Weighing in on Libra

Stylistic Variations

Medieval scribes were copyists. Before the invention of the printing press, it was difficult to mass-produce text other than by carving woodblocks or creating ceramic molds that could be impressed into wax or clay, both of which were inefficient, laborious processes for texts of more than a few pages. So they copied by hand, one letter at a time.


Medieval scribe copying a manuscript (Vatican Reg. Lat. 12).

Many of the copied manuscripts were sacred texts and it was considered sacrilege to alter the wording. Exact copies were encouraged and in some cases required by cultural law (as in the Hebrew Torah).

Since the idea was to reproduce the book as closely as possible, not to create an original composition, the basic template was often the same and regional patterns can be recognized, some of which can help us trace the origins of a manuscript.

That’s not to say there was no room for originality. Often the text was accompanied by embellished initials or illustrations, and variations were introduced by some of the more creative (or rebellious) individuals, variations that were then copied by subsequent generations.

Copying Zodiac Symbols

Aquarius9thCDrawings offered a little more leeway for artistic expression than the text. Over the centuries, zodiac symbols have been drawn or sculpted with small variations that point to certain regions or illustrative traditions. Ancient zodiacal figures, based on Pagan or Mithraic beliefs (which were broadly disseminated by Roman soldiers), often depicted figures as nude or dressed in scanty togas, while those from the late middle ages more often were clothed.

Animal symbols underwent small changes, as well. Capricorn started out as a seagoat with a distinctive fish-tail, and gradually took on a variety of forms, including goats in shells, goats with dragon tails, or a naturalistic goat with four legs. Cancer could be a crab, crayfish, or lobster. Scorpio was originally a scorpion but was later shown in some areas as a lizard or dragon. Sagittarius could be a centaur, satyr, or human figure.

Tracing the Traditions

Over a period of several years, I collected hundreds of examples of zodiac cycles. Almost 400 of them were western-style zodiacs (most of them full cycles with 12 signs). After comparing them for stylistic patterns and trends, I was surprised to notice a change in the depiction of Libra in the early 12th century that I haven’t seen others remark upon but which may tell us something about the VMS.

Libra in Hand


Roman-style Libra with male figure, c. 9th century St. Gall, Switzerland.

Prior to the 12th century, Libran scales were usually held in the hand of a human figure, except in a few instances where space was very constrained. There are a number of exceptions where the scales are shown alone, including

  • a Roman mosaic in Tunis
  • the 9th century Leiden Aratea zodiac, and
  • an 11th century mosaic in Otranto Cathedral (south of Brindisi, Italy).

But these are exceptions rather than the rule—scales-only Libras are less common than those where the scales are held by a human or human-like figure (usually a Roman god), as will be seen from examples that follow.

Exploring the Imagery

Male Libra holds scales aloft in this Carolingian zodiac from the Reichenau monastery, Germany. Image courtesy of the Vatican Library.

Male Libra holds scales aloft in this Carolingian zodiac from the Reichenau monastery, Germany. Image courtesy of the Vatican Library.

Prior to the 12th century, most treatises on astronomy and astrology were not illustrated, but there are some and they derived from Greco-Roman styles.

The painting on the right is from a Carolingian manuscript, illuminated at the largest scriptorium in S.W. Germany. The face has been damaged, but based on the clothing treatment of other figures in the cycle, the figure holding the scales appears to be male. This example illustrates that the figure-with-scales imagery was in use in central European manuscripts by the 9th or early 10th century, but that local styles of dress had not yet been incorporated into zodiac drawings.

About 200 years later, something changed and that change appears to center around southwest Germany.

What stands out after comparing hundreds of sets of pre-1500 zodiacs is a temporal and geographic cluster of Germanic zodiac signs that depict the scales alone (mostly in missals and psalters but also in medical and astrological texts). There is also a 13th-century zodiac from Georgia without a figure that could be an isolated example or which might be related in some as-yet undetermined way to the others that I have included in the diagram below.

In the following chart, I have grouped the images according to whether Libra includes a figure (top) or only the scales (bottom). It is further organized according to approximate date of creation (exact dates are not known but are probably correct within about 10 to 70 years):

MedievalLibrabyJKPI thought I had found a 12th-century example of scales without a figure in the Soissons Cathedral stained-glass windows but then discovered that most of the glass had been replaced in the late 1800s.

[Addendum: I forgot to post this map that accompanies the above chart, which shows a sampling of the approximate temporal/geographical distribution of these symbols. I include it now (May 7, 2016)]

LibraMap15thCAs with most research, the above chart, assembled over several years, is still a work-in-progress. Nevertheless, some interesting patterns are apparent between approx. 1130 and 1460:

  • Most zodiacs signs were enclosed by circles unless they were a spoke in a zodiac “wheel”. A few were on plain backgrounds. By the 15th century, some were becoming more elaborate, especially those from France.
  • Zodiacs in Frankish and English manuscripts typically feature a figure holding the scales (Trinity B-11-5 from Normandy is an exception to this general pattern) until around 1460.
  • The figures holding the scales are usually standing, except those from Persia and possibly Armenia, which are usually sitting cross-legged.
  • Libra images in traditional Roman garb are usually male. Others are usually female.
  • By the mid-13th century, most of the zodiacs are drawn with medieval dress rather than Roman togas.
  • Ancient Roman zodiacs were often created in tile or stone, but Carolingian-era and early-medieval zodiacs from English and Germanic regions (Germany, Switzerland, Austria and northern Italy) showed up frequently in manuscripts, whereas Frankish zodiacs tended to embellish physical structures such as churches (stone-carved portals and stained-glass windows were popular).
  • Before 1455, scales without figures were mostly Germanic.
  • Simple versions of scales without figures don’t show up with any regularity in England, Italy, or France until about 1260, and even then they were a distinct minority compared to those with figures.

The Missing Link


In Bodley Ms 614 and Digby 83 (both English manuscripts), a scorpion (rather than a human figure) holds the scales. In the German version (right) the scorpion is close to the scales but doesn’t hold them, which may have led copyists to assume the scales and scorpion were completely separate.

I searched extensively through zodiacs to discover a reason for the simplified Libra and finally had enough examples to guess what may have happened. Ancient depictions of Libra sometimes show the scales held by a scorpion rather than by Virgo.

The examples on the right serve as a tentative explanation. The one with a scorpion holding the scales is from England from c. 1150. The one on the right is from S.W. Germany from around the same time. They both derive from the Hyginus tradition (which traces back to Greek sources before the 2nd century CE), but the second one visually separates the scorpion from the scales. Since Scorpio is a constellation in its own right, copyists may have overlooked or dismissed the association between Scorpio and Libra and further separated the scales from the Scorpion in subsequent copies, thus creating a stand-alone Libra that was particularly prevalent in Germany.

The Spread of the Illustrative Tradition

FranceArchiLibraThe simplified scales in the Germanic manuscripts are not due to lack of space—the images of Sagittarius and Aquarius in the same zodiac cycles are quite detailed—so it appears to be a stylistic choice that contrasted with that of surrounding regions.

By the second half of the 15th century, it is apparent that figureless scales had spread to other countries, as in this example from France from c. 1457 (right). The French zodiac cycles (which were sometimes painted by Flemish artists) tended to be more ornate and more richly colored than earlier Germanic Libras and were often shown within architectural settings, an innovation that set them apart from the Germanic examples.

Simplified Libra and the Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Libra most closely resembles the Germanic zodiacs, regardless of whether this was coincidental or deliberate. It doesn’t look like conventional Libras from France (with the exception of  few isolated examples from NE France or Flanders) or from the eastern Mediterranean. It particularly resembles those from Switzerland, southern Germany, eastern Austria, and England (note that England had strong ties with St. Gall at the time).

This by itself doesn’t prove an association, but taken together with Cancer as a crayfish, Scorpio as a lizard or dragon, and Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow (which is a rare combination), there are multiple illustrative choices that point to the same region.



A German Libra from c. 1460s probably post-dates the VMS but I’ve included it here because it is a rare example of a zodiac with text written around the sign in a circle (BSB CGM 312).

There may not be an exact model from which the VMS was copied (if there is, it may not be publicly accessible or may have perished along the way). It’s entirely possible that the VMS illustrator was exposed to a variety of styles if a manuscript library or scriptorium were nearby, or if his profession involved travel.

If the illustrator researched multiple sources and then filled in the blanks with original ideas, the Voynich Manuscript’s association with other documents may never be clear, but the examples in the above chart show that this style of Libra was particularly prevalent in central Europe from about the early 12th century to the 15th century, which includes the period during which the VMS was created.

It hasn’t been determined where the VMS illustrator was born or lived, but it appears that he or she was influenced, at least in part, by documents from central Europe.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved


14 thoughts on “Weighing in on Libra

  1. Koen Gheuens

    Beautiful images, JKP. Those must have taken ages to assemble. Monk’s work, like we say in Dutch 🙂

    I had no idea there was such a shift in the depiction of the scales. I would like to remark though, that the scales in both Dendera zodiacs – the round one that’s in the Louvre and the rectangular one that’s still in the temple complex – show scales without human figures as well. This is a Greco-Roman temple, so I’d guess it falls within the scope of your study.

    Since you start your post by explaining how monks were basically human copy machines (with various amounts of creative intent), these examples shouldn’t be omitted.

    But once again, wonderful images. Your posts don’t lack illustration. Did you compare other features to the scales from this region? The little horizontal protrusions the ropes hang from, the configuration of those ropes, whether there’s a pin in the middle or not…?

    1. J.K. Petersen Post author

      I didn’t know there was a such a shift in the depiction of scales either until I had collected about 300 zodiacs and, as I assembled more, the pattern became even more apparent.

      You’re correct, a few of the ancient zodiac mosaics in the floors and roofs of temples do not include the figure holding the scales but since I had posted images of zodiacs in the Dendera region in the previous blog showing the evolution of zodiacs, and since they are rare examples (there are less than a handful) that were covered up and inaccessible to most people during the middle ages (towns were built on top of them), I think the odds of them having influenced zodiacs in medieval times is low. Items like the Roman coins and later documents, like the Hyginus manuscripts, items that were portable, were probably more influential.

      As for your question about comparing features of the scales, I’ve been trying to do that. I haven’t found an exact match (which is interesting in itself) but I’ve found a handful that are close. I don’t have enough information yet to make any specific observations.

      Thank you for your comments. They are welcome, as always.

      1. Koen Gheuens

        Yeah I’m also making an effort to comment some more on people’s research – I’m surprised the habit isn’t more widespread 😉

        About such centres as Dendera being gone by Medieval times, that isn’t a problem for me. I think the VM is a one-in-a-billion surviving copy of very ancient documents, that first originated exactly in the first centuries CE. As such, the question of whether or not it was known to the medieval-human-copymachines is almost irrelevant.

        The Zodiac is, I think, one of the sections where the 15th century copyists made the most drastic alterations though. One need only look at the clothes they put on some of the nymphs. Soif the scales turn out to be ancient or medieval, both work for me in this case – though I would definitely keep both options open.

  2. D.N. O'Donovan

    The image in Bodleian MS 614 is interesting. I myself find the others less so because they invariably show the Latin European sort of scales, which tie or suspend the balances from a crossbar formed in one piece – not at all like the scales in Beinecke MS 408.

    Interesting study you’ve made of the history of Latin Christian imagery of the zodiac, though. I fully appreciate how much work is involved in such comparative studies.


  3. D.N. O'Donovan

    Your readers may like to know that Bodleian 614 is said to be “famous for including a Latin version of “The Wonders of the East. It is associated with London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. v, although it is hard to tell whether the Tiberius is the direct parent or a distant grandparent of 614”.

    I also find it interesting because it echoes the sort of imagery we see in the Decans imagery in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, imagery said by some to have been gained from information provided by Peter of Abano, though the wiki article refers to other frescoes there and credits the painters, though not the informing text.

    1. J.K. Petersen Post author

      D. O’Donovan wrote: “Interesting study you’ve made of the history of Latin Christian imagery of the zodiac, though.”

      I didn’t make a study of Latin Christian imagery.

      This is a continuation of the previous blog on the evolution of zodiacs (which I linked at the top) and most of the early examples I discovered were Pagan, Mithraic, and Jewish, arising from the Chaldean area. Even though Europe was gradually Christianizing, the chart specifically related to Libra above includes Islamic, Jewish, Armenian, and other non-Christian examples.

      You should not assume that zodiac imagery from the late Lombardic and later Germanic kingdoms (which included what we now call Germany, Switzerland, western Austria, the eastern edge of France and Spain, and the region around Salerno) are all Christian or Latin. They are not.

      When zodiac imagery became more prevalent in the 8th- and 9th-centuries, many still followed Pagan customs and many of the northerners still worshiped Odin. Christianity was not yet the dominant religion.

      A significant number of manuscripts with zodiacs were secular documents written in a variety of languages, including astrological/astronomical treatises, physician’s references, “house books”, cosmological atlases, and historical chronicles. They were often copied or translated by Jewish, Islamic, and other non-Christian scholars into a variety of languages. These probably had as much influence on zodiac traditions as Christian illuminations.

