Image without text – in the real world. Pt2. Practice

“… Find[ing] a telling detail.”

‘Telling’ … compared to what?  If you don’t know much about the subject how do identify a ‘telling’ from a ‘non-telling’ detail?

The problem, again, is not the manuscript’s imagery. It’s the attitude.

The  first stage, in the real world, is the long years of study –  six or seven years just to be competent enough in one specialist area such as French medieval manuscript art. It takes rather more before one can claim to be a specialist in comparative iconography.

So preparing to address, and  evaluate imagery as problematic as that in the Voynich manuscript begins in fact at the second level – after those years of equipping yourself to recognise the various hallmarks of times, places and culture.

In considering the work at hand, one helpful practice is to survey the thing (or set of images) taking careful stock of how the maker relates to his own social and physical environment – normally also those of the  intended audience.

What elements does the imagery show essential to their discourse, and what elements are absent that are essential in one or another of those visual languages familiar to you? Positive and negative indicators are equally important.

Such things are expressed in style of drawing and in disposition of items  across the space, as much as by what a specific item or picture contains. One very ‘telling’ element – at this early stage – is the attitude shown to the living body.

How persons of a particular time and place perceive their bodies, and how they may adapt that form to denote higher or lesser status (actual or spiritual), is potent sign of where and when an image is likely to have been first enunciated and/or subsequently maintained.  It isn’t necessarily the same time or place as the present medium; you can buy a modern plastic plate carrying an image of the Mona Lisa.

But consider how bodies appear in the  illustrations below, and which do – or don’t –  assume that perfection of physical form is an external expression of the naturally good, or the great.

(detail) fol. 76v

Do any of those pictures include a ‘telling detail’ – reminiscent of a detail in the Voynich manuscript? (the correct answer  is… sort of.. The ornate cover as headwear or canopy)

How about the Voynich figure’s flower? Should we suppose its having three buds was intended to convey any particular significance?

… at this early stage the only correct answer is … possibly.

Then, by reference to the range of headwear on the adjacent figures, we find that in addition to this possible allusion to Asian, and specifically Buddhist or Hindu customs in art,  we have here allusion to the Hellenistic and Roman ‘tyche’ – something  I first pointed out in 2011, when  writing for some students. It is an idea since taken up by Koen Gheuens, though not quite in the same way, or drawing the same conclusions as I do.

About this time, one must pause and act as one’s own severest critic. Is there any evidence at all to that there ever existed a context or community in which the visual language combined such a fusion of  Asian stylistics and Hellenistic ‘tyche’?  It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘plausible’; it has to be demonstrably, and historically, factual. The imagery has to be read accurately if provenance is to be accurate.

So now – as ever – one turns to the great mass of primary and secondary studies: history, archaeology, coins and – of course – textual sources.

First,  iconographic evidence.  Yes, it does support the contention that a Hellenistic tyche might hold a three-bud flower.

So what about the eastern ‘meld’ apparently informing the Voynich figure’s expression? Any evidence that such a meld of visual elements existed?

Is one just spinning another of those semi-hypothetical, semi-imaginary ‘histories’?

Specifics – where and when is such fusion attested? It’s not about being believed; it’s about getting things right. Evidence, not argument.

Continually cross-examining  one’s own reading of an image, and constantly  cross-checking the objective comparative materials, keeps one from floating off into fantasy land, but even more  it ensures honest representation of the object to a private client or the public.

In this case, the  external evidence supports the internal. Among artefacts dated to time of Roman rule in the Mediterranean, there are found in the east one showing particular interest in the ‘Tyche’ and that later example (shown above, right) of the ‘Servant of the flower’.

Thus Himanshu Ray speaks of finds that include..

“… intaglios cut in stone such as carnelian and garnet.. the common motifs are Tyche, Heracles, Pallas helmeted and Apollo standing. The Tyche motif is especially widespread, and in addition to sites in Bengal and Andhra it has also been found at coastal sites in southern Thailand”.

Himanshu P. Ray, The Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia. OUP (1994; 1998; 2000) p.74.

And the particular form of ornate ‘canopy’ shown above the Voynich figure also occurs in Buddhist Thailand –  I’m sorry I have no example to show you here.

So now, it is clear that we are not inventing history in recognising this visual langage as one informed by both the older traditions: of the Hellenistic Tyche and an Asian style which may be more aptly associated with the Buddhist rather than the Hindu of India. And so we may also posit a period between the 3rdC BC and 3rdC Ad for for first enunciation of the matter, with greater probability of the 1st-3rdC AD. And we are looking for the relevant community  where the inheritance was both Hellenistic and Asian during that time.

But there are more questions to be addressed and, hopefully, answered.

For example,

Why has the Voynich figure a body so very unlike those derived from the Hellensitic, Hindu or Buddhist traditions, in which physical beauty was important?

Why these flat feet, un-drawn ankles and overlarge head? It is a reflection of cultural decay over time, or does it reflect the ideas of the inheriting community which – though accustomed to use a visual vocabulary gained from Hellenistic and eastern custom – had some cultural or religious ideology which opposed idealisation of physical beauty? Or is it just bad drawing?  More – why is it that the nearest comparison for bodies drawn in such a way occurs in astronomical imagery from an Iberian Jewish text whose pictures are derive from a non-Latin corpus of  al-Sufi, a Persian born in Rey?

Is the presence of classical and Buddhist/Asian vocabulary, in combination with an absence of similar ways of representing the body, a result of  the work’s being copied in later Iberia perhaps, or might it be rather the effect of some practice current in  ninth- or tenth-century Persia, or should we attribute it to eastern Jews from the old Buddhist-Greek influenced regions, who later came to settle in the west, among the Sephardim?  Such arrivals are attested: the persons are usually not called Jews but given the surname ‘al Isra’ili’ in medieval document.

More questions; more research … avoiding premature conclusions… and constant, relentless cross-checking.

Apart from that canopy, is there any other reason to think that this particular figure reflects a visual language influenced by Asian custom?  Is  possible to know whether that flower, and its ‘three buds’ were intended to carry some particular significance known to both the original and later makers?

.. once more, at this early stage, the proper answer is ‘ Possibly’.

We see that the figure is given an awkward, back-turned right hand, the left holding that three-bud flower.

And the same combination – three buds with one hand back-turned and pointing downwards, is a standard trope for the ‘healer’ figures in Buddhist art.  In that that position, the hand means ‘mercy’ and is very commonly seen on healing figures. The first comparative example shown below is a detail from a purely Indian Buddhist figure; the next a recent image of the Tibetan ‘Green Tara’-  patron of medicines. The three-bud sprig held by the first is myrobalans.

Must we read the back-turned hand as addressing conventions of Buddhist visual language?  What significance might it have, instead, in the Jewish or the Latin traditions?

More work, more reading, more searching relevant comparative imagery.

Next question..

Are there any other places in the manuscript where some allusion is made to the myrobalans as ‘three bud’? – Well, yes.

While working out the classification system underlying construction of the Voynich botanical images,  I’d identified a fair number and among them, the  myrobalans as the subject of folio 22r ( basic information had been given in this post; more technical matter here).

Any other items of relevance?  Anything that might suggest confirmation of this possibility that the makers were accustomed to use conventions of Asian or Indian  visual languages – particularly the Buddhist – in addition to being acquainted with the older Hellenistic matter?

Again – yes.

The manuscript includes quite a number of such details.  Perhaps the least unequivocal for those unused to non-Latin imagery is this use of the ‘lotus-like’ motif on f.33v.

This is the sort of thing one can tell a client and know the information will be received with interest, but informing those highly self-confident, Euro-centred and theory-driven Voynicheros is only done after taking some time to prepare for the inevitable multi-gun onslaught:- assertions that one doesn’t know what one is taking about; that the insight is not original; that the insight is wrong, mad, pareidolic or hallucinatory.  It will be decided by the most fanatical that to prevent anyone ‘being distracted’ by such information, one’s name is ‘never to be mentioned’ and any reference to one as source of information is to be erased.

No, I’m sorry to say that I’m not inventing or exaggerating this utterly crazy behaviour among the worse of the worst.  Luckily, not everyone has yet been drawn into that ‘fellowship’.

I would not say that anything so far noted about that detail from f.79 76v was enough to offer any firm opinion about that folio, let alone the whole manuscript. It’s just one small set of notes, which was added to the log, and whose final weight was given only after  equally detailed study of all the rest.

The process of inspection, analysis, observation, research, cross-reference, more research, and constant ‘reality checking’ continues – for every folio – before any opinion can be honestly given.. ‘Eyeballing’ just doesn’t figure. It has to be true.

But in the end, we still have to cope with hypothetical narratives as advertised ‘histories’ for the manuscript, and the usual ‘Aldrovandi’s phoenix bowl’ phenomenon.

Those who want to insist it’s all about lovely herbal baths and kings and things are still going to do it.  Responsiveness requires an interest in the manuscript greater than attachment to self-image or hypothesis. So though one might know better, one hardly expects to be heard.  One knows that we will still see the tyche called a ‘nymph’ and stories about among ‘balneology’ and herbals.  One just has to publish and hope for better times.

Buit when Pelling asks rhetorically whether the study has failed..

.. because everyone who has ever looked at the Voynich Manuscript has been stupid, or inexperienced, or foolish, or delusional, or crazy, or marginal, or naive? ..

the answer is neither yes nor no. No, it hasn’t failed; and yes most of those who just ‘look at’ the imagery, expecting it to be legible in their own visual language are naive and insufficiently inexperienced.

But in the end, Pelling descends to the just-plain-untrue:

Even though the Voynich’s imagery has been seen and ‘closely read’ for over a century by all manner of people, to date this has – in terms of finding the single telling detail that can place even part of it within an illustrative or semantic tradition – achieved nothing, zilch, nada


  1. Diane

    I really enjoyed this post, and I think I can agree with everything you write. Only I’m not certain about the meaning of the turned hand and the flowers. There are other figures in q13a with the same gesture, some even on both hands at the same time.

    I personally find the nymph difficult since there are many options for the thing she’s holding. I’m getting a pretty solid idea about the structure above her head though. The most fascinating thing about it is those two curls hanging down the sides. This seems to me a clear reference to the typical hair style worn for example by this Isis-Persephone.

    You can also see how the rest of the structure can be the hair and a diadem-style crown.

    Since the figure below her represents Engonasin with Lyra, I’d dare to read this crown as a reference to Corona Borealis.


  2. Koen,
    Thanks for saying that you enjoyed the post. The aim was not to push any theory – just to give an insight into how one approaches a problematic set of images for which there is no closely associated text.

    As I say in the post: those first observations, even with the associated research to show the points observed weren’t inconsistent with the historical record, wouldn’t be enough to justify any final opinion on that figure – let alone the formulation of any GUT. The process has to be repeated for each image, and each folio, and section, constantly cross-checking and quizzing one’s own perceptions, testing one’s readings against hard evidence at every step. Just as we do when working on a difficult written text. And that’s why, in the end, any overarching theory SHOULD be developed late, as a theory explaining that solid evidence. What we usually see, though, is the opposite: a first stage of “Let’s assume/let’s suppose/let’s pretend/my hypothesis” narrative.. and then everything which can be force-fitted to that ‘imaginative narrative” done so, and all the rest of the primary evidence just waved away or excuses made.. or just ignored. Like Cindarella’s shoe being force-fitted to the ugly sisters’ feet. 🙂

    One example of that style which really troubles me is the habit of asserting that the month-folios are ‘an astrological zodiac’. That’s not any conclusion from evidence and there’s no evidence to support it. The central images don’t constitute a Roman zodiac, or any sub-series from one, and of ‘astrological’ use there’s not a shred of evidence. Even if my recent suggestion of the ‘Dies Aegyptiaci’ should be proven true, that’s not proof of astrological use. No more than marking high feast days or birthdays on a calendar is ‘astrological’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Diane. I do agree that ideally, in a case like this, one should as neutrally as possible lay out and study all pieces of the puzzle, then try to fit them together in the right way and only at the end assess the full picture.

      Even you must admit though, that in the case of the VM this is incredibly complex. Especially the way each successive copyist treated the original material. I’m not at all opposed to Greco-Bactrian and/or Buddhist influences, but I’d really have thought that the content was formed in a Hellenized Egyptian setting. But perhaps they needn’t be mutually exclusive 🙂

      Now the reason why I persist in my hypothesis about these constellations on q13a is that it works quite well. I must thank you for drawing attention to the nymph’s flat feet. Also note that she has only three toes. You know who dwells in Engonasin’s company and has flat feet and three toes.

      Either way, I’d say the nymph is more of an Aphrodite than a Tyche. She has her hair down and just a modest diadem or band. That’s no proper behavior for a Tyche 😉


      • Koen, the figure as we have it is no classical Hellenistic or Roman tyche. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the battlemented head-dresses had been retained, and that for various reasons, the imagery shows the figures allude to geographic as well as astronomical loci, I shouldn’t have been able to identify them as ‘tyches’ at all. Nor, in fact, do I think they are characteristically Greek or Roman figures, but to explain why this is so would mean going into the history of those patron-figures.. which is one of those matters which I have decided not to discuss in detail online.
        The easier story is obvious enough: Hellenistic matter preserved between the end of the Hellenistic period and c.mid-12thC AD east, rather than west of the Levant and Egypt. No one blinks to see in western mss how a classical figure is affected by Latin conventions in drawing. There is a kind of mental block, though, about accepting (a) that Hellenistic literature survived outside Byzantium and Latin Europe and (b) that imagery maintained over a millennium will come to reflect the conventions of that milieu in which it is preserved.
        The imagery itself is clear that the interval was spent in a non-Latin environment, and among people who (as Latins also did) infused the matter with their own society’s ideas and priorities.

        I very much doubt that they would have had any intention of referring to Isis, Aphrodite or any of the older gods. Even in folio 5v, where it is patently obvious that the ‘dancing man’ is one of the Dioscuri, the figure is made unlike any classical body. A thousand years after the formal dissolution of the older religion is a very, very long time to expect maintenance of the system of belief; what we find is surprising enough – clear evidence of origins in the Hellenistic world. That’s what startled me when I was sent a couple of images from the ms, with a request to offer my opinion. I’ve never seen anything obviously maintained in practical use which was so little altered by time and transmission. You never find it in the Latin west; what happens there in the renaissance is a sudden decision to go back to old mosaics and descriptions and recreate the old forms.

        But in any case, where you have difficulty with my opinions – one must take into account that I came to this manuscript’s imagery in 2008, and have been publishing excerpts from my more formal research for nine years now – minus one devoted to another project which left me no spare time for Voynich-writings. You’re surely a quick study, but with one thing and another I have a forty-plus year advantage. 🙂


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