I don’t think that the unclothed figures were intended to be seen as people, but as abstractions or personifications and while, no doubt, each is imbued with a set of original associations, those ideas being opaque to a modern reader is almost inevitable given our distance in both time and, evidently, in culture from the first enunciators. We are not their intended audience and cannot share their ways of thinking or expressing ideas in imagery. Were it otherwise, we should have no more trouble interpreting these images than we do in reading those in any Latin work of the medieval and renaissance period – whether or not we read Latin.
However, since we come six centuries later even than the fifteenth-century scribes and draughtsmen who made MS Beinecke 408, certain basics that they would have understood might also need explanation for a general reader today. It is worth pointing out in passing that the Voynich imagery would have looked almost as ‘foreign’ to a fifteenth century Latin European draughtsman as it does to us.
The figure is not drawn with the proportions one expects in Latin European drawings, especially on the more expensive medium of vellum, nor is there any effort to make the face beautiful, as was the norm in most of the Christian and Islamic world when depicting females, and which the fifteenth-century draughtsmen might easily have done, given the evidence throughout the manuscript of their facility with the pen and evident ease in working to a small scale. I do not see that one can argue, on the one hand, that the draughtsman’s hand was so steady that he could draw a crossbow to scale in less than an inch on folio 75r, or on folio 80v draw so well the upper half of the face and so curious an object as that it holds, while become suddently incompetent to draw the rest.
I have assumed, then, that we cannot excuse our own inability to understand these drawings by passing on responsibility to the draughtsmen by imagining them incompetent, ignorant, mentally unbalanced, childish and so on. In the absence of contrary evidence from the primary source, I think we must suppose that what we have here is what the fifteenth century work’s exemplars contained, and that they had contained what their maker/s intended they should, as they meant it should appear – save those generally agreed to have been ‘amended’ such as the clothed figures in the calendar section. Before positing explanations, I think it better to first read each image in all its details – to determine what is actually on the page. What cannot be understood needs research, rather than imagination, to explain. The method may seem simple, and often requires quite a lot of non-pictorial research, but any conclusions reached are explicable, and the process transparent – which makes them open to reasonable debate.
First, the head-wear.
The veil worn by this figure was normal costume for women throughout much of the Mediterranean world and the near East, and the north, during the Hellenistic, Roman and medieval centuries, so of itself it tells us little.
The turreted crown on the other hand – and this is just one of a number pictured in this manuscript – was the mark of the Tyche, used throughout the Hellenistic and Roman eras as the personification of a large city and, at the same time, of its protecting patron/spirit. That concept would have been known to some in medieval Europe, not only because of the classical relics and coins which remained to them, but because the ‘tyche’ remained on some maps as the personification of great cities such as Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem and/or Alexandria.
Originally each Tyche had been an individual character, specific to one city and people, not unlike the patron saints assigned Christian cities, but under the Romans, all became imagined expressions of a single ‘Tyche’ character.
The coin shown (below) was made in the 1stC AD during Discorides’ lifetime for his native city of of Anazarbos (Anazarbus) in Cilicia. Dioscorides died in 90 AD, the same year that Claudius Ptolemy was born in Alexandria.
Cilicia would become part of the Christian Armenian kingdom, and the ‘castle with the merlons’ in folio 86v, in my opinion, represents its port of Laiazzo, over which the Venetians and Genoese would battle and which for a time was the only port of the eastern Mediterranean open to Latins.
Directly across that north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean lies the harbour city which we know as Ladikia, but which the Romans called Laodikeia ad Mare. It had been founded soon after Alexander’s death by the Macedonian Seleucids (4thC BC), though it was held by the Romans when this next coin was made – again in the first century AD, during Dioscorides’ lifetime. This Tyche’s crown is rather worn, but the interesting detail for us now is the object which she holds in her left arm. Coin collectors describe it as a cornucopia – a horn of plenty – but it isn’t. It is another sort of object, evidently with different purpose and significance.
