Monthly Archives: December 2017

Kantha – 4600 miles and 450 Years Later?

Is the spirit of the VMS illustrations embodied in crafts from the 1860s? I wanted to include these images in previous blogs about rayed designs here and here, but a disparity of 450 years is significant. If you believe in the VMS-as-a-modern-forgery theory maybe you don’t find it strange that a medieval manuscript resembles 19th-century textiles, but if you’re confident it’s from c. 1420, it may leave you peering at details for hours.

Medieval cultural exchange between east and west typically occurred through men. Women stayed home to feed and raise the children while men took perilous journeys by land and sea that often lasted three to six years. For those less inclined to brave searing deserts or savage seas, Arabic-speaking traders in north Africa and the Middle East served as intermediaries. Thus, Europe acquired astrology from Egypt and the Levant, numerals and exotic spices from India, ivory and ceramics from north and west Africa, and many illustrative and medical traditions from the Greeks.

In contrast, textile embroidery was practiced mainly by women in rural communities who had less access to ready-made city wares (note, it was not uncommon for men to weave, but embroidery was usually left to the women). Living in isolation from men and often being barred from education, women developed distinctive vocabularies, and sometimes their own writing systems (e.g., the Nüshu phonetic script from China).

They also developed their own illustrative traditions, passing down skills and ideas from mother to daughter. Unfortunately, textiles embellished by women were of a practical nature, they were used for clothing, food covers, and bed linens, and would wear out in a generation or two, leaving few records, and the ideas behind them were orally transmitted, making it difficult to study their origins and evolution.

The Quilts of East India

Kantha is an ancient Indic embroidery tradition, but it is difficult to find examples more than 200 years old. Most of those in museums are from the latter half of the 19th century, but the way the decorative, repetitive elements are combined is not dissimilar to the VMS.

Common themes in kantha textiles include rayed designs, flowers, starbursts, family, flora, and fauna. You can even find cloudband shapes, circular diagrams similar to western depictions of the earth and stars, and circular rows of scales and points like those on the VMS “map” folio. Remember, these are 19th-century creations, so there was more exposure to outside influences, but they nevertheless retained many historic patterns.

These are some typical rayed designs:

And some stylized plants similar to menorah-tree-of-life images, from two different quilts:

In the fauna category, elephants, snakes, birds, monkeys, and hoofed animals were popular and there are occasionally boars, sheep, and smaller cats. Being so close to China, one might expect dragons, but mythical animals were rare compared to those based on life:

In the following detail, note how the peacock feathers were drawn, almost like tubes or spikes. Even though the subject matter is different, the way it was expressed reminded me of the VMS plant that has roots with “bolts” and the rayed design on folio 69v:

Here’s a shape (left) that might be hard to recognize, until you turn it in the other direction, and add the rest of the picture and then it is less similar to the odd shape in the top-left corner of f116v as it seems at first glance. Even so, it’s an unusual way to draw a tail:

One critter that might be of interest to Voynich researchers is the long-necked maneless cat (possibly a tiger or leopard, although the tail is like that of a lion). Like many western medieval images of lions, it has a human-like face. Note that the rider is sexually ambiguous, dressed like a man but possibly having breasts.

Horses with riders are fairly common on kantha quilts, but a person riding a cat is infrequent, and similar to the astrological symbol for Leo in middle-eastern manuscripts. There is even a reference to God in Arabic on one of the quilts. In general, however, references to astrology (other than suns, moons, and stars) are not common in the kantha textiles of this era, so the image may only coincidentally resemble the middle-eastern Leo:

Storytelling in Kantha Textiles

Some designs are narrative, commemorating special occasions, journeys, Hindu legends, and daily activities:

Imagine if these ladies were nude. It’s not exactly the Baths of Pozzuoli but it is an example of repetitive use of female figures:

In fact, some of them are nude from the waist up in a quilt of a similar style:

Could these ideas have reached the west in earlier times?

