Skies above: Certain measures Pt.1

Previous two:

Header image: detail from Brit.Lib. Add. MS 20746 f.1r.


Some matters of method, comments on the psychology of perception and a particular set of unusual avoidances in the imagery need comment before I move on to post the second part of ‘Chronological Strata’.

The excursus will be in three parts (this post being the first) which will be published one each fortnight and then ‘Chronological Strata Pt 2’ about the end of April. Sorry about the hiatus.  Whether you read these essays is of course up to you but I doubt if the rest of Chronological Strata will make sense to most readers without the background.  I’ve made the discussion of  perception relevant to Voynich studies and attempted to make it accessible from the level of  secondary-school  upwards. Technical studies on this subject are classed as neuroscience as often as psychology and appear in scientific, not art-history journals.


Clark’s and Campion’s comments about the month-folios’ appearance (see post of Feb. 9th., 2020) contain three important reasons for rejecting the old theory that these drawings were designed to some ‘astrological/horosopic’ purpose.  The old theory is opposed by:

  • the spectrum of historical examples (historical studies);
  • the month-diagrams’ general appearance – e.g. its many ‘ladies’ and
  •  technical details such as numerical proportions, layout and presentation.

These are not discrete criticisms. Each magnifies the force of the other two.

The revisionist might then ask why an ‘astrological purpose’ idea should feel no natural and so sensible, at a subjective level, and why it seems never to have been opposed between 1912 and 2010 (or if you like, 1912-2020)..

I had hoped to avoid discussing the psychology of perception but can see no way around it,  because to explain why an idea so prevalent and apparently so natural might yet be mistaken one has to understand something of what happens when the brain processes impulses received from the eye, and especially when the object presented to a person’s sight is quite unlike anything they’ve seen before.  If you think back to your first view of the manuscript, you may recall how bewildered you felt and how disoriented – and then how you hunted for something familiar, and what a calming effect it had when some older ‘Voynichero’ told you what to think about this section, or that.   The messages were generally re-assuring, because they told you that what you had felt were images quite unlike anything familiar were ‘really’ not so strange after all.

I’d like you to go back to those initial impressions and accept that what then struck you as quite unlike anything familiar – was indeed. The reason you now think otherwise is explained by the psychology of perception and various additional filters and blinkers emerging from human emotional and social reactions.


Eye to Brain. and Group-feelings {Psychology of perception  – 2500 wds]

Assumptions of ‘universal language’.  Many of those interested in Beinecke MS 408 come from a background in technical studies such as computer studies, engineering, mathematics or cryptography, where a problem is habitually solved without reference to the historical and social circumstances in which it was first framed.   It doesn’t matter to a mathematician whether a problem was formulated in England or in India, in the 10thC AD or in the 20thC.   The technical diagram, like the mathematical equation employs a ‘universal language’ differing only (as it were) by dialect. Astrological and horoscopic diagrams do belong in that category, which is why scholars specialising in the history of astrology and comparative astrology can say whether or not a diagram presents as of that type.

However, in Voynich studies we have theorists who are so accustomed to solving problems expressed in a ‘universal language’ such as mathematics that they tend to suppose that all imagery speaks  a ‘universal language’ and that is not true.  One cannot rightly interpret all images by using only the assumptions and habits implicit in images produced by one’s own culture, with its  traditional attitudes, hierarchies, forms and modes of expression.  Ignorance of this fact was a first, and is still a prevalent, error of perception in Voynich studies.

More curious yet is that people of intelligence and competence in computer studies, engineering and other logical disciplines become illogical when informed opinion opposes some theoretical model they like.  And do so even in the case of the month-folios not presenting as astrological diagrams.

This paradox is explicable partly in terms of the study’s history, and partly by the way the human mind works.  I’ll treat the history first.

From 1912-2012 the great majority of persons interested in the Voynich manuscript saw European and American urban society and  the Anglo-German school as admirable, the earliest having also inherited nineteenth century ideas about hierarchies within social, intellectual and national or racial ‘pyramids’.  Informed by the wealth and self-importance of the imperial nations, there came to be a belief that the ‘western’ way was the pinnacle of human development, and at once the larger as well as a qualitatively greater set.

So, for example, if someone pointed out that a pentatonic scale was characteristic of eastern modes, it would be pointed out that western music also includes a pentatonic scale. If, on the other hand, you pointed out that eastern art is indifferent to vanishing-point perspective, this would be taken as a sign that it was ‘less evolved’ than western art… and so on.

As we saw earlier, it was impossible at that time (i.e. before the end of World War II, and then in the Friedmans’ view of things) to imagine any manuscript ‘important’ unless imagined as “contributing to the intellectual history of western Europe”.  I have already spoken in general of this phenomenon (here) and the way in which it effectively blinded the Friedmans and, following them, Mary d’Imperio, when they were confronted with specialists’ assessments which denied their own expectation that the manuscript should be an expression of medieval western Christian (i.e. ‘Latins’) book-culture.  Specialists in a variety of areas said plainly that though bound in the Latin (and Armenian) style, the manuscript was not like western texts of e.g. alchemy or Christian art, but these opinions were brushed aside while the erroneous theory was maintained. And this is still largely the case, theory-focused approaches have become so normalised that for many in the ‘online community’ it has become impossible to imagine any opinion or information about this manuscript could be other than the result of some ‘theory’.

The interesting problem is then why highly intelligent people who consciously prided (and pride) themselves on thinking logically – whether intellectual, mechanical, cyrptographic or computer logic – should be  unable to accept  information from genuine specialists.

The shortest and bluntest answer is that the theorists didn’t know enough to doubt themselves.   A theory is formed from within the limits of what a person knows.  If the theorist’s knowledge doesn’t include the necessary information, they cannot form a viable and accurate explanation as ‘theory’.

The habit of assuming the Anglo-German tradition both the best and the ‘greater’ set also meant that things true of that tradition – such as interest in literalism, or depiction of single specimens in herbals – was presumed without any pause for thought – to be always and everywhere true.   And just so, it was assumed that all pictures speak a sort of ‘universal language’ for which no more is needed for their understanding than ‘two eyes’, a theory,  an agile imagination and a range of ‘comparative examples’ invariably selected by theory-driven criteria.

But that blunt explanation is far from being the whole story of why people can’t seem to see – let alone to read –  pictures. It isn’t about IQ.  It’s about what happens when the brain attempts to process something quite unparalleled in a person’s experience. And about how the viewer’s instinctive emotional and social links add further distortions.

When the brain receives from the eye a set of impulses for which no ‘match’ can be found in the person’s previous experience, the brain seeks a ‘nearest fit’.  This is absolutely practical and useful in everyday life and is something hard-wired into the brain because human beings have lived, through most of human history, within a fairly limited environment and exposed to relatively few moments when they saw something never encountered before by anyone in their small circle.

And ‘nearest fit’ was usually pretty right, even if it did mean ignoring certain points of difference in the hunt for ‘the next-like’.   I want to emphasise that it is not a bad thing; it has become hard-wired for a good reason, but it is not so good when the thing perceived is absolutely outside the person’s previous experience.  If the brain informs us of that – returns a ‘nothing remotely like…’ people may go into shock. The search for ‘nearest like’ has become hard-wired for good reason.

For example, in ordinary life, when a friend whom you saw yesterday with long hair and legs covered by blue jeans, turns up today with short hair and wearing shorts, you still recognise them.   The mind discards as irrelevant, or as second-level information, those differences of hair-length (or even hair-colour), of clothing and even such things as tone of voice or whether their eyes are covered.

It is this same capacity which allows us to develop scientific knowledge: we are able to create categories of things and at the same time to refine those categories.  We put ‘like-‘ness first, and ‘distinctions’ in second place.  This is so important that I’ll give examples.

An infant experiences each new ‘thing’ as unique, a ‘plant-thing’ (for example) but then the same thing comes gradually to be  recognised as a rose, while another plant-thing is classed vaguely as ‘not a rose’.  (Language assists, but is not essential).

Only later still, if inclined or permitted to learn more, might that person reach a point where they can remove weeds from a rose-garden without risk of uprooting the wanted plants.   And if inclined, or permitted, to expand the limits of their knowledge still further, that person may reach the stage of being able to identify and name minor differences between one type of rose and another.   But this may never happen, and (like many of us) their mental classifications may end at the simple stage of ‘red-flowered rose’ or ‘white-flowered rose’.

Within their area of speciality (if any) a person is able to recognise and understand the significance of small variations in appearance and to recognise what is, and isn’t a significant difference.  It is because their range of knowledge is greater that they can, when confronted with a hitherto unknown item, classify it correctly as ‘like’ or ‘unlike’. Their knowledge base being greater means their definition of ‘like’ is more precise and the number of ignored points of difference much smaller.

Since the number of specialists is small in proportion to a general population, the precision to be expected of any ‘majority’ will be less when an object is highly unusual – and yet, at the same time the fact that the majority are working roughly within the same, limited, range of experience means that the majority ‘consensus’ is more often an expression of general ignorance than a valid decision about what is true or false.   What ‘everyone says’ may be no better than village gossip.

Within a limited and shared environment, however, our brain’s hard-wired search for ‘like-ness’ works very well indeed.  It allows us to classify as similar objects which differ widely in appearance, forms, materials and ornament.  And it usually serves well.  It might enable a person to describe all the following artefacts as ‘coffee cups’.



But one of them isn’t.

The red ‘cup-like’ object is a filter,

 N.B. ‘Looks-like’ impressions aren’t enough to allow theories about an unfamiliar artefact’s origin and purpose. 

‘Group impression’ –  false consensus.

When the eye is presented with an unfamiliar object, and the brain receives impulses for which it finds no close match, we may not necessarily accept the ‘nearest fit’ but turn to our neighbour to compare his or her impressions with our own.  Social links may clarify the point – our neighbour may know more than we do – but it is important to realise that as social creatures we have this tendency to suppress our own perception if we find ourselves in a minority.  The difficulty is that our nearest contacts may well have closely-similar limits to their own experience and their ‘nearest fit’ may be no better than our own.

You might then think the natural inclination would be to seek better advice, but in practice this doesn’t happen so often.  In fact, forums will sometimes swamp or censure discussions which move beyond the ‘group opinion’. The dominant theory rather than the manuscript’s study, may even come to define what is deemed as ‘on-‘ or ‘off-topic’. Hard luck for the manuscript.

These social impacts on how we react to images are well illustrated by reactions to the  Rorschark ink-blots.  One person may describe their own ‘nearest fit’ impressions, but another who is present may be seen nodding, as if thinking, ‘Yes, that makes sense…’.

In fact, of course, it doesn’t ‘make sense’ at all.  What is happening is that the two persons’ having comparable social context and previous experience means that the ‘nearest fit’ for one person strikes a familiar chord in the other.   It is that social similarity, not any explanation of the image, which creates this feeling of consensus.  It tells one absolutely nothing about the origin or intended purpose for that ink-blot image.

And that is more-or-less how it happens that theory-groups form within Voynich studies.  One person asserts such-and-such; others find it easy to believe and so on… Social pressures prevent open dispute and even a specialist’s opinion may be treated as having little weight unless they are known to be loyal members of the group.

When a newcomer is instructed by other amateur Voynicheros to interpret a section of the manuscript in this way or that, it is socially and emotionally comforting for most newcomers. They are relieved of that stress involved in confronting the ‘nothing like’ feeling.  But what is being transmitted in fact is rarely factual and objectively verifiable information (which is one reason why citing sources is asserted ‘unnecessary’). What is being taught and promoted is the theoretical ‘nearest fit’ which seems plausible to a majority in that group.

The newcomer is often receiving no more than, so to speak, instructions on a party-line.  To test whether you are being given solid information about Beinecke MS 408, or an ‘approved line’, you need only ask to have and review the evidence and what debate (if any) led to the idea’s adoption.  If there’s nothing to it, there will be no non-Voynich source for the information, and no evidence of any informed debate.   So what you have will be speculation on guesswork on theory – and theory built more often than not on false perception of ‘like-‘ ness.

Because our minds themselves produce flawed comparisons at times, and our social impulses tend to see harmony given a higher priority than independent thought, the formalities of academic study have evolved, over the centuries, in ways providing a counterweight.

A scholar’s first loyalty is expected to be to their discipline of science or mathematics or history, and this means that the person is expected to know, and cite, precedent studies which affect the way a given subject is understood.  Next, their loyalty is to the particular object of their study: in the present case, Beinecke MS 408. This means that if something is asserted about the manuscript which your own research, or other studies in (say) cryptography or iconology show demonstrably untrue, you say so – citing sources for the opposing information and from the best and most solid external sources you can.  By this I mean that if the comment is about the manuscript’s vellum, you cite studies of codicology, not other Voynich writers.

Only after those two are one’s loyalties owed to colleagues and other fellows. If one or more of them disputes your own conclusions, the usual response is to accept (but check the references) for dissenting views and thank the other for the correction – because it has led you to a better understanding of your second-highest loyalty.  To  debate is not only acceptable, it is the meat-and-drink of scholarship, and one reason why Voynich forums tend to be counterproductive.  Debate is often perceived in a closed community as indistinguishable from dispute and spirited debate – even of the academic sort, without ad. hominem – may be terminated in the interests of harmony. I’m not suggesting you never join a forum; only that you do so understanding that the group-dynamic may be strongly influenced by a desire for agreement and conformity, along Henry Ford lines (‘they can have any colour they like, so long as it’s black’)

Nor am I saying that most Voynicheros are dishonest: only that a combination of limited knowledge, theory-driven approaches and social considerations serve to distort perception of these unfamiliar images.

To return to the ‘coffee cup’ example. Agreement between persons of closely similar, and limited, prior experience might lead a group to agree  that both objects shown below are, again,   ‘coffee cups’.  All have seen objects before which present as ‘nearest-fit’ and make that description  seem obvious, natural and consensual.

How far wrong may such decisions be about an artefact’s origin and intended purpose should be clear when I say that the container  on the left is a Mayan vessel made c. 7thC AD, while that on the right is a recent invention: an edible coffee-cup newly introduced in New Zealand in 2019.  (Need I add that the Maya had no knowledge of coffee?).

If the example above seems exaggerated, or unfair, consider the ‘matches’ which have been not only suggested but generally accepted and actively disseminated in the ‘Voynich community’.  As so often, the ‘pairing’ is not about explaining the manuscript’s image; it is about illustrating a theory – in this case of European Christian culture – and is aimed solely at persuasion. It is doing pretty much what a person’s brain might do if their range of knowledge was limited to the history of Germany.

Such errors of perception have affected study of the Voynich manuscript since 1912.  It is not a recent problem, nor the result of online forums.   It is a problem caused by our mind’s seeking ‘nearest-fit’ within too narrow a range of previous knowledge, together with the natural human tendency to maintain whatever opinions are found comfortable in the group regarded as the “us-group”.   The importance of the second is paramount for many and may alone be why an independent specialist’s assessment is rejected.  In fact, what we see in Voynicheros reactions to theory-opposing opinion from specialists may exceed the ‘just ignore’ response and become active denigration as the theorist continues to presume their theories must be right.   This pattern again is reflected in d’Imperio’s book, derived as it is from the theories shared by the Friedman groups.

In one place, she writes:


I expect that as well as understanding the issues, you may want some idea of how to correct for them.

The single best approach is to learn more – first about the discipline you want to engage – whether it is techniques of analysis in art or in cryptography and so on.

If your interest is in understanding the images in this manuscript, you might like to try a few exercises.  These are ones intended to help you become conscious of the ‘nearest-fit’ response and to help deal with the sort of emotional and social responses which arise when you are confronted by something quite unlike anything in your previous experience.

These exercises apply to images securely dated to the pre-modern period.


Become interested in what makes the image ‘unlike’.  Actively seek to identify and to describe the very details that the ‘like-‘ seeking function has  automatically set aside or given a lesser importance.  

Don’t be persuaded by ‘matches’ in any Voynich writings – not even the essays (bar the materials essay) in the Yale facsimile edition.

As an example for countering the natural tendency to focus on apparent ‘like-‘ ness, you might consider one of those ‘matches’ offered between some detail from the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ section and illustrations from the Balneis Puteolanis.

Remember that you are comparing pictures, not objects or alleged subject-matter.    Now, look at the differences between the two ‘matched’ images and hand-write a description of the Voynich image, emphasising the points of difference from the alleged ‘match’.  This will also have an effect of calming you, because it puts that Voynich image securely within the range which your brain can recognise.  It gives a sense – false or not – that you are in control.  Slowly and carefully scanning and writing a description of the image is always a good practice in iconology, art history and especially in provenancing artefacts.

In this case, you might include among the observed differences – different attitudes to depiction of the human body; a different use of proportion; facial features (are males shown with or without beards, for example).  Note attitudes to perspective, the presence or absence of stylistic features (such as whether lines are drawn over areas of liquid to indicate ripples).  Is the maker interested in ‘realism’.  What about ways of representing landscape?  And so on.  You should also spend time thinking vaguely about the thing; ‘musing’ because this brings in the more flexible part of the brain’s activity.  It is when we most often realise some half-forming theory is untenable.

But do beware of any ‘lightning flash’ experience while you’re in the ‘musing’ mode.  You may experience it as a sudden flash of genius insight, but more often than not it’s the imagination going into overdrive and trying to stop the whole process by producing some ‘ultimate answer’ at random.

The task is to understand a difficult manuscript, not to create some ultimate theory.

And do keep the Mayan “coffee cup” in mind..


Skies above Pt 6a: Adding and removing layers

Header.  details from an Apulian terracotta, showing ten-rayed star; seven-rayed ‘star-flowers’, sun of night as fire-basket; clothed female figures.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art,. Dated third quarter of the 4thC BC;  inset – detail from an Attic krater, black figure ware.  Rape of Cassandra by Aias (Ajax) before the image of Athena.  (Met. Museum of Art, New York. Dated 6thC BC).

Two previous:


ALREADY, by this stage, a possible explanation had presented itself for the apparently deliberate avoidance of representing living things too realistically/literally.  The logs show that after noting a second exception (on f.116v)  I moved on to two more questions after putting notes in the margin to remind myself where to pick up later this matter of the  ‘boneless’ ladies** 

** vis: “Job 31:22.   Ezekiel 27:19; 29:6; 40:5-8; 41:8, 16-19.”

The two subsequent questions were 1. “Why female? why unclothed?” and 2. ‘why baskets? – March diagram. Significance?’. 

In fact I treated the second matter first, but will reverse the order here.  


“Why female? Why unclothed?”

Initial jottings:   ok. in Egypt.  Earlier Gk examples but in Mediterranean chiefly from c.2ndC BC. vide Pompeii; North Africa… Syria;  Black Sea, northern India and further). Western revival late – Renaissance latter half 15thC [cf. Panofsky and keeper of mss]. Female still  later.  Venice-Florence. .  

It was evident to me that the ladies’  first enunciation could not have occurred in an environment that was monotheist, aniconic or anti-iconic, nor within Latin Europe until a couple of generations later than the Voynich manuscript had been made.

It was equally clear that at some later stage they had been affected by such an environment. Logically, this indicated an impact during the period of transmission from when depiction of unclothed females might be of the generic sort (in the Mediterranean c. 2nd C BC – 5thC AD) to Europe where, early in the fifteenth-century, the present manuscript is thought to have been made but where depiction of unclothed female forms was still relatively rare and of ‘shapely’ ladies very rare indeed. Just as Panofsky observed in 1932. 

It not difficult to imagine a context in which an astronomical diagram of this type might have been first enunciated in medieval Latin Europe. But  I should think that imagination would be its only support.

So by lifting aside the intervening accretions (that is to say, the chronological strata), the figures in the month-diagrams can be seen again as shapely ladies with arms and shoulders whole, though without the still-later overlays of dress and heavy paint which a number of the deformed bodies now bear.

That the Voynich ‘ladies’ were originally unclothed, and their covering due to a relatively late sequence of additions is quite clear, the stages are exemplified below by details on folio 71v-ii.

In the first stage some additional lines were drawn,  details of breast and groin omitted or erased, and the body covered by a light wash. (below, left)

Heavier pigment was then applied, unevenly and not in all diagrams nor in every case.  The example (below, right) is again from f. 71v-ii. 

It seems to me that this heavier pigment which is consistently applied for the central emblems, was applied to the ladies as much in an effort to cover up their boneless limbs and ‘normalise’ the body as it was to render them more modest. 

 (The head wear is not peculiar to the western Mediterranean,  nor to the medieval centuries). 

But what this must imply is that the copy upon which those ‘improvers’ worked already showed the ladies with those boneless limbs – and so that the work had only recently entered their own horizons if the work was indeed done within western Europe.  In Latin Europe the usual practice was to eliminate or ‘correct’ images inconsistent with Latin customs or theology, and within a short time – an act of translation as the copies were made. 

In some few other folios we do see efforts at improvement/translation of the drawings per se, but it is noticeable that when such changes are very marked – as where a ruler was taken up to draw elements in the ‘bathy-‘ section – that hand does not remain present long.  The implication in that case, and where such details occur in other sections of this manuscript, is that the aim was to reproduce with near-facsimile exactitude, matter gained from one or more exemplars.  And then these drawings were ‘improved’ as if now under other guidance. The first wanted a precisely copied work; the other (whose effect is seen only in these month-diagrams) wanted something less awkward-looking.

Overall, I can only conclude that our present copy can be no original composition, nor any traditional product of medieval Latin culture.

Other items to be considered in connection with these figures (as I noted in the log) are that:

  1. the star-flowers may have seven points;
  2. a faint trace of ‘roses’ appears even in that altered figure from the ‘light April’ diagram. 
  3. ( certain of the baskets are drawn with a side-seam and in the detail from f. 71v shown above left, the basket might have two side-seams. A person doesn’t imagine such structural elements for an object if every object of that type they’ve ever seen lacks them.  So here the inclusion of a seam in the drawing is another technical detail, and another limiting factor, and all the more if these ‘baskets’ really came waist high: for ancient and medieval peoples say about 2’5″ (c. 62-63 cm).  [As it happened, that detail proved important]. 

A further question: Was the star itself identified only with the centre of these flower-like forms? To take the example of the aster, was it identified only with the disk flowers –  while the ray-flowers (‘petals’) were supposed… rays (Lat. radii)?  Implications for Q.20?


Why ladies?

The question  arises because, if the material had been transmitted through a community averse to realistic depiction of living things, surely they might have just omitted the ladies altogether, at very least from the month-diagrams. On the other hand, if their way had been informed by an idea that it was only a realistic or ‘workable’ likeness which was prohibited then the form itself and not the subject-matter was the focus of that prohibition.  In other words, their view was not that ‘you shall not make an  image in the likeness of any thing’ but ‘you shall not make an image as the likeness of any living thing’. So long as it did not actually imitate a living thing, you could make, or keep as many images as you liked.  This is also an attitude that speaks to an earlier time, when it was not uncommon to believe that a physical image and a living thing, both, had their animation or soul from the stars.  The soul was the star-soul, and it was drawn down into a perfected body – hence at birth.  Death saw that soul return to whence it came.  Something of this ancient belief remains today in the location imagined for a heaven of souls.  But there isn’t time to explain so much here, except to say that within the Mediterranean this idea was at least as old as the pyramids in Egypt.

That the figures weren’t omitted, but merely distorted might also, or alternatively, imply that the information was perceived as so important that only superficial changes were permitted.  Supposing them simply astronomical types in some sense, however, isn’t enough.  We have the model provided by some Hebrew- and Arabic-inscribed astrolabes to prove  that astronomical types could well be omitted without altering content.  But if each represented a personality (cf the Jerusalem Astrology, Sortes Sangalensis,  or the late ‘angels of the day’ in Agrippa) then they might be irreplaceable.  Or if each also was the token of a place and important for that reason when the original had been made.   But then why associate the stars predominantly with ‘ladies’?   One obvious possibility is that link of star-and place; with the tyche or other ‘patron’ – and some of the ladies in the month-diagrams and the bathy- section do wear battlemented crowns – technically ‘mural crowns’.  (This last was a matter which  I investigated a few months later than the work being discussed now. After I’d published some of my conclusions on that point, Koen Gheuns kindly cited my work when considering the same). Other Voynich writers have since referred to the same illustrations.

Below is a detail showing a star-holder, from an instrument probably made in Diyabakir, east of the Mediterranean coast. It was made during the lifetime of Roger Bacon and of an embassy which came to Europe representing both the Mongols and the Church of the East (‘the Nestorians’).  Diyabakir had been long been one of two major seats for the Nestorian patriarch (=pope), and remained so until 1402, when possession of the city and its surrounding lands was summarily handed over to the  Aq Qoyunlu  (the ‘white sheep’ Turcomans).   Eastern Greeks had  the astrolabe by c.200 BC



The ‘March’ diagram (f.70v) and the ‘classical nude’.

Reconsidering the ‘ladies’ on folio 70v as if with limbs restored to  “classical” form, the Mediterranean world provides only a  limited period for first enunciation of such figures and effectively excludes Greek art of the classical period – or rather that of indigenous origin.

Such a usage is commonplace in the Near East in the person of Astarte or Tanit, as well as in Egypt where it is quite normal for a fully frontal naked female to display her charms, but not in Greek art. In the 6th century [BC] it is only in extremis that women are portrayed naked or semi-naked, but this rule is broken in the case of hetairai, notably in two-dimensional art. Not until the end of the 5th century BC does mature female nudity begin to be emphasized.By contrast, it [was] acceptable in the minor arts imported from outside Greece to show the naked female form…

  • Alexandra Villing, ‘Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt’ paper published by the British Museum.

While the Greeks happily drew male figures without clothing, there are very few exceptions to the rule that the female body is clothed, whether it represents a divine or a mortal being. Four exceptions are (i) Aphrodite (ii) Cassandra (ii) bathing women (iv) heterai. We see no multiplicity of unclothed female forms depicted in these cases.

The Kneeling Bather.

Robert F. Sutton, Jr. has argued that in Greek art true ‘nudes’ occur from the  5thC BC with the type he calls the  ‘kneeling bather’.  However, as you may be able to see from the examples shown below, certain of his illustrations appear to show instead a  figure dressed in a short, wide-necked garment of about knee-length and even in these cases the loins are effectively covered.

  • Robert F. Sutton, Jr., The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance.(2009). Includes a section entitled ‘Female Bathers And The Emergence Of The Female Nude In Greek Art’. 

Otherwise, the ‘untainted’ nude is usually dated from Praxiteles’ execution of his now-lost Aphrodite of Cos.  (I won’t include the controversial Ludovici throne).


The ‘tainted’ naked woman: Helen and Cassandra types.

Where Greek imagery does show a female naked, the implication is of a reduction in social status and/or moral standing.. or that the woman is bathing as preparation for marriage. The usual subjects are Helen (later of Troy) or Cassandra, who was raped by Aias (Ajax) in Athena’s sanctuary.  A woman was considered degraded by rape almost to the status of slave-prostitute. Volition had little bearing on that perception. And despite Augustine’s spirited theological argument to the contrary in his City of God (composed in the 5thC AD), the same ideas were characteristic of medieval Latin Europe.

In the first of the two examples shown below, you also see a characteristic that will later become rare, where figures are drawn with exaggerated buttocks but calves extremely slender: almost bone-thin.  Just a couple of images of Akhenaten and some statues recovered in Kiev ((10thC AD terminus ad quem) show comparable practice, but in the Egyptian and Kiev examples, the persons are clothed.

The Roman era saw Roman goddesses generally clothed, though a number of  Greek and foreign deities and ancillary figures (such as the Karites or Charites and followers of Dionysos) were divested of their garments, and we find various examples of the frankly pronographic within some frescos in Pompeii. Of the deities Aphrodite/Venus remains the exception to that general rule against full frontal nudiry.

The next image (below) dates to the 1stC AD, and is from Pompeii.  It shows a scene which by then had a long history in Mediterranean art, and with which many of the Roman military would be familiar.  After a ten-year siege, the Greeks entered Troy. At left, Menelaus reclaims his wife by raping her. The gesture of clutching a woman’s hair expresses both contempt and aggressive sexual desire and is maintained as a convention in art from the older Greek tradition.  On the right, the aged Priam watches helplessly as Aias (Ajax) rapes his daughter, Cassandra, within Athena’s temple.  The Romans believed their own capital city had been founded by the Trojans.  As you see, the form here given Cassandra’s body has much in common with the conventions of medieval Latin art  – a long slender torso and small, high-set breasts.

Erwin Panofsky rightly noted in 1932 that ‘shapely ladies’ do not appear in Latin art before c.1450. Even by that time,  the ‘renaissance’ movement involved only a small number of artists in a small region of Europe.  In that sense, the older historians of art were justified in considering the Renaissance a sixteenth-century phenomenon in art as distinct from a revial of interest in classical texts.

Michelangelo and Raphael are credited, for example, with having “initiated the practice of making preparatory studies of the nude prior to painting the figure fully clothed, in order to better understand the underlying structure of the body.”.   The opposite has occurred in the Voynich manuscript, where the clothing is added to obscure the drawing’s points of divergence from a perceived norm,  presumably the medieval Latin.   Michelangelo was not born until perhaps fifty years and more after the Voynich manuscript was made. He was born in 1475 and Raphael  in 1483. Both reached their maturity in the sixteenth century.

It is entirely usual – it has been usual for decades – that comparisons offered for imagery in the Voynich manuscript date to as much as half a century later than it was made.

As with a cat who brings only the mouse-tail, the evidence adduced to support most Eurocentric Voynich theories is  too slender, and too late.


Aphrodite: the nude bather type.

Even the Greeks’ Aphrodite was usually provided some covering until the time of Praxiteles’ remarkable work. But we cannot explain the ‘ladies’ in the March diagram as a multiplicity of Aphrodites. More to the point, there is no link between Aphrodite and the star in the Greek tradition, and in the Roman tradition only via their equation between Aphrodite and Venus.

But…to cut the longer story short for the benefit of my readers…  we do find Artemis  associated with a circle of lights, and with a sequence- and a circle- of moving women.

Just so, the stars form a series and a circle of lights.. and in this case  of women.

Artemis and her women.

a type for Artemis phosphoros

Their being depicted unclothed indicates, in my opinion, that we have either the usual Roman attitude to the gods of conquered peoples, or the different attitudes expressed by art of the Hellenistic east, and particularly  what emerged among Greek, Carian and Ionian on the eastern border of what had been the Persian empire, but which Alexander reached and settled.

I’ll return to that eastern sphere later.  In the next post I’ll look further at the ‘women of Artemis’.


[this might be good point to take a break, have a cup of something and remember to breathe.. 🙂 ]



Foreign deities, Christian Fathers, and Augustine’s  City of God (5th and 15thC AD).


Some years after the research was done that I’m tracking again now,  Ellie Velinksa wrote a blogpost ( Sept. 1st., 2013. ) in which she focused on a fifteenth century French version and translation of  Augustine’s City of God (The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11).  Taking a detail from its fol. 435 (above) she suggested that those  tiered figures offer a comparison for what we see in the Voynich month-diagrams, or more exactly those in which the figures are plain and unclothed.  The Hague ms was made half a century after the Vms’ radiocarbon dates of 1404-1438. The Hague ms is dated 1475-1480.What it shows is more that even so late as the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and even in a work produced by a master in France,  the medieval body is still the norm. with its long torso, waist not emphasised and  small, high-set, round (‘apple-shaped’) breasts. The detail selected by Ellie illustrates Augustine’s explaining the irrationality of astrology and the inconsistency of the different systems.It happened that in September 2013, while I was explaining for my own readers a certain technique (‘sieving’) used to find useful comparisons for works about which some certainty already existed, I cited the following image from a text composed c.1430.  It is fairly described as both English and French as the following details explain.

from ‘Medicine and Physiognomy from 14th to Early 16th Century’ (2004).  The passage quoted below is also available in French, translated by  Marilyn Nicoud and Nicolas Weill-Parot for Médiévales, No. 46 (2004/1) pp. 89-108.

Roland was of Portuguese ancestry through his mother. He appears for the first time as a student in the registers of the University of Paris for the academic year 1419-1420. After completing his studies, he became a medical master in 1424 and dean of the faculty in 1424-25 and 1427-1430 during the English occupation. His presence in Paris in the 1430s is evidenced by several indices, the most significant being his participation in 1436 in a dispute over the days of the year 1437 favourable to phlebotomy [blood-letting] and administration of laxative medicines. From 1436 to 1442 he was regent master, and died at an uncertain date in the 1470s (1470-1477) . Among the treaties attributed to him  is a manual of Aggregatorium sive compendium artis arismetice . The latter borrows long passages from Jean de Murs’ Quadripartitum numerorum and, to a lesser extent, Nicole Oresme’s Algorismus proporcionum , so it can hardly be considered an original work. He also wrote a work on geomancy which is novel in several respects, particularly the place that Roland grants astrology in that context. His Physiognomy was one of many works which were compiled or translated by the French members of the house of the Duke of Bedford, from already existing texts. Many of these translators or compilers were graduates of the University of Paris and they probably used the funds of the Louvre library. Roland dedicated the  Reductorium phisonomie to Duke John of Bedford in the early 1430. His work has survived in three manuscripts of the fifteenth century and a copy of the seventeenth century.

This reminds us that the nearest comparison from a European work for the Voynich plants’ style of drawing occurs in a medical manuscript made in England between 1375-1425 Brit.Lib. Sloane MS 335)  and that for the first half-century of its study, the Voynich manuscript was also believed to have been written in England by the Franciscan, Roger Bacon, who had also studied in Paris.


In the excitement of finding something similar to the images of Beinecke MS 408 in works produced in Latin Europe, it is very easy to overlook the many and obvious differences between the style of the one and of the other.  The Hague manuscript even more than Roland’s work employ a different palette, shows clear evidence of ruling out and – unlike the Voynich images – manifest the usual patterns of western Christian ideas about the world and its organisation.


On a personal note, Ellie has a good eye and one wonders what she might have discovered had she not come to the study with a ‘European-Christian-Duc de Berry’ theory, which limited the range of her work from the beginning.  She has surveyed only medieval Latin manuscripts in her work, as again in her hunt for ‘dotted stars’ (September 9th., 2013) and so remained unaware that the custom had an unbroken tradition through several thousand years, even in the Mediterranean.  Just by way of example, I’ve shown in the header a detail from ceiling of ‘dotted stars’ in a recently-uncovered tomb from pre-Ptolemaic Egypt.


Augustine and polytheism in the 5thC AD

While Augustine lived, the Mediterranean’s polytheistic heritage was still a living culture, one with which he was entirely familiar having converted to Christianity only in his late maturity.

Augustine was a north African, Phoenician by descent. After having been interested in Manichaeism, which was then a widespread religion across the southern Mediterranean including Byzantine north Africa, Augustine became a Christian as his mother had long wished he would.  A thousand years before the Voynich manuscript, he composed a work entitled The City of God. In fifteenth-century Europe, its message gained renewed point; those complaints voiced by Romans of the 5thC AD about the loss of Rome to barbarians were being paralleled by the Byzantines now seeking refuge in the Latin west.  In each case, there was a suggestion that the city had been lost because the older ways in religion had been abandoned.

That argument, and Augustine’s reply, may have led to the work’s renewed popularity among the non-clerical class, but certainly a magnificent copy and translation into French was made in late fifteenth century. The painter is believed the same Maitre Francois who is credited with that image of Orata whose discussion began the present series of posts.

His City of God begins with reproaches to those Romans who, by pretending to be Christians and taingn refuge in Christian churches, had been spared by the Goths during the sack of Rome. Unlike Ajax, these ‘barbarians’ respected the right of sanctuary.  Augustine knows well the classical gods and classical poets.  Nor was he alone among those whose works preserved that knowledge within Latin Europe.

Tatian, an Assyrian Christian who wrote in Syriac, had addressed the Greeks in the 2ndC AD, saying:

Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phœnicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own. Orpheus, again, taught you poetry and song; from him, too, you learned the mysteries. The Tuscans taught you the plastic art; from the annals of the Egyptians you learned to write history;

  In the same century, Clement of Alexandria could discourse on the subject of human sacrifice, mentioning Tauric Artemis as he did:

The Taurians, the people who inhabit the Tauric Chersonese, sacrifice to the Tauric Artemis immediately whatever strangers they lay hands on on their coasts who have been east adrift on the sea. …  Monimus relates, in his treatise on marvels, that at Pella, in Thessaly, a man of Achaia was slain in sacrifice to Peleus and Chiron. That the Lyctii, who are a Cretan race, slew men in sacrifice to Zeus, Anticlides shows in his ‘Homeward Journeys’; and that the Lesbians offered the like sacrifice to Dionysus, is said by Dosidas. The Phocæans also (for I will not pass over such as they are), Pythocles informs us in his third book, ‘On Concord’, offer a man as a burnt-sacrifice to the Taurian Artemis.

The cult of Artemis in Tauris had been known to the Greeks as early as the 5thC BC, when Euripides told the story of Iphigenia in his plays.  Having been saved from becoming a sacrifice at the hands of her father, Menelaus, ‘Iphigenia was taken by Artemis to serve as priestess in the goddess’ temple among the Taureans, where as part of her office she was obliged to sacrifice strangers thrown up upon that shore.  The latter part of her story is in Euripides‘ ‘Iphigenia among the Taureans’ ( Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Ταύροις)’.

Chersonese Taurica: floor mosaic (3rd-2nd century BC) Encyc. of Ukraine
Chersonese Taurica: floor mosaic (3rd-2nd century BC) Encyc. of Ukraine

Contemporary with that mosaic is the small terracotta figure – findplace unstated – shown below.


In the mid-thirteenth century, still, a temple of some sort stood  on an island off the coast. In c.1245, it was mentioned by William of Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck), who said:

So we made sail for the province of Gazaria, or Cassaria, which is about triangular in shape, having on its west side a city called Kersona [ancient Chersonesos or Cherson; mod. Sevestopol] … And as we were sailing past Kersona we saw an island on which is a temple said to have been built by angelic hands.

The Tauric Chersonnese is now a UNESCO heritage site).

This might be a good place for images of those figures recovered from Kiev and certainly made before the mid-tenth century AD.

Nor was Augustine, in fifth-century North Africa unaware of how an unclothed woman looked.  Apart from his own experience – he had a long-term companion and several children – but from mosaics and other forms of imagery, of which a remarkable amount has survived until today from the time of Roman occupation.  Here again, however, the proportions of the body are much closer to those of medieval European art than to the Voynich manuscript’s ‘ladies’.

detail of a mosaic. Roman period. North Africa. Courtesy of
naked, nude, un-clothed.  

I don’t describe the anthropoform figures in the month-diagrams as naked, or as nude.  The words carry overtones that I do not think can be applied yet to those figures.

Naked carries an implication of force, and chiefly of male force. A sword is naked, not nude; a body is found ‘naked’ not nude.  Unless the subject is an infant.

‘Nude’ implies a voluntary  disrobing, and a subject physically embodied.   Cassandra is naked; Helen is usually and Aphrodite invariably nude when depicted without clothing.  English doesn’t have a  neutral word for the situation we have here, where clothes may be irrelevant – so ‘unclothed’ will have to do.

The Romans’ interest in ‘shapely’ female forms ended as monotheism rose to dominate the Mediterranean.   A partial exception is found in some astronomical images, and in certain medical works which would emerge, in Latin Europe, from the schools of Paris during the 1400s.  But here again – as almost always – they offer no close comparison to what we find in the Voynich manuscript.  First enunciation of its ‘ladies’ occurred, in my opinion, during the Hellenistic period though derived ‘organically’ from earlier roots – and not necessarily Greek ones.


“They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”.