The cornuopia was shown overflowing with the riches of harvest, but the top of this object shows a flat surface from which emerges only a spike – of metal or of flame – and the type is shown with that spike flanked by two large dots or by emblems for the ‘Twins’, the Kabeiroi or Didymoi, patrons of the traveller. Otherwise known as the Dioscuri, it was they for whom Dioscorides had been named. In my opinion the same pair is referenced by mnemonics on folio 5v, too.
The Dioscuri / Kabeiroi were worshipped wherever the Syro-Phoenicians lived, from the Black Sea to Egypt, and before the rise of Macedonia or of Rome, though they became popular among the Greeks and to some extent among the Romans.
A larger image of the same object is found on another coin of Asia Minor, this time on the northern coast and two centuries earlier – well before Claudius Ptolemy began revising information gained from a Tyrian Marinus. Nonetheless, the coin shows below that same curious object a globe criss-crossed by what appear to be the great circles, the basis for defining relative time and position.
Identification of the two smaller spheres, placed to each side of the spike, with the Kabeiroi is possible because…
just a few decades earlier, and in the same city of Sinope, the association was made clear and now the ‘curious object’ more closely resembles what we have on folio 80v, showing the ‘horn’ capped by a type of lid which is not flat but has protrusions. The star/flower topped hats or helmets, here, are well-known as emblems of the Diosocuri, the travellers’ twin patrons, and the figure on the other side is also a traveller – given the winged hair of the divine/kingly messenger, the ‘angeloi’ who travels ‘on the wings of the wind’.
As emblem of the divine or royal messenger, speeding along Asia Minor’s old Persian post roads, the type often appears in imagery from the eastern side of the Mediterranean, and into the Roman period – to as late as the early centuries AD. These messengers were immortalised by Herodotus’ Histories as early as the 5thC BC, and their type must once have been pervasive and familiar. About nine centuries after these coins were made it would appear in Latin Europe, in imagery associated with astronomical works first composed on the southern coast of Asia minor – the old ‘astronomer’s coast’.
Here’s an example. From a tenth-century Latin manuscript made, it is thought, in northern France, here the messenger’s wings are given a Parthian figure, used to represent the Archer constellation, Sagittarius.
Every other detail from that Sinopian coin refers to the traveller and messenger, their patrons and protectors, so it seems reasonable to suppose that the curious object shown there was also related in some way to the traveller’s needs, or aids. If this is the origin of the form held by our ‘tyche’ on folio 80v, then it would appear that she is also in some way identified as their patron or helper.
There is also an implication, here, that the object has some counterpart in astronomical lore or imagery, since we’ve seen the winged messenger might be used to represent Sagittarius, and we know that the Kabeiroi were identified with the two bright stars marking the top of the constellation of Gemini. The distance between them was taken as a standard measure, and thus called the “ell” or “yard” measure.
So perhaps the object also has an astronomical counterpart.
On folio 80v, the figure stands not only at the top of the series, but evidently high above the mundane world, just as the “non-cornucopia” is placed above the globe on the Sinopian coin. That this tyche-figure is to be understood as emerging on the heights of heaven is something which a fifteenth-century draughtsman would have recognised, for it is indicated by use of the cloud-band pattern widely adopted from the east into later medieval Latin art. Two examples follow, both from illustrations by Dürer. Of the great many examples one might cite – from Latin, Jewish, Armenian, French, English and other works – I chose these because they relate to the overseeing maker of astronomical and geographical charts: in this case, Claudius Ptolemy.
So the makers of our fifteenth-century manuscript very likely understood, too, that the figure on folio 80v was not meant to portray a living creature, but some elevated ‘soul’ – an older deity, saint, immortal intellect or spirit of some sort whose existence was of that higher, even abstract, type.
The drawing is quite explicit about this elevation, which is emphasized by the base of the ‘island’ being supported by what is drawn as cloud-wisps or trails of ethereal fire. Its heights are drawn to suggest an unscale-able cliff, curiously translucent as if of glass.
So, we have what appears to be a patron of both the city and the endlessly circling, swift-going travellers, aided ‘by the wings of the wind’, and perhaps also associated with some astronomical form or particular star.
Consideration of the emlematic object – its purpose and any counterpart in the real world, must wait for Part 2.