Ring-o-Roses: heaven’s fabric in Byzantium

We’ve paused while discussing the minimap to look at matters related to the history, art, and environment of  Constantinople about the time to which we attribute this image of the  ‘castle’ – having now identified it as a token for that city.

The header for this post shows three versions of the Byzantine vision of heavens-and-earth. Each was placed in the apse or nathex of a Byzantine church, between c.1150- c.1320 – that is, from before the Latin invasion of Constantinople to just after the earliest chart attributed to Pietro Vesconte.

All show the heavens as a radiant fabric,  two emphasising its being a textile, and  one alluding plainly to the world as mappa: a term that had entered Latin (as Tertullian tells us) from the  Phoenician for ‘hempen cloth’.

Vault of the Choir, Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily. 1145-60.

The first was made while Manuel I Komnenos ruled in Constantinople, the Genoese had come to their quarter by the Neorian harbour and the Jewish quarter in Pera held 2500 people.   Sicily’s population at this time remained, still, strongly Byzantine in orientation and culture. The mosaic comes  the choir dome of the Duomo (cathedral) in Cefallù.

fresco from the narthex of Hagia Sophia, Trebizond.

The  second was  made in Trebizond, on the south-eastern shore of the Black Sea, almost  a century later – 1238 – 1263.  One of Constantinople’s noble families had removed to Trebizond rather than remain in Constantinople under Latin control. They built a cathedral called, again, Hagia Sophia, this fresco  added during the rule of  another Manuel I Komnenos, distinguished as ‘Manuel I of Trebizond’, or Manuel I of the ‘Megos Komnenoi’.

The third was a new mosaic provided between 1315 and 1321 for an ancient monastery church in Constantinople. Popularly called Chora church,  it lies about a mile south from the former site of Blachernae palace, chief seat of the Komenoi in Constantinople and particularly liked by that earlier (and greater) Manuel I.  This is among the mosaics donated (possibly with the emperor’s encouragement) by a man of Bithynia, cultured, learned, unusually rich and a student of astronomy: Theodore Metochites.

Bithynia was a province of Asia Minor, directly opposite Constantinople.

Before talking about what ideas might be shared by these Byzantine images and any in the Voynich manuscript – let alone what similar texts might inform them  – some details deserve notice, because details tell us more, more often, about common origins than do grand themes.

‘Beginning and end’ marker.

The earliest example, from Cefalù,  includes a motif in the  ‘keystone’ position that is formed  like a flower whose circuit’s ‘beginning an end’ is marked by  (as it were) the stigma.

One might just as easily compare it to a token for the Pole and read the ‘stigma’ as magnetic needle. In either case, the point is that in form and significance it bears comparison to a motif  in folio 67v-ii, one of those in the oldest stratum of the manuscript’s imagery.

As we saw when analysing that folio (in 2012), this  habit was a convention already long established before the Roman era; we may not forget that  Georg Baresch – the first person certainly known to have had the manuscript in his possession and who went to great trouble to learn its content – believed that it was compiled from ‘ancient Egyptian’ material gathered in the east and then brought back and copied in the same script we see now. Finding an Egyptian motif here is not incompatible with that historical evidence – evidence far more reliable than the rumour of a rumour about Rudolf II’s having paid for delivery to Prague.

The post about folio 67v-ii (October 13th., 2012) is  here.

One example adduced in that post, in 2012, is shown again here. As you see, it marks the circuit’s beginning and end by a stalk, rather than a stigma, and  unlike that keystone motif, avoids intruding on the heart of its  design. ( I’ve circled the stalk in red).

Only a handful of images in the Voynich manuscript display forms so obviously antique; but even diagrams from its later strata show the ‘beginning and end ‘.

In choosing the next comparison, I’ve not only considered the depth to which the marker goes, but the fact that most early, independent, experienced and qualified appraisers  immediately assigned the manuscript to the thirteenth-century – simply by its presentation and style. I treat with particular respect Irwin Panofsky’s  judgement that the work was Jewish, from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and (naturally, therefore)  influenced  by customs of Islamic art.  Panofsky said, further, that the manuscript ( presumably its finish and imagery) included something of Kabbalah.  At first, Panofsky also saw the manuscript as presenting a thirteenth-century appearance, but then  noticing certain of its pigments were proper to the  fifteenth century, he revised his date for the manuscript’s manufacture to the fifteenth century.  As he explained to Ann Nill, he also knew of no manuscript’s having   ‘shapely ladies’ earlier than the fifteenth century –  but there he erred, for a close comparison exists in an earlier Jewish manuscript, one which Panofsky could not have known about.

But, taken altogether, these considerations lead me to take as comparison two of many such circular diagrams in a  fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth-century work about Kabbalah: Abraham Abulafia’s Sitra Torah.

‘Beginning and end’ marks included in circular diagrams from the Voynich manuscript and from Abraham Abulafia’s ‘Sitra Torah’

‘Sitra Torah’ was certainly known to some among the later Italian literati, and Abulafia would later be one of two Kabbalist authors preferred by Pico della Mirandola.

As demonstration that  Kabbalah relates naturally to representations of the heavens, of angelic ranks and of gridding ‘by the Rose’  we have this vivid example in an illustration from  ‘Traité de la Cabale’ or ‘Traité de la Cabala chrétienne’, an unpublished manuscript made by the Franciscan friar Jean Thenaud in 1521., which is slightly less than thirty years after Pico had been judged guilty of heresy and executed by the secular authority. Marsilio Ficino died for the same reason in 1499.

The most obvious parallel in the Voynich manuscript to that picture from Thenaud’s derivative content is of course the un-bowdlerised calendar diagrams.

An image from the Voynich calendar section, fol.70r

Not that this permits one to argue the  Voynich manuscript a work of Christian Kabbalah.

Thenaud’s is credited as the first work of that type, despite its derivative character and it wasn’t made until a century after the Voynich manuscript’s manufacture.

Ultimately, Thenaud’s text, like those on which he drew, were owed to Jews of  ‘Spain or somewhere southern’;  Kabbalah is thought to have originated in twelfth-century France near the border with modern Spain.

Abraham Abulafia  (1240-91) was born in Aragon, in Zaragoza (Saragosa, Zaragosa).

The next post will focus on how Byzantine ideas about heaven’s fabric are constantly  linked to a celestial order scarcely known to Latin Europe before the thirteenth century, and even then derived chiefly from a text that emerged first in Syria, in the same town of Scythopolis which is now Beth Shean, and in the same century as the Beth Alpha mosaic was made – complete with its angelic four.


A third work, dated to that or to the following century, was composed by an Egyptian, and another eastern speaker of Greek. It describes the earth’s disposition in terms of the Jewish law and writings, shows close knowledge of the east to as far as Taprobane, and describes the earth’s disposition in terms of the Jewish law and writings, as understood by a Greek-speaking Egyptian Christian..

Until that post goes up, might I recommend some lighter reading on the subject of textiles and the Voynich manuscript?

The linked post was written after reading a post by Julian Bunn (who also commented on mine about f.67v-ii). See:  ‘Weaving the Voynich manuscript – seriously’, voynichimagery.wordpress.com (December 28th. 2012).

Julian’s most recent post is germane:  (June 8, 2017) here.  Perhaps I should note here that to me Julian’s view of the manuscript appears to be compatible with the most traditionalist in Voynich studies today.




One Reply to “Ring-o-Roses: heaven’s fabric in Byzantium”

  1. With regard to the ‘keystone’ motif in Cefalu: I neglected to include mention of two names for the Pole star reportedly used by some Islamic astronomers- mismar “needle, nail” and al-kutb al-shamaliyy “the northern axle/spindle”. I’ve not had time to check the usual sources tor dates and references. Sicilians of the time still used Arabic, and the Jews are said to have spoken a Judeo-Arabic – but again I haven’t had the time to track down the sources.


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