This kantha quilt (below) caught my eye because there was a certain aesthetic that emerged in southern France in the early medieval period that included “spinner” flowers (similar to those below right) and a stronger emphasis on deeper, brighter, warmer shades. I mentioned this in a previous blog about troubadors (some of which may have been Roma). There is a hint of this style in a few of the VMS flowers, as well:

More About the Circular Motifs

The following image, on the same kantha quilt as the long-necked cat, includes an infurled scalloped shape similar to a cloudband. Note also the dots inside the “scales” and the row of pickets around the outer edge, each with a spot attached to a string. The VMS “map” page has a number of similar patterns:

There are many instances of overlapping scale textures in the VMS. Scale patterns were common to many cultures, including Persian, Chinese, and many others, but it was interesting to see that scale and flame patterns are also found in the Bengali kantha:

It’s not surprising that kantha from southern Asia have a mandala-like quality, but there are also distinctive differences between the mandalas associated with monasteries and those created by Bengali quilters. Many of the monasteries are Buddhist. Today, the religions in Bengal are split east-west between Islam and Hinduism (with only about 8 to 27% overlap). Not long after these quilts were made, a sizable portion of the east Bengalis moved farther east to Assam.



It was not my intention to draw direct parallels between 19th-century Bengali textiles and 15th-century manuscript drawings, but I was struck by the similarities when you look at some of the repetitive decorative elements.

For years, I’ve searched the world for strong overlap, without much success. It’s easy to find a few examples here and there, but not all in the same place, and yet these interesting images occur within a dozen textiles.

Even when I scoured the cultural traditions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, and western India (many times since 2007), I didn’t locate as many similarities as I did in the Bengal/Bangladesh region, which surprised me because Bengal is near Nepal and SW China, and eastern India was never ruled by the Greeks and Romans in the same way as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Trade with this specific area was almost nonexistent in 15th-century Europe.

The odds of mostly rural Bengali textiles reaching the west are quite small (the Roma are said to be from the Sindhi area near the Pakistani border, not from eastern India, so it doesn’t seem likely they brought these). The designs are specific to the Bengal region (Pakistani, Afghani, and Persian textile designs have more in common with each other than with Bengal quilts), and whether it’s coincidence or not, they share  a certain design aesthetic with the VMS in the way that repetitive textures are drawn.

Even if there’s no connection to the VMS, I thought you might enjoy them… you almost expect a string to connect the hands of these figures to the star-like medallions nearby:

J.K. Petersen

Copyright  (c) 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

A Rose or Not a Rose…

On November 25th, 2017, D. O’Donovan posted an image of a decorated plate next to the center motif of Voynich Manuscript folio 67r. There’s no commentary or date accompanying the plate, but I’m assuming it was intended as a comparison to the central motif in the VMS design, as the paired images are both rayed patterns and O’Donovan cropped the VMS image down to emphasize the central rays. A larger image of the dish was added later that day, and was posted again November 30th, 2017 on her continuation blog on cloudbands.

I’ve always been interested in antiques, so I recognized the plate pattern as one of the signature designs of Iznik ceramics, which reached its zenith in the late 16th century. The distinctive designs and quartz-enhanced materials are believed to be from a number of kilns in the Tabriz region. İznik (Nicaea) was a primary center for their production and distribution. Earlier designs (c. 1400s) include Iznik Miletus-ware (center detail shown left).

Is it possible that ceramic designs from the Iznik area are related to the central motif in VMS 67r?

There’s no question that they are visually similar, but the Iznik designs that are closest to the dish posted by O’Donovan were crafted about 100 to 170 years after the radio-carbon dating of the Voynich Manuscript. The 14th-century ceramic glazes and designs from this area are less similar to the VMS image than the later wares, but I thought Voynich researchers might appreciate some background information on Iznik designs so they can decide for themselves.

First, here is a wider shot of the VMS image. I’ve included the twelve moon-like circles because they may be contextually important to understanding the center (full Beinecke scan is here). The rayed motif in the center is the focus of the paired images on O’Donovan’s blog:

The VMS image consists of eight pointed rays painted brownish-amber, with a line of dots down the center of each ray. The four upper-left rays have six dots each, the others, seven dots each. Whether the numbers are significant is hard to tell. The lower rays are a bit bigger, so perhaps the extra dot is to fill the space.
To the left of the rays is a line of dots, possibly to demarcate the beginning and end of the accompanying letter-tokens. Behind the star- or starfish-like pattern is an unpainted almost circular band of scalloped bumps within which is a series of somewhat heart-shaped larger bumps. There are irregular clusters of dots in the inner bumps that make them stand out from the undotted texture behind them. The layering doesn’t make it clear whether the heart-shaped bumps are part of a larger design hidden by the rays or whether there are eight individual shapes between each ray.

The important details to note are the fairly straight VMS rays, joined in the center (with dots running through the middle), that sit on top of the unpainted scallops.

Iznik-ware is similar,  with rays and scallops, but the rays are behind the central “daisy” petals, and the difference might be important.

Iznik designs are mostly floral. The “rays” poking out from behind the petals are often painted green and sometimes more explicitly curved. They are often drawn from the top, sometimes from the side.

The image details on the right are both traditional Iznik from the late 16th century (courtesy of

Iznik floral centers (below left) are typically divided into six or eight rays, but there are exceptions. Asters and Dianthus are especially popular, as their petal arrangements adapt naturally to rayed designs.

The red and blue pattern (below left) is similar to the VMS center motif. The green pattern second-left is less common and more stylized than most. It includes a slight twist suggestive of a spiral. Note that there are 13 rays, an uncommon number.

The two dishes below-right are from an earlier time period and very rare, c. 1530 with a daisy and spiral design, and c. 1520 (far right), with the same spiral but a more stylized center (7.5 sun-like curls and 10 rays). There are also sprays of flower spikes that extend the spiral motion. Note the flatter, more monochromatic glazing on the earlier examples:

The Whole Enchilada

The following compilation shows the center motif in relation to the surrounding design. All are from the late 16th century (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). One shows Asian influence in the outer ring in the flame- or cloud-like “petals”. Dragon-scale patterns were sometimes added for color and texture (bottom-left).

The details below the dishes (to the right) are very rare 15th-century examples. In the oldest ones, the flowers are often suggested rather than literal, with just a few petal-like brush strokes:

Could Iznik Traditions have Influenced the VMS?

Iznik and the VMS both include rays, but Iznik plates are historically based on floral patterns and the VMS design has pointed rays and lacks the daisy center (and is surrounded by moonlike shapes), so it’s hard to know whether it’s a similarity or a coincidence.

The Iznik center motifs that most closely resemble the VMS are too late to have influenced a 15th-century illustrator, and those that came earlier are a couple of evolutionary steps away from the later designs.

Are there centers that resemble the VMS more closely than designs on dishes? What do the moon shapes represent? Phases of the moon drawings are common in medieval manuscripts, but the VMS “moons” do not vary from full to crescent, and they alternate irregularly with single and double jumps and thus might not be moons at all.

The number of segments doesn’t necessarily reveal the meaning of associated symbols, but assuming the twelve-part division is meaningful, one possibility is that the VMS segments represent the relationship between the months of the year and the hours, as in the calendar-related computational manuscript attributed to Helperic, which is based in part on Bede’s De temporum ratione (St. John’s College MS. 17).

This manuscript includes a wheel divided into 12 spokes with an eight-pointed flower-like figure in the center (note the dots radiating between the spokes):

Reading the Latin, one can see that each segment, beginning at the top, is labeled in reference to a month: Primum mensem (1st month), Secondon mensem (2nd month), and then it switches to Roman numerals for the rest of the sequence.

Unfortunately, this wheel, while including an interesting center design, doesn’t shed much light on the rayed center in the VMS, or the moonlike shapes that surround it.

There is another wheel on the previous page that has a decorative center very similar to the one above except that the dark bands are replaced by triple branches and the surrounding red band is decorated with dots (the same design is used in the perpetual calendar on f34r):

In this diagram, the Roman numerals in the 31 spokes are meant to represent the hours of moonlight.

Could inspiration have come from time-related or cosmology-related diagrams in manuscripts?

Another Possibility

Volvelles are another source of very interesting center designs, and some of the more ornate ones from the 16th century are based on flower patterns. Volvelles also fit thematically with the VMS astrology/cosmology section. I can’t possibly fit all the wonderful examples of volvelles with decorative centers into this blog, but a quick search of Google images will give you an idea. You might especially enjoy the 13th-century volvelle by Benedictine monk Matthew Paris.

A related source of imagery is compass roses (right), but they tend to have single or layered star shapes and the cloud-like or petal-like background on the VMS star is not usually seen on compass roses and wind roses.

Maybe there’s another possibility…

This is just an idea, not necessarily the best one, but it might account for the moon-like shapes, the pattern, and the presence of the f67r text. Let’s take another look at the VMS drawing:

Dome in Hagia Sophia [Photo courtesy of Jorge Lascar, CC license].

Imagine for a moment that the rota in f67r is  domed, like a ceiling in a palace, church, or temple. Domes have been proposed for some of the other VMS drawings, but picture the spokes on 67r as architectural supports, or divisions created by paint or tiles. The outer edge of the VMS drawing is patterned. Maybe this pattern represents carved plaster or stone.

Rayed patterns are found in domes all over the world and often there are additional petals or rays between the main ones. Here is a very small selection of dome designs:

The deeply textured Alhambra star dome is reminiscent of the grotto-like textures throughout the VMS and the center could be interpreted as a drawing in a number of ways. [Photo courtesy of AnnekeBart, Wikimedia Commons.]

What about the moon shapes?

Domes are frequently decorated with important figures (religious, secular, mythical, magical)—the moons might be people, or perhaps coyly disguised drawings of arched windows that let in light irregularly, depending on the time of day and buildings nearby (or the presence or absence of doorways). When you stare at a dome from the ground, the upper semicircles are sometimes irregularly dark and light, and somewhat moon-shaped.

Since 2008, I’ve collected hundreds of pictures of domes to see if any of them match the VMS wheels or star patterns in the “cosmo” or general features in the “map” section. Despite a concerted effort, I didn’t find a match, but there are some interesting themes and commonalities (if you click on the links you will get targeted search results):

  • Many church domes have arched windows, central rosettes, and panels of allegorical figures or celestial themes.
  • Islamic mosques also have arched windows, delicate rosettes, and intricate compositions of text-as-image.
  • There are Indian temples with breathtaking and very symbolic domes that are 3D layered and mathematical in their embodiment (something that might appeal to the creator of the VMS), and which sometimes have protrusions like the “container” shapes in the VMS central rosette. I recommend clicking this link to see the stunning carvings.
  • Like the Indian temples, some of the Spanish domes have 3D grotto-like layers reminiscent of the multi-layered scale-textures in the VMS.

A Prevalent Theme in VMS Research

Even though medieval domes are full of rayed patterns, I didn’t feel satisfied that I had uncovered all the possibilities, so I turned to alchemical manuscripts and immediately found something more consistent with the shapes and themes on folio 67r, in combination with other drawings in the same section.

As a quick example (you can find many more on the Web), below is a pair of beakers with sun, moon, and star motifs, with the sun drawn in a dark/light fashion. Look at these together with the 67r two-image foldout and 68v (note also the tree on the craggy hilltop on the VMS 85–86 foldout):

Stars feature prominently, as well. Another of the ideas put forward in alchemical manuscripts is the transformation of lunar nature into solar nature (representative of chemical changes). I haven’t posted all the relevant VMS illustrations here, it’s far too much for one blog, but these should be enough to highlight the commonalities.

Summing Up

Henry Hawkins was a Renaissance-era Jesuit, as were Jacobi Synapius, Kircher, and many of Kircher’s circle of friends. Hawkins post-dates the VMS by two centuries, but there is an illustration in his book Partheneia Sacra: Or the Mysterious and Delicious Garden of the Sacred Parthenes (1633) that sums up many of the themes that are common to both alchemical manuscripts and the VMS. It includes a garden, birds, castles, cosmological symbols, rainbows, bodies of water, almost everything except naked nymphs:

Alchemy has been mentioned hundreds of times in connection with the VMS. I’ve frequently looked at alchemical texts myself, but what brought me back to it in this specific instance was the way the rayed design in f67r was drawn and integrated with other moon/star themes.

Even if there are alchemical references in the VMS, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the entire manuscript is focused on alchemical themes (some may be medical), but if I were to choose whether the center of folio 67r were inspired by the floral designs of the 16th century, or medieval alchemical drawings, I would choose the latter because the broader context of stars, moons, clouds, and other themes of an apparent celestial nature seems more in keeping with this quire as a whole, and because the pointed rays on 67r are more star-like than flower-like.

In fact, the dots coming out of the left-hand ray could represent a comet or a stream of light. Comets were included in most astronomical texts and many of the astrological and alchemical texts of the Middle Ages, and were drawn in dozens of different ways, sometimes even as spirals (see left)… or perhaps the line of dots doubles as a marker (for the start of the text) and part of the illustration at the same time.

J.K. Petersen

© copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved