Starting from scratch #10e ~ Fold-outs in Europe concluded

[header: Sasanid-style silk. Spain 11thC]

Spanish Sephardic hands before the twelfth century are markedly different from those of the fourteenth and fifteenth, and since we have no Jewish works  – anywhere – which contain imagery like the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ section –  to which the ‘calendar’ fold-outs are plainly related – those parts are the most difficult to account for in terms of Panofsky’s evaluation. It is not that I’m writing as apologist for Erwin Panofsky – opinions from a man of his ability require no defence.  It is rather that, being puzzled by the assiduity with which ‘Voyicheros’ have refused to follow the line of research he indicated, I was curious to discover why that might be. 

Why, when Panofsky described the work as from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and numerous others noted that it seemed ‘very early’, did the great majority of Voynich people stay determinedly within the Italo-Anglo-German north, and between the late fifteenth to the seventeenth century, seeking connections to German alchemists of the seventeenth century, or Italian geniuses in graphic art, such as Leonardo?  It seemed odd. These days, of course, things are changing.  Focus has moved from sixteenth or seventeenth century Germany to twelfth century Sicily under German rule, or from England in the sixteenth century to southern France in the fifteenth. The centre of gravity has shifted noticeably over the past six years or so. But it has a way to go yet. 🙂

In tenth-century Catalonia, lines of division between Muslim, Jew and Christian were not imposed as they were in the Latin world.  The sort of laws which later denied Jews the right to study, or even in some cases to own books, were not part of the Muslim world-view. Jews wrote both Arabic and Latin in the customary style; Jews assisted in translation and production of the Cordova calendar, and would constitute the greater number of scholars and translators in the Toledo school. The Ibn Tibbon family is especially noted, several generations translating between Arabic, Hebrew and Latin.

 It really is high time that we looked at the Voynich fold-outs, especially those two quires of the supposed ‘calendar’, to see what they have to say about all this.  Do the month-roundels show any connection to the the ninth or tenth centuries, and if so, to “Spain or somewhere southern” – or not?

The manuscript’s calendar section is probably better described as its “month roundels”, for although each bears the inscription of a month-name, the series is not only less than a full calendar, but includes figures which were never part of any classical or Latin sequence. In addition it has such things as two bulls and two goats, which one cannot imagine anyone of the classical, ancient or Christian eras adding by mistake to the roman zodiac.  By reason of both inclusions and absences, therefore, it is probably misleading to describe it either as a zodiac or as a calendar, though for convenience I sometimes do.

The section comprises two fold-outs, each forming its own quire.


Postscript [the original phrasing caused a couple of readers to write, protesting a misunderstanding – entirely due to my expecting that readers will have read all my previous posts!  Sorry – I’ve added a couple of sentences to keep things clear].

Codex Vigilano Albeldense fol59

“Codex Vigilanus”.. This Latin Christian manuscript reminds us that influence from the eastern Mediterranean, within the Iberian Peninsula, predates the Christian era by as much as a thousand years.  Another group of people had come from that region, to settle across north Africa and colonise the Iberian coast. These were the Canaanites, or (as the western branch is called, the Libyo-Phoenicians). They were the object of a determined and apparently complete genocide, the Romans having determined not to allow them, or even the soil about Carthage to remain alive.  However, in the 1stC AD we hear that Phoenician was still spoken in parts of Spain, and perhaps something of their customs in art had also survived, for I suspect that the figure at the top of the folio from the Codex Vigilanus (illustrated left) might have become a convention, and reveal for us  an original (pre-Roman) form for the queen of heaven as a Canaanite-Phoenician primagenia. The ‘first-born’ had been worshipped at Palestrina by native residents and Phoenicians together, before the rise of Rome.  Canaanite-Phoenician sea-going peoples of the centuries before Rome rose to power appear to have made a regular practice of sharing centres of worship with sedentary native residents across their ports of call. In Asia Minor they are recorded sharing the temple of Didyma, until the coming of Alexander.

It is not especially obvious from the later Spanish-Latin image, but the creatures’ bodies appear to me intended as feline. As I’ve noted, it is unusual in western Latin art to find one head upon two bodies and (apart from heraldry) such images usually carry a pejorative air. The heads will be those of an enemy, or of a monster and so on. In the Mozarabic figure, the two bodies are, I think, meant as mirror images of one another, but no critical intent is evident to me – which is most unusual.  In classical Greek versions, this figure is rendered as Artemis, with two accompanying animals, sometimes a pair of birds clutched by the throat (e.g. Artemis Orthia) but the stock pair were a lion and a deer – as against the Semitic figure with its two lions or, more rarely, two ‘panthers’. None of the classical deities show two animal bodies sharing the head of a deity.  All the stranger, then, that in MS Beinecke 408,  folio 43v 34v represents as its mnemonic two clearly distinguished animal bodies sharing one ‘head’ and crown, and that (as I explained in treating the image) the intent of that device is (again?) to convey a sense of the timeless, of the original or “ab-origine”.

f.34v detail confronting animals

detail fol 34v MS Beinecke 408

Given the well-known syncretism or universalism of Phoenician art, it is not impossible that the basis for some of these images was not Hellenistic eastern Greek, as I have generally supposed, but Greco-semitic.  I have not considered documents from earlier Spain until recently, so this comparison with folio 34v is not made now, from an urge to prove a preferred ‘Spanish’ story-line. I dealt with folio 43v 34v quite some time ago, identifying within the group a plant that still known as the Bael apple. That post can be read here. The roots here also go against the usual avoidance of tangling lines (interlace etc.), the implication being perhaps the forbidden, dangerous or ritually ‘deadly’. I interpret it more practically as allusion to the mangrove roots among which some of the plant-group are found.

A clear affect of eastern mores is present in the botanical and ‘pharma’ sections, so for these two creatures (below) I suggested tiger or lion, and blackbuck doe, these having particular cultural importance from India to southern China. I had not expected the mnemonic devices to be as old as the botanical illustrations themselves, and so had not thought to derive them from the Hellenistic period.  The present suggestion of links to the two creatures of Artemis obliges me now to re-think my view of the mnemonic devices’; they too might have been part of an older practice.  Until about the third century AD, Hellenistic culture remained vital in north-western India; it had been to that corner of the old Persian empire that the people from Didyma were taken.

In medieval Europe, we find that the style seen in the Codex Vigilanus does not endure long within the Christian context, but is translated into more acceptable forms for a Latin audience.  As example,  here, in the 12thC chapel of Rieux Minervois. The female figure in the Codex Vigilanus is surely neither Artemis nor any male beast-master deity, though the latter were also ancient in the peninsula.  They include the Celtic figure  e.g. here in what is suggested an image of the horned Cernunnos.

I do not want to suggest that MS Beinecke 408 presents as a work of classical or Hellenistic Greece; it certainly doesn’t.  But save for the calendar fold-outs, and the ‘bathy-‘section, much of rest and especially the botanical and ‘pharma-‘ sections show descent from what I believe were Hellenistic originals, their style now obviously long affected by customs of eastern art, less the Chinese than that of India and the spice islands. What is remarkable is that despite that affect, and any effects from later copying by westerners, including perhaps by fifteenth century Latins from the north of Italy, the Hellenistic character remains so clearly evident in many sections. I have not noticed any Indian or far-eastern influence upon the ‘month roundels’.

Here is a figure thought to be Artemis Orthia. It offers a nice example of the way workers in monochrome media tend to develop forms of ‘hatching’ and cross-hatching to lend variety and life. You will hunt in vain through MS Beinecke 408’s earlier strata to find anything like cross-hatching, and indeed as I’ve been emphasising for some time, the absence from the older strata of any box-like angular form, of ruled lines, interlace or crossed straight lines is noteworthy, strongly suggesting a religious, cultural or professional tabu. It may even explain the absence of any “X” shaped glyph among those used for the Voynich script. Not even containers in the ‘pharma’ section (which I’d prefer to call the lading section) are permitted lines of that sort.  All appear to be drawn freehand and not quite to the horizontal or vertical.


ivory votive offering (National Archaeological Museum of Athens). Archaic period. Photograph by “Marsyas” wiki commons.


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