Lotus border: Indo-Asian influence
No-one acquainted with the art of Buddhist Asia can fail to recognise in this detail the conventional form for the lotus border.
Throughout Asia it was (and is) employed not only in Buddhist works but in Hindu religious art and in earlier times also in Manichean works, being found throughout inner Asia, India, China, and southeast Asia.
Even the line of thin beading around the upper edge has been included, making clear that whoever first drew the image now on f.33v did so in an environment where he could assume that his readers knew, as well as he did, the form’s appearance and significance.
A very slight difference exists in the way it is rendered on folio 33v, though that difference is not great, and certainly no barrier to recognition. What it does suggest is that the person who made the fifteenth century copy, or the one who made his immediate exemplar was uncertain of it, which in turn suggests a foreigner or someone (presumably in Europe) who had never been to Asia where the lotus is a motif found as commonly as the cross in Latin Europe. I’ll return to this point further below.
The following illustrations show artefacts recovered from Gandhara, within what was once the easternmost region of the Achaemenid empire, and then of Alexander’s. During the early centuries AD, an early Buddhist art flourished there in which Hellenistic and SerIndian traditions melded in a brilliant synthesis. These pieces date to the 3rdC AD, a century after Dioscorides had composed his Materia medica for a Roman-ruled Mediterranean.
In folio 33v the petals’ midline division is raised rather than carved out – another indication of early date for first enunciation. Extant examples are few, and early; I’ve had to illustrate by reference to the base of a statue found in Shandong, though certainly no later than the 6thC AD. I have seen an example from Java dated to the 10thC,
The slight difference which I mentioned earlier is not enough to affect recognition, and is most simply explained by supposing the copyist a foreigner. The drawing shows how the transformation could occur.
Similarity between the lotus and these plants evidently includes receptacles’ shape.
I expect that anyone fond of “Occam’s razor” arguments might feel inclined to cut this lengthy exposition short by asserting that if the heads of these flowers have a lotus border, and receptacles like the lotus’ and their oval centres are seen in drawings of the lotus then ‘the obvious solution is the correct solution’ and they must show the lotus.
If this were a picture in a herbal originating in the western Mediterranean, that would be a reasonable argument, but it plainly is not of that origin, and Occam’s idea derives from his theological position, not from observation of human behaviour or the nature of art and its society-dependent language.
What the European tradition does not contemplate is the norm for these folios – that a plant is defined and identified not by the form of its flower, but its leaf. For this, our nearest parallel in the western tradition is found in the works of a pre-Dioscoridan Greek named Theophrastus of Eresus, who explored the nature of plants.
The plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript render some parts by stylizations and abstracted forms familiar to the original audience; the advantage of employing such conventions is that they convey a great deal more information than the plant’s superficial appearance can, by drawing on a body of knowledge that was the common heritage of the original draughtsman and his intended readers. As balance for those elements the drawings normally render the leaf, the petiole (if any) and the plants’ habit very literally – in some cases showing observation of unexpected precision and minute attention to such things as ratio of petiole to leaf, whether leaves are opposite or alternate, and the method of attachment to stem or trunk.
The present folio isn’t as precise as some, but it hardly needs to be given the widely used stylisations and abstracted conventions used for the heads. The set of ‘lotus-like’ plants was itself an established convention, including particularly (in the north) the Paeony and Chrysanthemum as Robert Beer has demonstrated so well. These three are often rendered in Tibetan art in a way that allows any to be interpreted in terms of the other.
The error which has so often prevented recognition of the botanical matter in Beinecke MS 408 is compounded of assumptions that European norms are universal and that the plant-pictures must refer to medicinal use. Argument has thus been by analogy; focussed only on the western herbal tradition, and has constantly failed to observe a distinction between the thing pictured and the fact that an image is the conception of an object rendered in the formal language of art. The folios do not show ‘plants’ but pictures about the nature and purpose of plants. Their seeming ‘oddity’ is merely a sign – obvious enough – that the pictorial language is not ours.
Lotus, Paeony and the Chrysanthemum would have been natural equivalents in the eyes of those who regarded the image when first made, but the heads do not define the plant, and the defining leaf appears to me to refer to the plants which we, ourselves, call Berberideae. These include the Asian Mayapples and those sometimes described as Dysosma, and at other times as Sinopodophyllum, and formerly as Podophyllum. (Taxonomists are a restless lot).
The Leaves: May apple (Podophyllum &ct.)
I owe an apology here to readers of the first version for this essay, published some years ago. My identifications have not changed, but mislead by the thickness of the pigment, and the older description for S. hexandrum, I described the leaf as peltate, which it is not. Not to excuse my error, but because the quotation is important, I note Muencher;s having made the same mistake. As Fortenbaugh says, speaking of Theophrastus’ works,
Among plants mentioned by Theophrastus is the ‘mandragora’, which Muencher equates* with Podophyllum peltatum, otherwise called the Mayapple.
*William E. Fortenbaugh (ed.), Theophrastus studes: On Natural Science, Physics and Metaphysics, Ethics, Religion and Rhetoric, Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities (RUSCH), Vol. 3 p.79 and p.95 notes 7 and 8.
Today only the American mayapple is known as Podophyllum peltatum. Asian mayapples were made as a separate genus in 1979, so that the Himalayan Mayapple is now Sinopodophyllum hexandrum (syn. Podophyllum hexandrum formerly Podophyllum emodi) The Chinese Mayapple is described now as Sinopodophyllum pleianthum (syn. Podophyllum pleianthum). In ethnobotanical and ethnopharmaceutical papers, the older descriptions may still appear, particularly “Podophyllum emodi” for S.hexandrum, though even in this case, exceptions occur.
- Djaja D. Soejarto, Robert B. Faden and Norman R. Farnsworth, ‘Indian Podophyllum: Is It Podophyllum emodi or Podophyllum hexandrum?’, Taxon, Vol. 28, No. 5/6 (Nov., 1979), pp. 549-551.
- ‘Ol-Mo-Se’ in Christa Kletter, Monika Kriechbaum (eds.), Tibetan Medicinal Plants (2001) pp.196-201.
Before ending this Part, I reproduce the following from recent scientific study. It shows how the leaves of the Asian mayapple change in appearance according to climate and average temperature. You see that the ‘white spot’ is most evident at an average 25 degrees C, and more like a peltate leaf in a colder climate, which usually equates to a higher altitude.
“Sinopodophyllum hexandrum is native to Afghanistan, Bhutan, northern India, Kashmir, Nepal, Pakistan, and western China (Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Tibet, Yunnan)… Its name in Hindi and Ayurveda is bantrapushi or Giriparpat…. and [in the Himalayas where it grows] as ‘ban kakdi’.” I quote wikiwand for convenience; more detailed information is easily found. It is a fact of the trade in eastern plants of perceived virtu that they came from the Himalayas via the Indus and upon them the Ayurvedic and Siddha traditions depended.
We now approach an issue which has proven the most difficult for those attached to the idea of the botanical folios as an aberrant form of Latin herbal. This is, that the pictures are not of single specimens, but are composite images which include several members of a perceived ‘group’ – these groups not those of our taxonomy, though surprisingly often overlapping with them. The plants are grouped here by perceived common character, and uses that either allow one to be substituted for another, or which offer naturally-occurring complements (such as a fibre plant with a dye-plant which naturally occurs in the same environment).
The post originally continued to the end, but was 4,000 words long. Today (24th January 2018) I’ve broken it into three sections, adding one as ‘Preliminary remarks’.