      [Edit, additional info: As mentioned in the previous blog, in the early evolution of zodiacs, Christan clergy condemned them as Pagan, Mithraic, or occult symbols. Monuments were destroyed or defaced and zodiac symbology suppressed. When the effort to eradicate zodiacs was unsuccessful, the sun and moon symbols in the center of zodiac wheels were turned into Jesus and Mary, Virgo was changed from a male Roman god into a female Mary, and the zodiac signs were paired with the labors of the months—the imagery was then gradually adapted into church architecture and ecclesiastical texts. As illustrated in the above chart, the zodiac Libra in the Voynich Manuscript most closely resembles zodiacs from a region where many of the 14th- and 15th-century documents were neither Christian nor Latin.]

    2. J.K. Petersen Post author

      Thanks for the lead, Koen.

      At first glance it doesn’t look Roman to me. They were pretty attached to the sea-goat image, so I wonder if it’s a more recent re-envisioning of the Roman idea rather than an actual copy of a Roman artifact. Nevertheless, I will add it to the collection and follow up its origins.

      1. Koen Gheuens

        Have you checked the Warburg institute website? I only discovered it a few days ago. The cool thing about it is that you can search quite specifically, for example this is the search for Libra depicted as just scales:

        It does indeed show the German cluster, but many earlier examples as well. For example, there is this late 13thC Castilian example:

        I won’t post more links because that might flag my post as spam 😉 But you should definitely have a look there. I’m no expert on this kind of imagery, so I wonder what you make of them.

        1. J.K. Petersen Post author

          Yes, I am aware of the site. I’ve only looked at it a few times because I tend to go directly to the repositories that hold the manuscripts rather than this kind of compilation, but they’ve clearly expended a great deal of effort collecting examples, so I’m glad you mentioned it and included a link because readers may be interested.

          I have many more zodiac cycles than could ever fit in a chart (more than 700 at last count, approximately 400 of which represent western zodiacs), so I tried to include ones that were representative in the same proportions in which I found them and to focus on their relationship to the VMS.

          As was previously mentioned, I had no idea there was a temporal-geographic cluster of no-figure scales until I had sorted them by date and charted them on maps. Then the pattern revealed itself.

  4. D.N. O'Donovan

    I appreciate the fact that you go about the business of discussing imagery in the way professionals do – by first collecting evidence, and then discussing specifics, with examples from your evidence..

    A couple of notes.

    You do not mention that the documentary evidence tells us that the Scales constellation in the 12-figure zodiac is an invention of the Romans, first depicted in the style of the balance that we see with Aequitas. That the figure does not appear anywhere in the western Mediterranean zodiacs with their 12 equal divisions, before the 2ndC AD, and not in mosaics, to my knowledge (correct me if I’m mistaken) until the 5thC AD.

    It is not in Germany, but in the east near Lake Tiberias, that we have our earliest extant example of a wheel zodiac that includes a fully human, standing archer, and Scales.
    So it is not particularly Germanic, but rather eastern Roman.

    This would also appear to be borne out in the case of an isolated Scales, since you say that the three instances are in regions whose common factor is this mixture of north African and Byzantine culture:
    Tunis, which remained part of the Byzantine empire long after the Arab conquests of North Africa;
    Otranto, similarly.
    As Savage-Smith (I think) and Seznec certainly comment, Carolingian copies of Aratus include images which are of eastern and near eastern deities, and not classical Greek or Roman.

    There seems to be a reasonable chance that some at least of the copies of Aratus which reached the west had been gained from Harran – but that may be a little beyond what we need to treat at the moment.

    I have seen nothing anywhere to suggest that there is anything particularly Mithraic about the 12 zodiac symbols as such, though versions occur in contexts which some scholars have suggested refer to Mithraic practice.

    Depiction of star figures as unclothed or half-clothed doesn’t really make them Mithraic. That was once a popular idea, but we have enough evidence to argue, on the contrary, that the imagery itself, and then its incorporation into the Roman 12-figure zodiac, came from an older custom by which each of the 12 seasons (and their marker stars) had been associated with one of labours of Hercules, and it is this older idea that is more likely to inform those cloaked male nude figures. The issue is still one being discussed among scholars at present so I don’t want to seem too dogmatic, but the older ‘Mithraic’ idea is no longer held to be so likely as it was once thought.

