eastern custom – had some cultural or religious ideology which opposed idealisation of physical beauty? Or is it just bad drawing? More – why is it that the nearest comparison for bodies drawn in such a way occurs in astronomical imagery from an Iberian Jewish text whose pictures are derive from a non-Latin corpus of al-Sufi, a Persian born in Rey?
Is the presence of classical and Buddhist/Asian vocabulary, in combination with an absence of similar ways of representing the body, a result of the work’s being copied in later Iberia perhaps, or might it be rather the effect of some practice current in ninth- or tenth-century Persia, or should we attribute it to eastern Jews from the old Buddhist-Greek influenced regions, who later came to settle in the west, among the Sephardim? Such arrivals are attested: the persons are usually not called Jews but given the surname ‘al Isra’ili’ in medieval document.
More questions; more research … avoiding premature conclusions… and constant, relentless cross-checking.
Apart from that canopy, is there any other reason to think that this particular figure reflects a visual language influenced by Asian custom? Is possible to know whether that flower, and its ‘three buds’ were intended to carry some particular significance known to both the original and later makers?
.. once more, at this early stage, the proper answer is ‘ Possibly’.
And the same combination – three buds with one hand back-turned and pointing downwards, is a standard trope for the ‘healer’ figures in Buddhist art. In that that position, the hand means ‘mercy’ and is very commonly seen on healing figures. The first comparative example shown below is a detail from a purely Indian Buddhist figure; the next a recent image of the Tibetan ‘Green Tara’- patron of medicines. The three-bud sprig held by the first is myrobalans.
Must we read the back-turned hand as addressing conventions of Buddhist visual language? What significance might it have, instead, in the Jewish or the Latin traditions?
More work, more reading, more searching relevant comparative imagery.
Are there any other places in the manuscript where some allusion is made to the myrobalans as ‘three bud’? – Well, yes.
While working out the classification system underlying construction of the Voynich botanical images, I’d identified a fair number and among them, the myrobalans as the subject of folio 22r ( basic information had been given in this post; more technical matter here).
Any other items of relevance? Anything that might suggest confirmation of this possibility that the makers were accustomed to use conventions of Asian or Indian visual languages – particularly the Buddhist – in addition to being acquainted with the older Hellenistic matter?
Again – yes.
The manuscript includes quite a number of such details. Perhaps the least unequivocal for those unused to non-Latin imagery is this use of the ‘lotus-like’ motif on f.33v.
This is the sort of thing one can tell a client and know the information will be received with interest, but informing those highly self-confident, Euro-centred and theory-driven Voynicheros is only done after taking some time to prepare for the inevitable multi-gun onslaught:- assertions that one doesn’t know what one is taking about; that the insight is not original; that the insight is wrong, mad, pareidolic or hallucinatory. It will be decided by the most fanatical that to prevent anyone ‘being distracted’ by such information, one’s name is ‘never to be mentioned’ and any reference to one as source of information is to be erased.
No, I’m sorry to say that I’m not inventing or exaggerating this utterly crazy behaviour among the worse of the worst. Luckily, not everyone has yet been drawn into that ‘fellowship’.
I would not say that anything so far noted about that detail from f.
79 76v was enough to offer any firm opinion about that folio, let alone the whole manuscript. It’s just one small set of notes, which was added to the log, and whose final weight was given only after equally detailed study of all the rest.
The process of inspection, analysis, observation, research, cross-reference, more research, and constant ‘reality checking’ continues – for every folio – before any opinion can be honestly given.. ‘Eyeballing’ just doesn’t figure. It has to be true.
But in the end, we still have to cope with hypothetical narratives as advertised ‘histories’ for the manuscript, and the usual ‘Aldrovandi’s phoenix bowl’ phenomenon.
Those who want to insist it’s all about lovely herbal baths and kings and things are still going to do it. Responsiveness requires an interest in the manuscript greater than attachment to self-image or hypothesis. So though one might know better, one hardly expects to be heard. One knows that we will still see the tyche called a ‘nymph’ and stories about among ‘balneology’ and herbals. One just has to publish and hope for better times.
Buit when Pelling asks rhetorically whether the study has failed..
.. because everyone who has ever looked at the Voynich Manuscript has been stupid, or inexperienced, or foolish, or delusional, or crazy, or marginal, or naive? ..
the answer is neither yes nor no. No, it hasn’t failed; and yes most of those who just ‘look at’ the imagery, expecting it to be legible in their own visual language are naive and insufficiently inexperienced.
But in the end, Pelling descends to the just-plain-untrue:
Even though the Voynich’s imagery has been seen and ‘closely read’ for over a century by all manner of people, to date this has – in terms of finding the single telling detail that can place even part of it within an illustrative or semantic tradition – achieved nothing, zilch, nada