‘Like’-ness as criterion – a rarely-considered problem in Voynich studies.

I’d  written and have now scrapped, under the above title, a fairly standard academic paper on a fairly ordinary subject: the notion of ‘like’-ness as the proper purpose of the image.

Anachronistic and inapplicable assumptions in regard to ‘realism’ are pervasive in Voynich studies, result in false comparisons being proffered and affect attribution, description and interpretation – so I treated the notion’s emergence in Latin Europe and explained that pre-Renaissance art, and non-western art has different self-definitions and different expectations of ‘like-’ness .

I also spoke about advances in art history and analytical method since the end of the second World War – technologies, attitudes and specific techniques.

There were a few caustic asides about facile side-by-side pictures, presented without the formal commentary which justifies any implied or overt assertions of ‘like’-ness.

I’ve scrapped that essay because it occurs to me it is more useful to demonstrate than explain the value of analytical method, and because there is currently a notion circulating online that there is only one approach that is “right, true and scientific”.

Frankly, such ignorance is abysmal in 2017 so I’m going to stop writing for a couple of weeks (maybe) and hope some readers’ interest is serious enough to result in book-buying and -reading. Though it only deals with medieval art, and chiefly Latin Christian art, this is a good start as introduction to methods – plural – which may inform our approach at a professional level.

Colum Hourihane (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Medieval Iconography,(2017)

As direct connection to the Vms, perhaps you’d like to read one of my earlier posts, ‘Voynich as Provenancer’ (March 11, 2015).

If you’re interested in applied as well as theoretical exercises, here are three sets of images to be seen on well-known and oft-cited Voynich-related websites. None come with any explanation, commentary or other matter so they’re like the Voynich ms in that way. 🙂

from Edith Sherwood’s site ‘Voynich Botanical Plants’

from Edith Sherwood’s site, ‘Voynich Botanical Plants’

from Rene Zandbergen’s site, voynich.nu (Page entitled ‘Analysis of the illustrations’

It would be brilliant to be able to come back with ‘blindfold’ analytical treatments by one or two other Voynich-writers who have some prior training in this sort of work.  I’d really like to see, for example, what Darren Worley wrote.

Not so likely given the current climate .. but you never know.

Anyone piqued by the idea and who might like to write an evaluation of one or more of the image-sets above – it’s exam conditions of course.  You can email me at voynichimagery gmail com

So now… wait and see.


  1. Postscriptum: “One or two others…” in addition to my own, of course. The whole point would be to show that there’s more than one approach. A descriptional Database – like Iconoclass – depends not least on the user remaining keenly aware that assumption can bias perception… hence description… hence items turned up as results found.
    One has to recall Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and ask oneself continually: “Is this, as I think, a hat – what if the intention was to draw an elephant inside a boa constrictor?” Or as one might say,”Friend, consider that you may be mistaken.”

    (if the reference is new to you… see here)


  2. I’m skeptical about Sherwood’s identification of Plant 25r as wild thyme. Based on how other VMS plants are drawn, the illustrator would probably draw thyme with smaller leaves, more curved stems, and might also add flower clusters at the ends of the stalks.

    I think the red “nodules” may represent nectar glands, which are used by the plant to decoy insects away from the fruit, as are found on cherry and plum trees. The leaves are the correct shape and color.

    There is also a species of Impatiens (originating in the middle east but found worldwide) that has red glands at the leaf nodes that look exactly like this, but the leaves tend to be longer and narrower than the VMS plant.


  3. Got to admit though, the cannon thing is a fun similarity, even though it’s pure coincidence. Probably because cylindrical objects invite similar kinds of decorative elements.

    About the plants, I obviously also disagree with Sherwood’s ID’s. In general I’d say that she – like many others – looks for a parallel for one or two prominent aspects of the plant, and sees that as a license to ignore everything else. For example, she does not consider the habit of the plants. F25r is straight like a stick, looking at the stem it could even be some kind of tree. And she compares it to a bendy herb.

    What I find important is to discover the rules that are observed in these images. Not necessarily rules the makers were aware of themselves, but ones we can observe nonetheless. Looking at the VM plants in general, I just don’t think they would ignore the habit of the plants to the extent as implied by Sherwood. Nor the position and shape of the leaves, etc.


    • I agree with K. Gheuens that cylindrical objects may invite certain kinds of decorative elements. Also, the limited hand tools that were available in the middle ages could lead to components for divergent items being carved, cast, wrapped, or joined in similar ways.


      • JKP. Of course, it is perhaps pertinent that none of the containers pictured in that section of the manuscript carry ornament of any sort, unless you count the inscriptions.

        The two of you have persuaded me to take the third of those examples as my contribution to the discussion. I’ll also link to your comments, and to Koen’s.

        Thanks to both of you for these responses. Two about the pairings from Sherwood’s site, and two about that from voynich.nu would seem a fair thing. I shouldn’t like Edith to feel picked upon, and (as you both know) balance in the range of opinion and examples cited is something I tend to pay attention to myself.

        Liked by 1 person

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