Category Archives: Medieval Iconography

Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Tropes

What are those eyes, faces, animals, dragons, demons, and other oddities added to plant drawings in herbal manuscripts? In medieval society, there were no encyclopedias, nature shows, or PDAs, and a very high proportion of the population was illiterate, so these added details served as memory aids to help the reader understand the plant.

Palatino 586, an herbal manuscript created around the same time as the VMS, has a large number of figural drawings associated with the plants, but they are hard to see due to the low resolution of the scans. Hopefully some day better scans will be available so we can fully appreciate their intricacy and significance. A few years ago, I did my best to read the text and interpret the drawings and was able to puzzle out some of the enigmatic additions.

This small selection of examples provides basic tips on interpreting the drawings.

Let’s start with one of the easier ones…

Page 10, Lower Left and Right

On page 10, the text introduces Auru’ (Aurum), which is Latin for gold. Underneath is a royal figure with gold scepter and crown. It was not uncommon for metals and minerals to be included in herbal texts, as some were used for medicinal purposes or as ingredients in composite formulae. In this case, the memory trigger is not medicinal uses, but common uses—the king holds a large gold coin, orb, or platter. The sun, suggesting a golden color or light, shines close by.

To fully understand this drawing, however, you have to look at the next one, which describes Argent (silver). It won’t surprise modern viewers to see gold and silver together, as they are both precious metals used for similar purposes, but in medieval times, there were additional reasons for pairing these metals and the drawing helps to explain this. We see a personified mountain, indicating that silver is an ore that must be mined, but the figure next to it is pointing to a scroll that refers to luna (the moon) because plants, metals, and minerals were considered to have governing bodies up in the heavens. They believed that gold and silver were ruled by the sun and the moon and shared some of their properties.

Page 11 Top Left and Right

On page 11 is a slightly more enigmatic drawing—a woman and a dog consuming round objects next to a plant with lumps on the stem. Reading the text we see [A]sa fetida, now known as Ferula asafoetida. This is a large resinous herb that exudes sap from the lower stem and root. Dried and crushed, the resin has long been used as a flavoring agent and medicinal substance. Thus, the illustration indicates that this is consumed by humans, but why the dog? As it turns out, in both eastern and western medicine, asafoetida was used to treat digestive difficulties in dogs and horses. It can be found as a remedy in historic copies of Materia Medica that were adapted for veterinary use.

To the right, on page 11, is a plant clearly labeled Agnus castus (Vitex agnus-castus), a name found in many herbal compendia. It’s an attractive shrubby tree with long lilac-colored spikes.

The drawing is quite amusing. On the left is a pretty young damsel extending a friendly hand. On the right, the fellow is turning a shoulder, averting his eyes, and trying to wave her away. The common name for this plant is “chaste tree” as it was believed it could subdue sexual passion. It also earned the name of “monk’s pepper” in religious orders that promoted chastity.

Most of the mnemonic figures in Palatino 586 are not found in other manuscripts with similarly drawn plants—they are unique to this codex.

Page 12 Lower Left

The name Apium emoyraydarum/hemorodarum is obsolete but Apium (usually A. graveolens) is historically used as a food, flavoring, and treatment for hemorrhoids and fistulas. Knights in armor frequently suffered various forms of sores and abscesses in the groin from long chafing horseback rides.

The diagram rather graphically shows a hand with a pointed object (probably a doctor’s hand with a surgical tool) and the patient with his butt and anus exposed. After a fistula was pierced or tied off, a salve that included Apium was used to coat the area to soothe the skin and help prevent infection.

Page 14 Bottom Right

The next image is a bit more challenging to interpret, partly because of the rooster, and partly because scholars long disputed which plant might be the source of the gum called Armoniacus/Ammoniacum.

You might notice in the picture that the plant is large, and the fellow with the axe confirms that this was a tree-like herb of considerable size compared to other similar species.

Note the three stripes on one of the branches. Cuts are made to encourage the sap to ooze out and as it dries, it forms lumps of resin which, in this drawing, are collected in a barrel.

There are a number of plants that exude gum from their stalks or roots and asafoetida has already been mentioned on Palatino 586, page 11, so the plant on page 14 is probably one of the Ferulas or fennel plants, several of which were known in the Middle Ages.

So far, so good, but what about the rooster?

The gum resin called ammoniacum is obtained from Dorema ammoniacum (a plant that can grow to nine feet). It was imported from India through Persia, but this form of gum was probably not known in the west in the Middle Ages. Instead, medieval herbals make reference to a gum from Africa. One possibility is Ferula tingitana, a south and east Mediterranean tree-like plant called Giant Fennel, but scholars have long doubted this. In the 18th and 19th centuries they proposed Ferula linkii and Ferula communis as better options. Some even suggested ammoniacum might come from Sylphium, the famous plant on ancient coins that is thought to have gone extinct due to over-harvesting (it was reputed to have chemicals effective for birth control).

The dispute was finally settled (or so they thought) by growing one of the plants in the famous Kew gardens, and waiting until it bloomed to discover its species. The verdict was Ferula communis, a plant that grows in two common forms.

Ferula communis, also known as giant fennel, narthex, or laser, is thought to be the source of gum ammoniac in the Middle Ages. However, some of the ancient herbals indicate another possibility. [Photo credit: Jan van der Straaten]

I’m not so sure the identity has been settled, and Palatino 586 adds a fascinating piece of history not found anywhere else by including a rooster with spurs. When I first saw it, I wondered if the spurs might be related to the slices on the trees, but some investigation of historic herbals revealed another possibility…

I haven’t seen anyone else mention this, but if you look at drawings of Ferula in herbal manuscripts, you will notice they are usually drawn like the following examples. Even Palatino 586 includes a plant labeled Ferula that has this form:

None of these images gives a clue as to why “spurs” are emphasized in Palatino 586, but this one might:

In a previous example, a dog was used to illustrate the use of the plant. In this case, I think the rooster is intended to help the reader identify the plant.

Ferula communis sometimes has spurlike projections, but it’s not a defining characteristic of the plant. Ferula tingitana is more spurlike than F. communis—it has leaf-like projections at the points where the stems branch—but they may not be prominent enough to inspire someone to draw a cowboy-rooster. However, there is another plant that is harvested for gum that is used medicinally that may be intended by these drawings.

Ferula narthex (right) is sometimes assumed to be another name for Ferula communis, possibly because the name narthex was loosely applied to many species of Ferula. However, F. narthex is a tall west Asian plant with thick stems that is more upright than F. communis, with very distinctive “spurs” at each node. It was probably known in Europe long before Dorema ammoniacum was imported.

Page 15 Lower Left

Anacer’u’ on page 15 probably refers to Anacardium and the maiden on the left is using a stick to knock the nuts from the tree. This is not the New World cashew, known as Anacardium orientale, but a cashew-like tree from India (Semecarpus anacardium) that was used for a wide variety of culinary and medicinal purposes. When black, the fruit is toxic, so it is harvested when it is a reddish color. I’m not sure what the maiden on the right is holding—it’s hard to see the details. It might be two bell-like vessels, or two pieces intended to fit together.

On page 16, the drawings are quite interesting. On the top left is Amigdale amare—bitter almond, a plant with a toxic seed. There’s a bird from the parrot family top-left, a dog by the base of the tree, and a woman’s face with something streaming out of the tree toward her cheek.

The bird can probably be explained by this Wikipedia photo by Jonathan Cardy, which illustrates the wild parakeet’s fondness for the flowers:

Bitter almond was known to kill dogs, even large dogs, and old medical texts state that the distilled liquid from the seeds produces dizziness, vertigo, and tinnitus in humans, which explains the liquid flowing from the tree to the ear of the woman on the ground.

Page 16 Top-Right

The image to the right also includes a bird at the top and a variety of faces at the bottom. Note that the demon-like face in the middle is somewhat rounded. This is to distinguish Aristolochia rotunda from A. longa, which has a slender root. In Sloane 4016, CLM 28531, and the Carrara herbal, dragons are drawn at the base of the plant, under the root. This is partly to indicate the name of the plant (serpentaria, snakeroot) and partly to indicate its purported use as an antidote to snake poison. It was also known to be toxic, which might explain the demon-like face in the 586 drawing. It is currently believed that aristolochic acid might contribute to kidney and bladder problems.

I don’t know whether they knew this by observation in the Middle Ages, but insects that eat the leaves of Aristolochia are injesting “chemical armor” that makes them toxic to birds.

The face on the bottom left presents a bit of a puzzle but maybe this is Aristotle providing a mnemonic for the name of the plant.

I can’t explain the catlike face on the right, with something like breath coming out of its nose, but perhaps it’s related to the smell of the plant. Aristolochia uses scent mimicry to lure pollinators, but it’s doubtful this was known in medieval times.

Page 22 Upper Right

The text for the drawing on page 22 is incomplete, it says only Alla. es herba, but the drawing is accurate and one can immediately recognize the plant as Oxalis acetosella, plus, the figural drawing confirms this. We see a man dressed in monk’s robes holding a scroll on which is written “alleluya…” which is the common name for this plant and a word used in hymns. Note the rounded shape from which the scroll is emanating—it may represent the mouth of a singer or a horn, and the man’s head is thrown back with his mouth wide open.

Note how the rhizome (side-growing root) is drawn. I have Oxalis in my garden in a shady spot where almost nothing else will grow and it spreads quite rapidly through rhizomes, and yet the Manfredus and Carrara herbals, Sloane 4016, Morgan M.873, and Harley 3736 (to give a few examples), show only a basic root. Probably the best-known herbal that includes the rhizome is Egerton 747 (ca 1295).

Page 25 Upper-Right

This is an interesting drawing with a bird on the left and a double-headed figure on the right with something horn-shaped by his mouth. It is labeled Bleta album.

Bleta refers to leaf and is usually associated with various forms of spinach and beet plants, valued for their edible leaves. However, this is obviously not chard, which has a mass of broad leaves growing low to the ground rather than jaggy leaves growing up the stalk. There are other forms, such as Bleta trigyna, that grow in this fashion.

Blitum bonus-henricus looks like this drawing when it is flattened and dried, the ruffled leaves taking on a more spiky appearance, and is commonly known as Good King Henry or Poor man’s asparagus. This is not based on an English king, however, it apparently comes from Heinrich which may, in turn stem from Old High German Heimrih (home ruler).

I’m not completely sure of the meaning of this drawing, but if the plant is Good King Henry, then perhaps the two-headed figure on the right is a troubadour with an extra head on his jester’s hat. Troubadours were performers skilled in puppeteering, acrobatics, juggling, clowning, and music—circus performers who were sometimes under the patronage of a ruler or noble house.