    I meant no criticism, btw, in complementing you on a nice selection of Latin imagery: by Latin I mean works from western Christendom (as one speaks of ‘Arabic’ to mean Islamic, or ‘Greek’ to mean Byzantine).

    The problem really, is that while we can put together comprehensive ranges of Latin zodiac imagery, the Voynich imagery plainly doesn’t constitute an example of zodiac imagery, and just as plainly tells us that its imagery isn’t gained from the Latin tradition, so one must ask whether presuming the series *ought* to conform to a latin zodiac, and then sliding past all the pointers which tell us the opposite, is likely to help us assist the linguists and others working on the text.

    Among the indications of non-Latin (i.e. European Christian) origin for this imagery is that the way the Scales are constructed is unlike any form of scales apparently known or used in mainland Europe. They are not like the earlier (Aequitas) type, nor the later (shop-keeper’s) either. That one unusual image which rightly shows the Scorpion holding the scales comes closest, but the difference between the Voynich scales and all the other type is plain enough: they hang the balances from the crossbar, and the Voynich scales don’t.

    That unusual image is not an invention, and all the more interesting for that.

    Its form reflects a tradition native to north African, and to eastern Mediterranean peoples whose lunar year was marked by the moon. We find they have in common a custom of seeing the Scorpion when it hangs in the sky, as hanging from a group of stars envisaged as the poles and crossbar of a well. The figure wasn’t necessarily only imagined as the scorpion; in other versions it was a great angel… but I won’t digress so far.

    Finally – when I referred to the standing Archer in one of the stained glass windows at Soissons, I believe that I mentioned that some of the glass had been brought from Aisne/Braine Abbey, and although some damaged glass was replaced by modern work, much of it wasn’t. So to say that it was replaced in the nineteenth century is fair enough, but to suggest the glass itself is all nineteenth century is not quite so.

    I was quite particular about which examples I cited – the standing human archer being – according to all my sources – one of the old Abbey’s windows.

    As always, though I’d rather get things right than pretend to anything like infallibility, so if I’m mistaken about Soissons, do please leave a note on my blog, or send me an email if the comment-mucher is hyper-active. Cheers.

    1. J.K. Petersen Post author

      D’ O’Donavan wrote: “Finally – when I referred to the standing Archer in one of the stained glass windows at Soissons, I believe that I mentioned that some of the glass had been brought from Aisne/Braine Abbey, and although some damaged glass was replaced by modern work, much of it wasn’t. So to say that it was replaced in the nineteenth century is fair enough, but to suggest the glass itself is all nineteenth century is not quite so.”

      I’m sorry, I haven’t seen your blog on the windows at Soissons,. It was very rare for me to look at other Voynich blogs before the Voynich Blogosphere reader was created, and even now I don’t get to all of them. I haven’t researched the Soissons glass in relation to Sagittarius, since this blog was specifically about Libra, and didn’t intend to imply that all the glass had been replaced (and apologize if it looked that way).

      I knew only that glass had been replaced, which meant that I couldn’t be certain of which category the original Soissons Libra belonged. but it’s interesting to hear that you’ve done some research on Soissons and that the replaced glass may have followed the older models.

  5. D.N. O'Donovan

    I’ve found an online site. The text on the main page is ambiguous, saying that among the various smaller panels (19thC) are subjects including
    “the Liberal Arts, the Signs of the Zodiac, the Labours of the Months, a Season and an Elder of the Apocalypse (most of these and the four large figures are thought to have come from the royal abbey of Braine – most of the roundels from its north rose window and the angels from its west rose)”

    but when you go through the link to the following page, there are details for each item, and the Sagittarius is said to be a nineteenth century window, so I’ll fix that on my own site as soon as I can get to it.

    I must say, though, that the nineteenth-century artist must have used a very early model. He or she has perfectly captured the Carolingian style here. But 19thC it is:

  6. J.K. Petersen Post author

    D. O’Donovan wrote: “You do not mention that the documentary evidence tells us that the Scales constellation in the 12-figure zodiac is an invention of the Romans, first depicted in the style of the balance that we see with Aequitas.”

    I guess I’ll have to be more explicit about these blogs all being interconnected and that this blog is a continuation of the blog on the evolution of zodiacs. I linked to the other blog at the top, assuming people who hadn’t already read it would go to that one, but maybe people don’t click on the links unless it’s expressly recommended.

    My previous blog on the evolution and spread of zodiacs goes into Roman influences in significantly more detail. It’s a long blog and it wouldn’t be practical to repeat all that information here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *