Panofsky and Friedman’s Questions

[a few typos corrected]

Panofsky blog

Before posting about the Lombardy Herbal, I want to reconsider the curious absence of input from Erwin Panofsky, and his answers to the ’15 Questions’ put to him by William Friedman.

Widely considered one of the greatest art historians of modern times, Panofsky had seen the manuscript in 1931-2, during an initial visit to America, where he was to return and live permanently from 1935.

By that time he was already one of the most eminent in his field – medieval western art – and had been teaching at an institute with a world-wide reputation: the Institute of Cultural Studies (Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg) in Hamburg.

Anne Nill, secretary and companion to Wilfrid and Ethel Voynich, had been attempting to get a suitably qualified person to offer an assessment of the manuscript, including likely provenance.  In 1928, Professor William Romaine Newbold’s proclaimed decipherment had been almost immediately demolished by William Friedman among others; Newbold’s suicide leaving an unhappy air over the entire field for decades.

With admirable economy, John Tiltman later wrote that

“Newbold’s solution left a legacy of ill-feeling which persisted for many years and which I found reflected in a letter which Charles Singer wrote to me in 1957.“

In the early 1950s, when Friedman tried to involve Panofsky in his own efforts to ‘solve’ the manuscript, Panofsky  named only two scholars  interested in it: Richard Salomon and Charles Singer, neither of whom have left much trace in subsequent studies.

I expect that in 1931, when Erwin Panofsky arrived directly from Germany, it was  as a foreign scholar having no previous knowledge of the Voynich manuscript and especially no knowledge of the Newbold effort and following tragedy.

The igorance was mutual. Writing to a friend immediately after receiving Panofsky’s initial assessment, Nill writes of him as  ‘a certain doctor Panofsky’, but vividly describes the co-incidence which had brought to America this specialist from the very institution which she had hoped to contact, herself.

A short time ago [Miss Green of the Morgan Library in New York] volunteered the opinion that she did not think any scholar in this country would be able to help us with the problem and asked why we did not try Germany for example. She mentioned the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg at Hamburg …  which, according to her, is a perfectly amazing hotbed of learning.

Being introduced by the same means to Dr. Panofsky, Nill records his excitement. At this stage, the manuscript was in a safety deposit box in New York, and Friedman had certainly not seen it:

He [Panofsky] became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century. He asked to see the original, which we [sic.] showed to him last Friday. His first impression was that it was early, but as he came to the female figures (in conjunction with the colors used in the manuscript) he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century! The more I think of it (always making allowance for my slender knowledge of art) the more I think that his contention is sound. I cannot think of a single early MS. or painting which contains such “shapely” female figures as those in the MS. Furthermore he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.

– passage from a letter to Gardener 1931-2.  Thanks to Richard SantaColoma for having unearthed and re-published the original text.

As far as we know, Panofsky never saw the manuscript again.

Nor did he ever write a formal paper, or publish anything on the subject even though from 1935 until the death of both Nill and Ethel Voynich in 1960, this most eminent of art historians was established in Princeton, less than fifty miles (less than 70 kilometers) from New York.

Despite his early excitement, he seems never to have asked to see it again, nor (so far as we know) did Ethel or Nill ask him for a written opinion.

Why this should be, one can only speculate, but part of the key is probably Panofsky’s life-long distaste for situations likely to lead to personal disputes, even academic opposition.  Undoubtedly, once settled in America as member of  Faculty in the Institute for Advanced Studies, the whole ‘Bacon cipher’ débâcle would have become known to him.

Another reason is that Panofsky’s formal scholarship is marked by its concentration on ‘high art’ of the medieval and Renaissance: by definition Christian and ‘authorial’ art.  Panofsky’s remarkable gift was an ability to open to the reader’s understanding not only the individual work of art but the mind of the single creative artist who produced it.  Overall, he had little interest in purely traditional forms, or images created outside the mainstream by unknown persons. This too may have deterred him from venturing further into any discussion of the manuscript.

And finally, given his opinion – offered in 1931 (see below) – that the manuscript was a Jewish work, there is the fact that while (as he says) Jewish ‘by blood’, Panofsky was not an Hebraist.  There is a considerable difference between being able to recognise Arabic and Jewish influence in imagery, or identify a work produced in Spain, from being able to decipher a written (and possibly Kabbalistic) text.

Panofsky appears to refer to the Voynich manuscript not at all between 1935 and the early 1950s, when he provided his extremely laconic answers to that questionnaire.

I do not believe that Panofsky intended to provide Friedman with useful information; comparison between those responses and Panofsky’s usual approach and style of writing about art will show why I reached this conclusion.  But those comparisons, while necessary, to make the post rather long.  Bear with me.


Between 1931-2, and being approached by Friedman in the early 1950s, Panofsky had published just one paper about  a Jewish manuscript, and even that not wholly so.

I refer to it to show his usual style and because it may be intended to speak to a well-informed reader about another manuscript which he believed Jewish: to ‘speak’ through parallels and sub-text.   His private opinion is certainly not to be found in the ‘Friedman Questions’, as I’ll show.

That article concerns a manuscript then in the possession of a Mr. Robert Garrett, and which had an entry in the normally authoritative Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. But its description there was so manifestly inaccurate (at least ‘manifestly’ to someone of Panofsky’s calibre) that I expect he wrote the article mainly because he found that degree of error intolerable.

  • Erwin Panofsky, ‘Giotto and Maimonides in Avignon: the story of an Illustrated Hebrew Manuscript’, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, Vol. 4 (1941), pp. 26-44.

This paper also illustrates well how vast difference is seen between Panofsky’s usual style of writing about art and what we see in his responses to Friedman’s “questionnaire” – as  reported by Jim Reeds.

One does not argue with Panofsky – but Panofsky argued with no-one.  His prose and his choice of terms  are never combative;  even in discussing that manuscript’s  ‘forger’, he puts the term ‘forger’ in quotation marks. As the paper progresses, a reader is drawn into a kind of fellow-feeling with that deluded soul, and this was Panofsky’s rare genius – and ability to inculcate understanding of both man and works  by contextualising both.

I think he was quite incapable of writing a destructive article, or of pushing his own opinion for the sake proving some other person wrong.

So while I do not believe his initial opinion about the Voynich manuscript had been altered by the 1950s  – men of his calibre are rarely so ‘wrong’  that they need add centuries and relocate from Spain to Germany – yet I think he forbore from assertions which would inevitably involve confrontation and dispute.

There is also the fact that Friedman was effectively shunned by people closest to the manuscript, and that the very questions he sent to Panofsky are inappropriate for the a man of his professional reputation, for they largely ignore issues related to the manuscript’s imagery,  its codicology, or conclusions relating to that deductive historical reasoning which is essential to discussions of art history. To over-simply: where code-breakers want to ‘solve’ the manuscript, scholars tend rather to want to understand it. Where the first may dismiss all else but the text, the second will not define even the script without reference to all other aspects of the work itself.

Context is vital to such analysis, and context again is needed before one can recognise that Panofsky’s replies to those fifteen questions may not be taken at face value.

So here is the way Panofsky approaches that similar subject ~ a medieval manuscript whose nature and provenance are less certain that ‘officially’ described.

His paper carries an ordinary sort of title, despite its being about a forgery. Panofsky’s vocabulary is a gentle one, and he uses no terms intended to ‘grab’ the casual reader.   In the body of the paper he seems to excuse its faker (‘forger’) on the grounds of excess enthusiasm.

He must, however, begin by dismissing the Catalogue‘s description – but this is done as a bare statement of fact, without argumentation and without accusation. Panofsky will not make any effort to ‘persuade’ here; his following evidence will be enough.  His opening paragraph reads:

The rich collection of manuscripts assembled by Mr. Robert Garrett in Baltimore includes a tiny book in Hebrew which is described in the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts as a Guide of the People of Israel by Ramban (Nahmanides), in Hebrew, with a dedication and preface in Italian, written in Avignon in 1338 for Cardinal Gotio Battaglia, who presented it to Galeotto Malatesta.

A fairly brief examination of the manuscript suffices to show that most of these statements are not tenable. Nevertheless – or rather for this very reason – the little book deserves a somewhat careful study.

– which Panofsky then proceeds to offer. He pretends no expertise in any aspect of the manuscript save its imagery, saying:

Not being a Hebraist, the writer was unable to cope with the problems of the text and had to content himself with briefly describing the structure of the manuscript and the subjects of the miniatures. In identifying these he was generously assisted by Dr. Cyrus Gordon who also provided the transliteration of the Hebrew phrases.

Another paragraph shows the way that Panofsky habitually  ‘footnotes’ his opinions.  I quote this passage below as typical, to highlight the quite unsettling lack of similar, characteristic, warmth and detail in his responses to Friedman:

From the point of view of style and composition, however, the pictures [in Garrett’s manuscript] have nothing specifically Jewish about them. Their style, straightforward and at times amusingly naive, is definitely north Italian with some admixture of the Umbro-Florentine, and is reminiscent of the school of Ferrara. As for the date, the miniatures cannot have been executed before the last two decades of the fifteenth century. This is evident, not only from the costumes, but also from the pure renaissance style of the furniture and architecture, from the full command of perspective in landscapes as well as interiors, and from the appearance of classical garlands, candelabra, putti, and sea-monsters in the borders.

When one considers what Panofsky might have contributed to Voynich studies, one can only lament the loss.

It is important to emphasise that Panofsky was not an ‘art critic’ as so many art historians have been, and too many still are.

He was deeply (and appropriately) learned in medieval history and texts, these providing that essential and constant reference by which any picture has (in his analyses) not only a ‘family tree’ but – like its maker – is  formed from some specific environment: intellectual and artistic. It is context, always context for Panofsky.

A scholar of that kind does not offer any opinion as ‘hypothesis’, but as the result of inspection, and framed as an  informed conclusion.  I find it highly unlikely that Panofsky would, or would need to greatly, alter even twenty years later once he had given it.

What happened in the case of the Voynich manuscript, I think, is that he had learned of the ‘Bacon cipher’ and Newbold’s end and further, by the early 1950s, that  O’Neill had announced one of the botanical images a sunflower.  Whether Panofsky actually believed him or not, O’Neill was a botanist, where Panofsky was not, and it was not Panofsky’s habit to dispute with any expert in another field, or indeed ever to engage in public confrontation.  Since the sunflower is a plant of the Americas, and Columbus set sail in the same year when all Jews were obliged to depart from Spain, so O’Neill’s ‘sunflower’ could not be present in any formally  ‘Spanish Jewish’ text.

Thus Panofsky,  responding to an interrogation among the fifteen from Friedman:

Q: What’s the date?

A: But for the sunflower, would have guessed 1470. However, since the style of the drawings is fairly provincial, a somewhat later date, even the first years of the sixteenth century, would not seem (sic) to be excluded. I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because (sic) no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident.

What he does not say is that the Italian peninsula was among the regions to which Spanish Jews went after 1492, and that in his opinion, therefore, this region should be excluded. On the last point, I dare differ, but the point at present is that Panofsky had no need to alter his initial view that the work came from the south and was Jewish.

More tellingly, Panofsky’s response to that question makes no allusion whatever to his estimation of the maker: he makes no suggestion of a name,  alludes to neither ethnicity, nor intellectual and cultural formation nor religion for the maker of the pictures with which the Voynich manuscript is filled.  These are normally the elements around which any response to questions about origins and provenance are frame. ‘Normally; for any historian of art, but invariably in Panofsky’s written commentaries.

What is present in that response to the question – if you already have his opinion given so much earlier to Anne Nill –   is that 1470 is pre-expulsion, and 1520 as late as one might expect any Jew to live who had left Spain as a mature adult in 1492. It is the single matter on which he speaks plainly here.

Panofsky declines to attribute any  matter in the manuscript to a particular place in those answers, permitting those who have their own expectations to maintain them if they choose.

This is Panofsky’s typical distaste for any unpleasantness and especially any situation likely to become disputatious.  It is not cowardice (one does not lightly contradict the august Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts). It was simply his way.

Another pair of questions are vaguely related to provenance. But now he responds precisely to the letter -, and not at all to the evident intent of that question.  He never says ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Q: Have you examined the VMS itself?

A: 1931.

Q: Why was it written?

A: Doctor or quack imparting secret knowledge to son or heir.

Q:Where & when?

A: Germany.

but what Friedman overlooked, as most later persons have, is that Panofsky here ‘carries over’ the verb which was stated in the first case: i.e. ‘written‘.  Inscribed. Not composed.

Panofsky never falls into the error which is so often seen today, of assuming that the date of inscription will be the date of composition. In terms of art-analysis, history, or codicology such an error would be unpardonable.

But in responding so, Panofsky does not imply that his opinion has altered from what it was in 1931-2.

After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, there was indeed one ‘provincial’ centre in Germany to which a number of Sephardic Jews went – Hamburg.

The entry for Hamburg in the Jewish Virtual Library suggests that the first arrived only at the end of the 1500s, but the same source shows earlier exceptions, such as the Curiel family.

Panofsky’s encyclopaedic knowledge of medieval art and imagery (including scripts) is well-known. All the more remarkable, then, that his response to other items on Friedman’s list are answered by no more than a recitation of ideas then general about the manuscript, or opinions issued earlier in print by others. Thus:

Q: What plain text have you found in the VMS?

A:  folio 70 ff in zodiac signs, f 66, and on f 116 v.

– here is nothing original; nothing of substance. His ‘detail’ consists of quoting R. Salomon (not the only historical personage of that name),  continuing:

On f. 66, R. Salomon says “der mus del” which is the same as “der Mussteil” which means the stock of household goods which cannot be withheld from a mans widow on his death. On f 116v, “so nim geismi[l]ch o”, meaning, “… take goats milk, or…”

Panofsky was not to be drawn into personal comment, or into offering his own opinion – not even about whether or not the imagery was unparalleled in western medieval art – though of course Friedman never thought to ask the right sort of questions. The questions below begin with one which shows that, unlike Panofsky, poor Friedman had never been permitted to see the original. Envy is dismissed by Panofsky’s suggesting the matter no great loss.

Q: What is it written on; with what writing tool?

A: Parchment of some sort, not sure if vellum in the strict sense. Quill pen; coloring done with “wash”.

(No reader of Panofsky’s work can mistake what is occurring here, or misread Panofsky’s response for what it is: a refusal to engage).

Q: What plants, astronomical, etc, things have you recognized?

To which Panofsky returns the frankly incredible response..

A: Only sunflower.

And once more, not any original or detailed observation of his own; Panofsky is just citing O’Neill’s paper – as Friedman surely knew as he read that response.

  • Hugh O’Neill,  ‘Botanical Observations on the Voynich MS.’, Speculum, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1944).

By the way: O’Neill contributed more to Voynich studies. He initiated that habit which persists to the present time, though anathema to any specialist in medieval imagery, of treating all images as ‘photographs gone wrong’.

However, if you now keep, in the back of your mind, the style, range, depth and detail which normally marks Panofsky’s writings on art and contrast them with the following answers given to Friedman, it is impossible to mistake what is happening here: Panofsky was determined not to collaborate, but instead to play at a different game of ‘mouse and cat’.

His response  to being asked about  ‘plain text’  follows the same pattern as those cited above – Panofsky simply quotes Salomon:

Q: What plain text have you found in the VMS?

A: folio 70 ff in zodiac signs, f 66, and on f 116 v.

On f. 66, R. Salomon says “der mus del” which [he says] is the same as “der Mussteil” which means the stock of household goods which cannot be withheld from a man’s widow on his death. On f 116v, “so nim geismi[l]ch o”, meaning, “… take goats milk, or…”

and yet again when asked the simple, and for Panofsky easy question:

Q: Are there any plain-text books [that are] sort of like the VMS?

Panofsky does not supply the name of even one (!) – but refers only to what others have said and published!

A: Herbals, cosmological and astrological treatises, medical treatises in the narrower sense of the term, and 4th, alchemy books. See Charles Singer, Richard Salomon, ..

and again.

Asked the astoundingly ignorant question: what the manuscript is ‘about’, Panofsky seems to offer his opinion, and may be doing so allusively,  though at the superficial reading he does no more than re-word that  ‘hypothetical’  passage from Baresch’s letter of 1639, though how he came to know of  that, I’ve no idea. I’m sure  you’ll know which passage I mean.

Q: Is it all in the same hand?

A: Except for last page, all in same hand, but not 100% sure. (a particularly nice way of saying nothing at all).

Q: Why was it written?

A: Doctor or quack imparting secret knowledge to son or heir. [ Baresch “… it is not inconceivable that some good man…”]

Q:What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?

A: Quatsch. “At variance with all the available facts…” [now he’s quoting Friedman to Friedman! The phase comes from responses made to Newbold’s work].

The present writer has  neither knowledge nor training in such things, but it occurs to her that Panofsky may have been taught some formal techniques for this sort of avoidance and non-cooperation.

He might reasonably have gained that knowledge during the 1930s as he endeavoured to bring his family safely from Germany and when,  with extraordinary courage and after having been driven from his position at the university by reason of Jewish descent, Panofsky left his security in America to return for a time to Hamburg, simply to see his doctoral students through the final stages of qualification.

Risk of arrest and torture was very real. Characteristically, Panofsky forbore from provocation, and tutored students only in an apartment in Hamburg, never setting foot again on the University grounds. Apart from anything else, it means that his tutoring of students at PhD level must have been done entirely from memory, his own and the University’s library now being unavailable.

Two years after replying to Friedman’s ‘questionnaire’, Panofsky would write another paper carrying echoes of what was said about the Voynich manuscript at that time.  I quote it chiefly to show that his laconic answers to Friedman were certainly not due to any failure of his capacious memory nor any decay of his former writing style.

The subject now is Galileo and his attitude to the arts.

  • Erwin Panofsky, ‘Galileo as a Critic of the Arts: Aesthetic Attitude and Scientific Thought’, and was published in Isis , Vol. 47, No. 1 (Mar., 1956).

A couple of paragraphs will be enough to demonstrate his breadth, his sympatico, and his invariable brilliance at contextualising any work and its maker.

Panofsky quote blog

Panofsky’s prose is rightly admired for its clarity and vividness, as well as the subtlety of his perceptions.

So consider by that yardstick his turgid response to Friedman’s question about meaning in the Voynich manuscript, and remain open to the fact that to Panofsky subtext is inseparable from true perception of imagery:

Q: What’s it about?

A: “…first, a general cosmological philosophy explaining the medicinal properties of terrestrial objects, particularly plants, but celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those “spirits” which were frequently believed to transmit the occult power of the stars to the earth; second, a kind of herbal describing the individual plants used for medical and, conceivably, for magic purposes; third, a description of such compounds as may be produced by combining individual plants in various ways.”

In its vocabulary and grammar, this response it is nothing but deliberate obfuscation. Panofsky’s prose is – as you’ve seen – typically as lucid as water.

And if I’m correct in thinking him set against co-operating with Friedman in any way, that response is simultaneously a work of art in itself: a triumph both of Panofsky as teacher and as an individual engaged in misdirection.

If read superficially, it will surely send any careless hearer racing towards the occult labyrinth. But once it is recognised that this vocabulary is far from Panofsky’s usual one  –  a ‘purple’ paragraph – and then try to replace its busier terms with those in Panofsky’ s usual range and style, so what we find is a response which is not about magic, but about medieval science and religion.  I think that Panofsky is just playing with Friedman now.

Let me suggest…

a general cosmological conception of the medicinal properties of earthly things, particularly plants, but [also] heavenly (or: divine) influence transmitted by the “radii stellarum” and those angels/messengers which were frequently believed to transmit the intangible power of the stars to the earth.

Absolutely standard ideas for the medieval world.

And here Panofsky the teacher may be testing Friedman: for that answer offers only a short guide to the works of al-Kindi, but a very near and deliberate quotation from a work which Friedman really should have known: Roger Bacon’s Opus Maior, Part V:

Panofsky surely smiled as he composed his answer, effectively rendering Bacon’s words into ‘theosophy’:

Obiectio vero solvitur per hoc, quod radii stellarum prope ortum et occasum cadunt omnino ad angulos obliquos, et ideo franguntur in superficie aeris.

..  recalling that other famous dictum: “not Angles, but angels”.

In English, the passage from Bacon translates (roughly):

The objection, however, is solved by the fact that the rays of stars’ setting will all rise and fall at points of the oblique, and therefore that they are broken on the surface of the air..

NB>  ‘spirits’ here I take as obfuscation for angels –  which might prove an important insight into how Panofsky interpreted those ‘observers’ set in rings around the centre of each month-roundels. On angels as angles – more later if I can get to it.

Jewish angels?

I am advised that medieval Jewish images of angels are rare, and inclusion of wings is a very late habit.

The more conservative view in Judaism is that all imagery of angels is avoided, and as winged creatures prohibited because wings define them not as messengers on earth but specifically as celestial creatures. This prohibited because –

Exodus 20:4 is read as a specific injunction against making images of angels: “You shall not make yourselves a carved image or any likeness of that which is in the heavens above…” the phrase  “carved image” (פסל) referring to a sculpture in three dimensions.  Any other form of representing them would be termed a “likeness” (תמונה) so in Jewish art, angels are not represented.

Not all Jews were quite conservative, and angelology forms an important aspect of Kabbalah.

However, it is perfectly true that on the whole Jewish art (as in that Hebrew manuscript Panofsky treated, and as I believe with the Vms)

… is focussed is on a way of life,  not religious iconography. Most depictions of the latter tend to be abstract.

In sum:

Panofsky never said the manuscript was ‘German’ in any ethnic or nationalistic sense. And close reading of his answers to Friedman’s questions is (in the opinion of the present writer) surely the way to go.

So in retrospect…

Q: Have you examined the VMS itself?

A: 1931.

Q: What’s the date?

A: But for the sunflower, would have guessed 1470. … I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because[sic] no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident.

Q: Why do you think so?

A: Character of the script, style of drawing, such costumes as are in evidence on certain pages, for example folio 72 recto.

😀 … really, Professor Panofsky !… 😀

[5th March, 2017 –  ‘Nills’ corrected to ‘Nill’ in three places.]


  1. Note – the Robert Garrett whose manuscript is that I mention first, above – and the only Hebrew manuscript on which Panofsky commented in those years – is the same Robert Garrett whose copy of Marcanova had been bought from Wilfrid Voynich, and was later subjected to intense scrutiny, as I’ve described in the post ‘Wilfrid as Provenancer’

    I do not know whether Garrett had also bought from WIlfrid the manuscript that was supposed to contain pictures by Giotto, but it shouldn’t be difficult to discover, if you are interested.


  2. About Panofsky’s reactions to the McCarthy-induced mood which was then affecting America, I might refer readers to Dieter Wuttke’s massive study of Panofsky’s correspondence. In vol.3, for example we learn of how McCarthyism was affecting intellectual life and the academic fraternity. When Panofsky was already a professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, his son Wolfgang was working as a nuclear physicist at the Berkeley campus at the University of California, whose regents now required loyalty oaths. It was at Panofsky’s initiative, that the College Art Association sent a resolution condemning this threat to American education. The approach made by Colonel William Friedman, a member of military intelligence (formally described as working in communications) would have been unsettling, and the arrogant, ignorant, tone of Friedman’s “Questions” could be calculated to elicit responses of the sort which, in fact, they did.


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