Musing.. cloudbands?.. addendum A

detail from f.68v

Koen’s comment to an earlier post offered helpful comparisons (repeated below) for the bordering line which appears in numerous folios of the Voynich manuscript (illustrated left from f.68v).

In Voynich studies, a convention (whose original proponent I cannot discover), sees this sort of line  described  as a ‘cloudband’,  a term that  by analogy suits its employment in f.68v pretty well.  I say  “by analogy” because in Latin art the cloudband appears consistently in a different form, though to the same purpose as the liminal line is used in f.68v namely, to indicate the boundary between the mundus and the realm of deity.  An exemplary version:

Though cloudbands may vary somewhat in the Latin manuscripts, they are always formed as a repeat, initially based on a motif also used for vertical or horizontal borders. The repeat is carefully regular and symmetrical. Among the variations a couple are illustrated below,  the simplest  as e.g. MS Harley 4431; and one a little more ornate  from BNF fr.565.

Brit.Lib. Add. 10292 f. 36v. Northern France. St.Omer or Tournai (c.1316 AD)

Brit.Lib MS Harley 4431 f.189v. Paris. (1410-c. 1414). A manuscript copy of Christiane de Pizan’s works.

1400-1420 AD. A comparative example noticed by Ellie Velinka

As one moves further north from Paris, one finds that the cloudband’s line  maintains its indented form and outer edge but becomes ever closer to the appearance of the next example –  from   Brit.Lib. MS Harley 1502 (below). This folio from Harley 1502 was  first mentioned by  Don Hoffmann.

(detail) Brit.Lib. MS Harley 1502 f.86.

IN order to find this sort of thing described by a line as simple and irregular as that used by the Voynich manuscript, we have to move south of Paris and eastward to the coast – to that region spanning the Spanish-French border to which our attention has been directed so often in provenancing the Voynich imagery. Here,  Occitan and Catalan were among the local tongues.. 

The  example above was drawn   c.1400, in a copy of  Breviario de Amor which contains no other illustrations, though  frames had been prepared for a large number.  CUL Codex MS 63  is copy of the  paraphrase and translation into Catalan of an Occitan treatise in verse: Le breviari d’amor.  Composition of the  original dates from 1288.  Its author was a Franciscan friar and master of laws,  Matfré Ermengaud de Béziers  who died in 1322. He is also described as a troubador.

I’ve chosen that  illustration  in particular because of the border-line (of course) but also because it shows the deity holding a sphere.  Whether the maker  meant us to read the line as a cloudband proper, or only as outline of a ‘cloud of glory’ is unclear, but not essential to know.

The critical factor is the draughtsman’s sharing the Voynich manuscript’s evident indifference to those principles of regularity and symmetry which define the style of the ‘cloudband’ In Latin art.  Nor does this example (or that in the Voynich manuscript) at first strike the viewer as any regular repetition of a single motif.

Another instance from the same period and region, and from the   Occitan text of the same work shows again this sort of border made  a single, irregular, undulating line.  It means that no easy argument can be invented to explain  the Voynich line’s form by imagining a draughtsman  appropriately deficient  – as careless, infantile,  incompetent etc..  In fact, the reason this line has its form is ‘explained’ clearly enough by the same picture’s border.  It shows that the informing  ‘motif’ (so to speak) – was  the vine.  

Though here as in folio 68v, the line is put to the same purpose as the cloudband was in other works, we cannot presume the were  identical in significance any more than in their respective forms.

Each serves, rather,  as a partial synonym for the other (so to speak)  and only  partial  because where the cloudband proper maintains everywhere a consistent structure and significance, the  free form of the ‘vine line’ (as we’ll call it) has applications in the Beinecke manuscript which are not so easily classified.  What is more, these ‘other applications’ constitute the majority of the line’s occurrences in the Voynich manuscript and will be considered in Addendum B.

One more detail from that image in  Harley MS 4940 deserves notice.  It has the centre of the  mundus‘ centre a fourfold division, and not  the standard three of Asia, Europe and Africa.  I won’t digress to treat this now, but would say that while a viewer might take the  fourth as meant for the Paradise or for Eden, they might equally take it as allusion to Jewish Haggadah which had Noah’s land where he re-planted the grape vine after the Flood in  North Africa (not Ararat).

Within that area of the southwestern Mediterranean where both Occitan and Catalan were spoken, other dialects and language were in regular use including Judeo-Catalan, Judeo-Provençal and Latin with some vestige still of Arabic.  Most of that area of interest to us  until 1375-7 lay under the aegis  of the Majorcan kingdom and Papal Avignon.

.. in which  context, and in passing: Avignon was sometimes called, in the Hebrew, Ir ha-gefanim “city of grapes”; gefen = vigne, i.e. vine).   


The most obvious point has been made –  that the diagram in f.68v uses a form of line which occurs often in the Voynich manuscript and which in this case only is fairly equated with use of the ‘cloudband’ in other Latin manuscripts.  The line itself does not accord with the practice of high medieval art in depicting the cloudband, and accords better with a southern provenance than a northern one. 

So many details in the Voynich manuscript have directed our attention to the same region  of the south-western Mediterranean that it is impossible even to list them all here.  One or two examples will have to do. 

In researching the botanical folios, we found  our closest parallels for the  ‘twining’ sort of root occurred  in works produced during the twelfth-  and early thirteenth-century, in upper Mesopotamia.  For other forms of root, the closest parallels were  in works produced during the   mid-thirteenth to mid-fourteenth century in Iberia and Majorca but thereafter in some Latin works – chiefly those from Padua and the Veneto, and those later ones often associated with Franciscan patronage or provenance. As were the paintings in the Eremitani.

Shifting loci of this sort are usually taken as valuable in mapping stemmae, but that isn’t our present concern and I would emphasise that in the case of the plant-roots in the Voynich botanical folios (i.e. exclusive of the root-and-leaf section),  it is clear that to define their occurrence is not to define the origins of the Voynich manuscript as a whole, nor even that of its whole botanical section.  Above such roots, the Voynich botanical images show evidence of a much earlier and rather different origin, as I have earlier explained.  And in our comparison below, the comparison is indicative only of a common interpretation and expression of a form; above the root, again,  in each case, the plant shown  is a different one.

The comparison (below right) is from a work very narrowly and securely located:  it was made in Iberia (Portugal) by Sephardi Jews, during the months from  July 30, 1299 to  May 19, 1300.

(detail right from The Cervera Bible)  online.

Congruence between these two details is plain enough, but the constant factor is neither plant identification nor imitation from a single exemplar.  The common link is a common understanding between the makers about certain ideas concerning womens’ sexuality and its nature.

A second example from among the many:  In looking backwards in time to discover whether particular themes or forms  had been attested earlier than the thirteenth century in western Europe,  we found use of the vegetative border as liminal line, together with the same effortless  equation of star with flower as occurs in the Voynich manuscript’s calendar.  The next illustration is from  the Visigothic period in Spain.

When we find two essentially unlike things such as star and flower treated as  interchangeable iconic elements, the key to their conceptual equation is usually linguistic.  For the Visigothic example (as I’ve said in earlier posts) the word is ‘estrella’ and/or the Greek *‘asterios‘.  In the case of the Voynich archer, it was ‘Sagittario’/Saggitario’.

*(Correction – thanks Koen.  my thoughts seem to have on that cloud-dragon in the previous post. )

(detail) f.70v (part of the Calendar section)

late Roman/early Byzantine ‘star-flower’ carpet design. Made in Ravenna to be a mausoleum for Galla Pacidius, but not used to that purpose. Here the model is plainly gained from earlier Egyptian precedents, from which roots the art of early Christianity developed.

In all such cases, the primary source’s own testimony must be given precedence and explained by the use of solid historical texts, complemented by consideration of contemporary languages and general attitudes of a given community.  To first invent a mythical-, fictional-, or hypothetical scenario, to which the manuscript’s interpretation is made ancillary, is not the way to achieve a solid understanding of it.

In this case, the primary evidence points constantly, consistently and  repeatedly to the work’s depending on thirteenth or fourteenth century exemplars created in the fringes of Latin Europe; to the southwestern Mediterranean and to the maritime contacts (or ‘entanglements’) of that same region –   including but far from limited to its closer association with Genoa and with England before 1415.

Koen Gheun’s thirteenth-century examples of the ripple-  boundary were gained from the eastern Mediterranean: one from a city in lower Asia Minor  and one from Cairo.  

Also from Asia minor, but now from the northern town long called Nicaea ( but  Iznik today) a traditional style of ceramic ornament employs a  ‘vine line’ for borders which, these days, are quite regular but which most   interestingly replace the older form of leaf and fruit with a version of the  Asian ‘cloudband’ motif.

The substitution is entirely understandable, given the prohibition of alcohol in Islamic religious thought, but also provides us with valuable evidence that the two ideas – cloudband and vine – were there too considered acceptable alternatives.

I think  Koen and I agree  the wooden ‘veils’ meant to signal the preacher’s transition from a worldly level and -discourse  to that which concerned higher matter.  Whether a thirteenth-century congregation saw it a cloudband, or as the sort of vegetative veil that one saw hanging above a doorway or cave  I don’t know.

The lower heavens as a veil of vegetation also appears in some few items of Latin art, including a curious  image from BNF fr.565.  As a piece of Latin imagery it lacks both artistic merit and integrity, but one may at least give the maker a few points for trying.

We must allow that the Voynich manuscript’s use of the ‘vine line’ in f.68v is meant for the world’s liminal border too, as the cloudband was in Latin works, but this applies only to folio 68v and does not make of the vine a cloud.

It is not a definition easily applied, either, to the great majority of examples.  To understand those will surely require recourse to texts and to earlier art, to allegory, metaphor and local culture and languages.  But if this manuscript were not complex, it would have been understood fairly well (as most Latin works are) within a decade at least of its discovery in 1912.


composite. details from Beinecke MS 408 fols f75 and f79




  1. Hmm yes, the complexity of the pattern’s applications is a difficulty. Clouds, serpents, vines, fabric. The rippling of a mantle or the coils of serpentine tassels. Now astronomical boundaries were serpents in the beginning, and serpents are guardians and so on. I understand that these concepts are connected in a way.

    There’s also waves, and I wonder whether this association is on the foreground in the VM, given the aquatic nature of Q13. There’s for example this Byzantine ship (1200 AD).

    I mean the single line under the ship, not the decorative border. A nicely asymmetrical version. The Greeks and Romans saw the earth as surrounded by a great river (Okeanos). So I wonder if the diagram on the map is supposed to mark the limits of the earth, if “waves” would be the audience’s first association.


  2. I am curious why you consistently refrain from the use of the term ‘nebuly line and seem to be reluctant to acknowledge the relevant etymology. The heraldic use of this pattern is clearly not anachronistic to the VMs parchment dates. And many of the Quire 13 examples are painted blue rather than green. How does the ‘vine’ analogy demonstrate any greater capacity to explain these illustrations compared to the ‘cloud’ interpretation.

    The real VMs cloud band is in the Central Rosette.


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