If the object in his mouth is a wind instrument, then it would fit with a king’s court filled with entertainers, and would evoke the name of the plant. It’s possible the bird is included because the seeds of the chenopods are very popular with birds. I’m not sure, however, since the seed tassels are not shown (perhaps because they are not the part of the plant that is used by humans).

On page 26 top-left, we see a woman wielding a broom, a common use for Bruscus ruscus. For page 28 lower-right, read the story about castoreum on a previous blog.

This is becoming long, so I’ll conclude with just one more…

The drawing on page 30 (left) might interest Voynich researchers because there’s a bath, but to understand what’s going on, one has to identify the plant. I’m fairly certain this is Cuminum cyminum (caraway).

Cyminum was used as a relaxant and soother of swollen bronchial tubes, so imagine that you’re sick with a bad cold and you treat it with a nice hot bath and a steam-pot full of herbs to help clear your sinuses.

The picture on the right might not be a steam pot. It looks like she is holding a spoon, so perhaps the drawing on the left indicates the relaxant properties and the one on the right illustrates the plant’s use as a digestive aid.


This is just a small selection of examples, there are approximately 300 individual figures associated with plants on the first 60 pages so it’s not possible to cover more than a tiny percentage in one blog, but it should be enough to illustrate that the figures serve a variety of purposes—sometimes indicating the use of the plant, sometimes physical properties that set it apart from similar species, and sometimes the name.

J.K. Petersen

Copyright © 2018 All Rights Reserved, J.K. Petersen

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

And the Clouds Parted

I’ve been collecting images of cloudbands for a number of years, but not as a concerted effort. If I come across something that looks interesting, I add it to the collection, but I don’t have many, less than 50, and I’ve scarcely looked at them, as most of my time is spent researching plants and text. A few days ago, I glanced through them and noticed one wasn’t a cloudband at all, but could easily be mistaken for one.

At first glance, this drawing from České republiky XXIII.C.124 (left) looks like there is some kind of liquid flowing from a bowl on the ground, and the undulating lines on the top left resemble a rudimentary cloudband of the kind more common to older manuscripts, before they took on their characteristic infurled shape:

Many medieval manuscripts are fragments, some are unfinished, and some include very terse and difficult-to-understand labels that don’t reveal much about the illustrations, so it can be easy to misinterpret them—one often has to find several versions from the same tradition to understand the imagery.

But this one is a little more clear, and upon reading the text, it turns out that God is parting the waters and that cloud-like shape in the sky isn’t a cloud at all. As the Bible says, “God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse…”

So both streams of undulating green are waters “below the expanse” and “above the expanse” and there are no clouds in this panel. If there were no text, how might a copyist with a wider palette of colors interpret the shape? There are many thousands of examples of imagery and text going through mutations as they pass from one hand to the next, and many examples of imagery being misinterpreted because modern viewers are unaware of old traditions.

Take the example of early Christian imagery. If you showed these pictures to a modern viewer, many would identify the figure as Jesus when, in fact, it is John the Baptist:

I have also seen images that have been mistaken for Jesus and Mary which are ancient personifications of the sun and moon, with the circle around the figure’s head being assumed to be a halo rather than the sun symbol.

More Undulating Shapes

Coming back to the original manuscript, there are some other interesting illustrations. Often there are odd, round formless wiggly shapes in medieval manuscripts that are hard to interpret. For example, if this were drawn without an image of God next to it, it might be hard to recognize it as a picture of “the waters” being gathered into one place:

In the following panel, there is something vaguely cloud-bandish lined with stars. To the sides, are personifications of the dark and the light (the moon and the sun). In this case, the scalloped lines and stars represent “the expanse of the heavens” to separate the night from the day:

You’ll notice there are flame-like lines emanating from a number of horns. I believe these are meant to represent light (which in medieval times was usually provided by torches and oil lamps).

The next panel has undulating green lines to separate land from water. It depicts birds above and “swarms”of living creatures and great sea monsters below, with the lines painted right over the aquatic creatures (this was a very common way to draw water in the Middle Ages):

The palette in these illustrations caught my attention because it is very similar to the VMS. The brown is probably gall ink, and most of the water is a common shade of green. Blue is used more sparingly for highlights. The main difference is the shade of red, which is quite unusual, almost a fluorescent color. Older manuscripts with this palette tended to use orange rather than red, especially those copied in the Roman style. Later ones tended toward a true red, so perhaps this is a blend of orange and red pigments with egg binder that brightens up the color (I don’t know if this manuscript has been chemically analyzed, so this is pure guesswork).

Next, after the terrestrial creatures are created, we see an interesting scene with a water theme common to older biblical illustrations, but less common in later centuries. Around a drawing of newly created man are four women, naked from the waist up, holding jugs of flowing liquid. If you follow the biblical narrative, you might expect mists steaming up from the earth rather than water flowing downward, but this is inspired by a later passage in which a river flows out of Eden to water the garden, from which it divides to become four rivers.

The composition borrows from traditional pagan styles, with nymphs dispensing the water, as was widely believed before Christianity, and are echoed in Homer’s Odyssey, in which the four fountains on the island of Ogygia, home of the nymph Calypso (daughter of Atlas) were described as, “…fountains four in a row… flowing with bright water hard by one another, turned one this way, one that.”

We know these represent the sources of four rivers because they are explicitly labeled Eufrates (Euphrates), fizon (Pishon), ygon (Gyon/Gihon), and tygris (Tigris) after the four rivers mentioned in Genesis. The Tigris and Euphrates flow through the Fertile Crescent, also known as “the cradle of civilization”, an apt reference to the Garden of Eden. Historians are not certain which rivers represent the Pishon or Gihon (there are many theories) or whether they still exist.

This 6th-century Libyan mosaic of the Pishon river is thematically similar to the illustration above, with a nymph at the head of the stream and an inverted jug dispensing the water. The same mosaic depicts other rivers of paradise, including the Tigris (shown right). For Voynich researchers following the “crown grotto” thread on, note that the course of the Pishon (perhaps coincidentally) is drawn in spirals like a curl of hair:

A few panels later, after Adam and Eve bear sons, we see a more classic depiction of a deeply infurled cloudband. On the left, the hand of God is reaching out to Abel. This style was still in vogue when the printing press was invented two centuries later and was used in woodblock prints (right).

In the story of Noah’s ark, we see water depicted in a different way, as overlapping concentric curves, probably to emphasize the waves and vastness of The Flood. Under the waves are the outlines of the drowned:

In a subsequent panel illustrating the construction of the tower of Babel, which was ambitiously designed to reach into heaven, God comes down and and thwarts the effort by dividing the languages of the workers so they can no longer easily cooperate. There are three cloudbands, one unpainted, one blue, the other a double band painted green, each with a hand and a staff to harass the workers. The differences between them appear quite deliberate so it might be intended to illustrate different points in time or the activities of God’s helpers:

Thus, humanity is scattered across the earth and many panels of war and mayhem follow.

As far as celestial imagery goes, the illustrator hasn’t run out of ideas yet.

Further on, we see new forms of heavenly bands in the panels where God promises to shield and reward Abraham and Abraham, in turn, beseeches God for a son. In the first, a figure is poking out from a cloud-shape created with spiral forms reminiscent of the curlicues the Persians inherited from Chinese art. In the second, a finely scalloped edge encloses red stars against a blue background. This is not just a decorative element, but part of the story—Abraham is tasked with counting the stars and if he can, his descendants will number the same:

Most of the subsequent drawings of water and cloudbands follow the same basic styles as illustrated above, but there are other illustrative conventions of interest in this manuscript…

In the following panel, there are overlapping round shapes in the folds of the men’s tunics. This is a common way to depict coins in various forms of manuscripts, including chronicles, Bibles, and books of law. Abraham has asked Ephron to sell him a piece of a field and caves to bury his dead, so the coins represent shekels, and Sarah is shrouded in a box to the right, awaiting completion of the transaction so she can be buried. Note the jagged scallops under the box. When drawn and colored this way, they usually represent chasms, ditches, and holes in the ground.

Sorting Myth from Reality

Sometimes there’s no way to know if an image is literal or allegorical unless you know the story behind it.

In the following drawing, a woman with face and hair similar to the river-nymphs holds a jug upside down, with liquid streaming from it. In the previous pictures, the stream represented a river and the women were mythical nymphs that protected and dispensed the water. In this drawing, however, the interpretation is more literal. The camels were led to a well in the city of Nahor where women drew water in the evenings. The damsel is not a nymph, but a woman named Rebekah. The main difference between her and the drawings of the nymphs is that she is fully clothed:

Rebekah shows a kindness by offering water to the traveler and his camels. The two figures to the right are the same people after the camels have been watered, which might be confusing because it’s in the same panel and could be mistaken for two other people at the well.

The “panel” to the right illustrates the emissary giving Rebekah a ring—it could be a nose ring, finger ring, or earring (historians and theologicans aren’t sure which kind of ring is meant), along with two bracelets of gold—a rather excessive payment for a few gallons of water, but it was more of a bribe and expression of intent, since he was tasked with finding and bringing back a bride. [As an aside, it’s hard to believe Rebekah, who was from a well-to-do family, would be drawing water (normally a servant would do it), but since divine intervention is at work here, we’ll let it pass.]


Many of the shapes in this manuscript would be difficult to interpret if it didn’t have a well-known backstory, so it’s refreshing to find such a variety of water and cloud/celestial imagery in a text that’s easy to read. Earlier medieval texts were sometimes abbreviated almost as much as the later ones, but the handwriting in the earlier periods was generally more clear than Gothic styles that came later.

Note that many themes of water, rivers, ponds, drowning animals, and rings are also found in the VMS. These are elements common to many legends, both biblical and otherwise.

One of the things the drawing of Rebekah brought to mind that I find interesting about ancient cultures, is that women paraded the family’s wealth. They walked around wearing a significant portion of family gold and jewels, dangling from their waists, ears, foreheads, arms, and ankles. If you tried to do that in New York or London or any major city today, you’re asking to be dismembered.

This custom, in turn, reminded me of the mysterious ring-like shapes in the VMS. Usually rings in manuscripts represent marriage or sometimes mirrors. In some cases they represent coronation. But perhaps there’s a further possibility, that of representing a transaction, or intent to bargain, with the ring as a down payment until the final terms are settled.

J.K. Petersen

© 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The Catch to the Crossbow

I’ve written several posts on the VMS bowman and didn’t think there was more to say about his bow, but after looking at hundreds of crossbows, I feel more strongly than ever that the origin of the Sagittarius bow might remain a mystery until the text is deciphered.

It’s difficult to find crossbows that originated before 1500. They’re made of natural materials that wear out or easily perish in fires. There are a few rare examples that are claimed to be from the late 15th century, but even those dates are speculative—a home-crafted bow from the 16th century can look very much like a typical 14th-century bow.

Crossbow artisans kept their trade secrets close to the vest, so most of what we know about crossbows was passed down by scribes and illustrators. Fortunately, a few descriptions are relatively detailed. Most of them, however, are not, including the drawing of a crossbow in the Voynich Manuscript.

To recap, here is a picture the VMS crossbow that was previously posted to point out its main features. The shape of the stock-end is speculative, since it’s hidden by his hand.

In terms of locating the origin or time-period of the bow, there are four features of particular interest:

  • the rounded stirrup,
  • the long trigger,
  • the extra curve at the tips of the lath (also called a prod), and
  • the position of the nut or tumbler, also known as the catch (in a small, rough drawing it’s impossible to determine the style of catch).

Details of Interest

Lugs and Lath Tips

Most stocks in the Middle Ages were straight or narrowed. After the Renaissance, some evolved into gun-stocks like those on a rifle. Later bows were fitted with lugs for attaching a crank (these are usually positioned a couple of inches behind the nut), a feature that was less common in the 15th century, but quite prevalent by the 17th century.

The VMS drawing is not detailed enough to show the style of cord, whether there were lugs, or how the stirrup was bound to the lath. It is interesting, however, that so much care and attention was given to the graceful curving tips at the end of the lath, a feature that was not common to crossbows (longbows didn’t always have long tips either). Medieval laths were usually wood, or composite materials such as wood and bone, with blunt tips, as in these examples:

Sometimes when the cord is quite thick it gives the appearance of longer tips (as in the center image that follows), but the VMS drawing doesn’t look like an extended cord—it looks like the tips of the lath extend beyond the wound cord.

So what could account for the relatively sharp lath-tips in the VMS crossbow?

Could the illustrator have combined features of the longbow and crossbow? Or might the lath have been made of steel (as in the two images to the right above), a material that was gradually introduced in the 12th century, but did not become widespread until the late 15th or early 16th century? Steel prods were narrower than composite, sometimes with longer tips.

Or maybe the answer is more complicated… the lath in the following picture looks like it could be composite materials (it is moderately thick), but the tips are quite narrow and very hooked, as though they were reinforced and extended by metal caps. I’m not aware of any historic prods with caps, and the glue would have to be very strong to hold against the pull of a loaded cord, so I looked for another explanation. Perhaps the bow in the picture was wrapped in a material like snakeskin, with the tips left unwrapped… but that still doesn’t account for the extra curve in the tips—these kinds of curves are not easily incorporated into wood or composite bows, and the tips become fragile if sharply tapered—a broken tip could lead to death on the battlefield or the loss of a week’s food on a hunting trip.

If the tips were “caps” rather than a protruding unwrapped part, these drawings from 1459 (Thott.290.2º) might illustrate a part of crossbow history that isn’t well documented. Either way, even if the curve is not literal, but simply an artistic embellishment, drawings like the VMS, with an extra curl in the tips, are definitely in the minority. I found very few compared to bows with blunt tips or only a slight curve. Here are some drawn with an extra curve:

Note how the laths in the Thott illustration above have darkened tips.

The following examples are the same crane-hunting scene from the Tacuinum Santitatus tradition, drawn by different illustrators almost a century apart. Except for drawing style, the later version is a fairly faithful reproduction of the storyline, but notice how the illustrator took time to change some of the details, like the sleeves of the tunic, and the color and shape of the crossbow tips:

The earliest example I could find of a relatively clear crossbow with slender long tips was in an ecclesiastical manuscript from the 11th century (BNF Latin 12302), probably from France. It doesn’t have a stirrup, however, and the trigger is almost vertical, in contrast to the mostly horizontal triggers of later crossbows:

I did locate a photo of a long-triggered steel bow from Portugal with slender tips curved a little more than average, from the late 1500s, but the stock extends a couple of inches beyond the lath, and there was no stirrup attached.

Coloration in Drawings of Medieval Crossbows

By the 15th century crossbow laths with dark tips are not uncommon. Here are examples of a battle bow from BNF Français 9342 and a hunting bow from Bodley 264, with darker tips. In these drawings, it looks like the bow might be wrapped (possibly with snakeskin) and the tips left unwrapped, as opposed to the tips being capped:

The VMS drawing doesn’t have dark tips but it does have a rounded stirrup, like the bow on the right.


The rounded stirrup, the style in the VMS drawing, appears to be more common than squared-off stirrups:

When comparing the VMS bow to historic crossbows, keep in mind that they were functional items, subject to wear-and-tear, and the stirrup bindings and cords were replaced as they wore out. Thus, the stirrup itself may also have been replaced, especially if the original was lost due to disintegrated bindings, which were usually leather or cord. The nut would sometimes also break and be replaced with a slightly different style.

By the late 16th and 17th centuries, many crossbows, especially those for the nobility, showed significant artistry, with ivory, bone, laminate, and incised decorations along the full length of the stock. In the 17th century, pompoms (rounded tassels) were added to some of the laths. This remarkable bow from Dresden, Germany, has elaborately carved bear-hunting scenes, a tooled lath tip, and pom-poms. It dates to about the late 17th century or early 18th century (it has similar characteristics to a 1663 bow in The Met collection).

The VMS drawing shows no signs of decoration (possibly because it is so small), but judging by other medieval drawings, embellishments were less common in the 15th century than later.

And now to the important part… a little detail that is scarcely a blot on the drawing of the VMS stock.


The catch to this whole VMS crossbow identification effort, is, well… the catch, the nut, the little protruding knob that secures the power of the spanned cord, like a capacitor, until the bowman releases its energy.

The catch is approximately a third of the way down the stock from the stirrup, depending on the length and style of bow. The trigger “catches” on the underside of the nut so that pulling the trigger moves it just enough for the catch to rotate freely and ZING! the cord is freed and ejects the bolt. Here are some examples of the nut/catch. Notice it is clawlike, to grip the cord securely:

Catches are pretty much alike… or so it seems if you look only at the shape and ignore the mechanics. There’s quite a bit of variation in the distance of the catch from the trigger, and how they connect inside the stock, but there are some things that are necessary for the trigger to work… And this is the important detail that throws all VMS identification efforts out the window… the VMS catch is like the legs on the lobster’s tail in the zodiac roundels, or like the joints in the back legs of the ruminants—it’s in the wrong place.

I looked at the catches of almost 200 historic crossbows, and all of them were located above or slightly ahead of where the trigger attaches to the stock (usually about 1/2″ to 2″, up to a maximum of about 3″). If you look at the VMS drawing again, you’ll see that the catch is about 2″ behind the trigger. This never happens, as far as I can determine. The portion of the trigger inside the stock rotates in a specific way when you squeeze it and the nut has to sit at the right junction to efficiently respond to this movement.


I would love to say I found bows that closely resemble the VMS bow, and I did have some success, but if this important detail of the crossbow-catch is wrong, maybe others are too.

Maybe the tips are artistic, maybe the trigger is lengthened to make it look like it’s touching his hand, not because it’s long, maybe the attachment point of the trigger was moved up to show that it is long… It’s possible the position of the catch is the only thing that’s off, but there’s no way to be sure. We have to look to other factors, like the style of the bowman’s tunic (which is echoed quite well in the hunting scenes of Gaston Phoebus, right) and aspects of the manuscript that seem mostly but not-quite-right.

So, I’ve put crossbow identification on the table for now, but I’ll keep my eyes open for other imagery that might help us understand this roundel, and if I find some, I’ll post it.

J.K. Petersen

© 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Oceans of Starry Notions

Research is the systematic search for knowledge. Editorializing is presenting one’s opinions and interpretations, sometimes with examples specifically chosen to prove one’s point. When it comes to the Voynich Manuscript, it’s probably best to emphasize the former, since very little is actually known about the VMS.

Spirals and whorls were discussed recently on the forum and, on October 15, 2017, D.N. O’Donovan posted a brief blog comprising a montage of seven images with the Latinesque title: Floribus campis Coeli. There is no commentary and I have only read a few of O’Donovan’s blogs, so I don’t know the background on these images, but one of the captions reads,

“As noted in the first of my posts mentioning this whorl motif in Beinecke MS 408, one finds early examples in Ephesus, Antioch and Rhodes but it reached the South-western Mediterranean no later than the 7thC AD.”

I haven’t made a systematic study of spirals or whorls, I’ve mostly concentrated on the Voynich Manuscript text and plants, but I have gathered a few images along the way.

Spiral reliefs in wave and garland patterns decorate the Temple of Tarxien on the island of Malta [image courtesy of Wikipedia].

It’s my understanding that spiral and whorled imagery date back at least to the Maltans, before 2,500 BCE, which is considerably earlier than the 7th century CE mentioned in O’Donovan’s caption, and I would consider Malta, which had close ties to the Iberian Peninsula, to be sufficiently connected to the SW Mediterranean to be relevant to this discussion.

Megalithic courtyards, as the Maltan Temple of Tarxien, are well-decorated in wave- and plant-like spirals, and the Romans who occupied Malta from the 3rd century BCE, continued the tradition in their mosaics.

Next to a picture of the “Mosaic Ephesus”, which is a spiral with a sawtooth design, O’Donovan adds,

“In illustrating this mosaic, I was showing the antiquity of spiral armed forms – here it represents ‘all the world under the sun’. In other cases it might represent the sun itself. In one image from the Vms, it represents the rhumbs as I’ve explained.”

Spiral garland patterns carved into spoglia. [Image courtesy of Rag Rose’s blog.]

The mosaic mentioned by O’Donovan is on the Curetes walkway in Ephesus, Turkey, and is accompanied by many other mosaics and carvings with circular and feather-like overlapping designs, as well as natural images of dolphins, ducks, doves, dogs, deer, lions, and floral garlands.

Ionic columns in the area also include spiral motifs, as do decorative edges. Since many of the spiral carvings are integrated with floral garlands, it appears that most of the spiral and whorled designs in this complex were inspired by flora and fauna rather than celestial objects.

For reference, here are spiral images from the Voynich Manuscript:

The figure on the left fills most of the page and spirals in a clockwise direction, with text filling the spokes. There is an Armenian astrological diagram that is similar in construction (circles, spokes, and text associated with the spokes) but it does not include the T-O map or the cloudband-like scallops or star-shapes in the central portion. [Edit: 10/26/17 I forgot to mention when I posted this that the Armenian sun-cross was a prevalent symbol, usually consisting of a spiral sun, or a sun-symbol surrounding a cross. You can see examples on Google search.]
The spiral on the right is much smaller, comprising only the center of the page, and radiates in four directions toward other imagery. If you look closely, you’ll see that it originally had nine lines to mark the edges of the spiral arms, which doesn’t bear any relation to the four radiating lines or the six-pointed star, and doesn’t work well if you are trying to paint each section in alternate colors, so the painter fudged the colors on the bottom, with a thin stroke of yellow to separate two blue sections that ended up next to each other.

The Way-Back History on Whorls

Ancient spirals and whorls are found throughout the world, especially in the Americas, Buddhist Asia, Malta, Greece, Turkey, Africa, Ireland, and Scandinavia.

One of the easier ways to make attractive patterns from a piece of wire is to wrap it in a spiral—no exemplars needed—but there are also spirals in the ancient and medieval world that appear to be talismans, or to embody a more specific religious significance. Some patterns are purely decorative, or based on nature (e.g., a curled snake) rather than on religious symbology. One has to study the culture to interpret them correctly.

Studies of ancient imagery are often based on guesswork about the superstitious and spiritual beliefs of cultures for which we have limited information, but some spirals have been found in megalithic sites that are oriented toward the solstices or equinoxes and thus are thought to represent the sun.

Brittle star fossil found in Mt. El Kissan, southern Morocco {Image courtesy of Fire & Ice].

The picture on the right might look like a petroglyph drawn by a sun-worshipping culture, but it’s actually a brittle-star fossil (Ordovicia) from Morocco.

In the Mediterranean, the patterns of nature were dear to the hearts of ancient people. Even today, the postage stamps of Malta show a rich appreciation of nature’s beauty.

If you look at star shapes and spiral motifs on ancient vases and bowls, you will see many designs inspired by starfish, sun stars (an animal that resembles the starfish), sea urchins, and anemones. Even the little lines and colors in the centers of starfish and sea urchins can be found in Greek decorative arts and Roman mosaics (more on this below).

The Mycenaeans took most of their inspiration from marine life, rather than from the world above them. That’s not to say they were indifferent to the sky… as sea-people, stars were very important to them for navigation, but iconographic analysis has to acknowledge their strong bond to the sea.

Double Entendre

Double meanings are possible in imagery that has multiple interpretations. The stars at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, for example, are numerous and golden against a blue background, so one immediately thinks of stars, but if you look closely at the way they are drawn, and consider the fact that water is also frequently painted blue, then you have to acknowledge that they may be inspired by starfish, or perhaps be a simultaneous reference to “the stars above and the stars below” [click the pic to see it larger].

Cultural Exchange

Surprisingly similar quad-spirals have been found on ancient ornaments in both Greece and Sweden (right).

While Scandinavia and the Mediterranean seem far from one another, there was trade between the Norse and early inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula.

The Basques may have served as a communications conduit between the north and the Mediterranean. They were expert mariners and whalers, equal to the Vikings in their seafaring prowess, and crossed paths with the Vikings at stopping points along the coasts of Norway and Iceland often enough that they learned some Icelandic.

The spiral is also a megalithic motif in pre-Celtic Ireland, and the Vikings apparently coerced or kidnapped Hibernian women on their way to Iceland, a fact that is reflected in the DNA of the Icelandic people. Thus, the women of Ireland may have contributed decorative arts to Viking culture.

Spirals are also found in the Canary Islands, whose “discovery” and plunder occurred prior to the creation of the Voynich Manuscript.

Thus, the similarity between northern and southern spirals may not be coincidental.

The beautiful spiral on the right bears a strong resemblance to some of the medieval manuscript illustrations containing sun spirals. It is dated to c. 300 CE from Birkenes in southeastern Norway. Some think the design may have originated in Asia, but there are similar spirals (with protrusions on the edges of the main arms) from Sanda, in Gotland, Sweden (c. 400 to 600 CE) and the Gotland picture stones, in turn, resemble Mediterranean designs.

Thus, one sees a chain of communication between the Norse, the Hibernians, and the Mediterraneans, possibly via the Iberian Peninsula, and a pattern of spirals in megalithic and classical art that may be rooted in communication rather than coincidence.

Spirals in Manuscripts

Rayed faces and suns are common to manuscripts from many cultures (they are frequently found in Arabic and Latin manuscripts, as well as the VMS). Spirals are more difficult to find, however, and many of them are more religious than astronomical, but there are some  provocative spirals and whorls in the Rothschild Canticles (MS 404, c. 1300) held at the Beinecke Library, that are interesting to examine:

The image on the left, featuring a central spiral with long rays is surrounded by four figures, each with arms outstretched, emerging from cloud bands. The VMS includes a number of images with four figures, some of them with their lower bodies deep in textured patterns. The image on the right also features four figures in the corners, two apparently celestial, the other two terrestrial, and there are round spirals between the rays of the inner whorl.
The central image has a whorl with long starfish-like arms around a central circle with cloudband-shapes radiating in two directions (and rimming the top and bottom edges of the frame). At the base is a face peering out from a crescent moon.
A further image (not pictured) includes four figure in the corners, and three faces in the central wheel with faces ringed by turban rolls not unlike the rolls that frame the faces on the VMS star pages.

There are many other manuscripts with spiral and whorled imagery, these just happened to be at hand, so I include them as visually appealing examples.


As I mentioned, I have not made a systematic study of these shapes, in fact I’ve barely looked at the parts of the VMS that include them, so I offer the information above as a “quick grab” from my files for those with a specific interest in VMS whorls.


J.K. Petersen

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

Mi Casa No Es Siempre Su Casa

In a previous blog I wrote about the VMS cycles of life, the circles of nymphs that surround the zodiac symbols. This blog discusses why there are two zodiac symbols missing, why some of them are paired, and why some of the nymphs are clothed, something I was trying to work out when I wrote the original blog in April 2016.

Mi Casa

The Spaniards are legendary for their hospitality. Mi Casa Es Su Casa is a common expression and I certainly received cheerful greetings everywhere I traveled in Mexico some years ago, even though I was a foreigner who knew nothing of the language. The locals immediately started teaching me Spanish and never frowned or rolled their eyes if I used the wrong word or pronounced it badly. Instead, they cheered my efforts and clapped me on the back for even the smallest effort.

In astrology, things are a little different. My house isn’t necessarily your house. The stars are in different positions every time a child is born, and their relative positions are said to reflect one’s destiny.

Most people are familiar with the zodiac, the twelve symbols that make up a cycle of constellations, but ask them about astrological houses and the majority have no idea what you are talking about.

In a nutshell, in medieval astrology, the heavens were divided into twelve parts, working from east to west and the houses are organized into groups of three, each group having its own general character (masculine, feminine, choleric, melancholic, etc.).

The Twelve Houses

The twelve houses are not the same as the twelve zodiac symbols—even though they are related. In astrological forecasting (horoscopes), the influence of the constellations and planets on a person’s life is based their positions at a specific time and place and this will depend on where they appear in relation to each other in various houses. In other words, a planet can show up in more than one house or not at all, and each planet, in turn, was said to govern specific zodiac symbols. It’s more about influence and the precise position of a constellation in the sky than sequence. A constellation can cross the boundary from one house to the next and thus be attributed to two houses.

The following simulations show the sky above Rome, Italy, courtesy of I thought this might make it easier to illustrate how the constellations move through successive houses. The red line is the ecliptic, which makes it easier to find the familiar zodiac constellations:

Note how Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer are related to one another in a curve from top right to middle left. In the second illustration, two hours later, Aries has moved outside our viewport, Taurus has moved close to where Aries was before, but Gemini and Cancer are still somewhat in the middle, a little farther apart (you have to remember that the Earth is round and our drawing is flat). Now imagine a grid with the twelve houses superimposed on this view of the sky and you can imagine how some of the constellations may have crossed a house boundary, some might be in the same house, and some might be in transition from one to the next. Thus, the position of the constellations in the houses is not as rigidly geometric as a zodiac wheel might imply.

Medieval Houses in Brief

The houses are somewhat hierarchical and express cycles of human life. Astrologers have given specific significance to each house and those designations have evolved over the centuries, but here is how they were understood in the 11th to 15th centuries:

  • The first house governs one’s life, soul, and general physical form.
  • The second house relates to one’s household, property, business dealings, and relationships.
  • The third house is kinship. It refers to one’s siblings, neighbors, communication, and local travels.
  • The fourth house relates to one ancestors, assets, house and land, and local community.
  • The fifth house is pregnancy and procreation, children and events in which people come together to celebrate and enjoy one another’s company. In modern astrology, it also relates more broadly to enjoyment and recreation.
  • The sixth house refers to illness, calamity, and loss of property in the earlier manuscripts, and to living property, including servants, herd animals, and contractors in later manuscripts. In modern astrology, it relates to nurturance, health and well-being.
  • The seventh house relates to marriage, matters of intimate relationships, partnerships, quarrels, lawsuits, agreements, and disputes.
  • The eighth house relates to death and murder in earlier manuscripts, and to one’s estate, wills, inheritance, dowries, and other aspects of property in later manuscripts.
  • The ninth house relates to journeys and long voyages, and also to philosophy, visions, and matters of religion.
  • The tenth house relates to authority, including sultans, kings, dukes, judges, and generals, as well as one’s image and status in society. In modern astrology, it relates to status, career, and ambition.
  • The eleventh house is friendship, trust, praise, and fidelity.
  • The twelfth house relates to sorrow, enemies, debts, imprisonment, curses, secrets, and mischief. In modern astrology, it relates to clandestine activities, mysteries, privacy, and secrecy.

Medieval Horoscopes

In the middle ages, the twelve houses were typically represented as twelve geometric divisions within a square. This form was still in use in the 17th century but was gradually superseded by the wheel-and-spokes style of chart.  [Cambridge MS Peterhouse 75.I]

When casting a chart, the houses are typically represented as spokes on a wheel or as geometric divisions within a square (right).

The positions of the planets are then added to each segment based on the time and location of the chart (volvelles were used to help calculate the positions), along with any constellations that have influence over that segment at the time. Specific planets and constellations do not always show up in every house or with equal frequency.

Astrology was a lucrative business. Manuscripts were hard to come by and those who owned books on astronomy that included charts for computing star positions could sell their skills to the nobility.

In a natal chart cast for King Henry VI in the 15th century (shown below), the sequence begins with Gemini in the first house, and Cancer in the 2nd and 3rd. Sagittarius is noted in the 7th house and Capricorn in both the 8th and the 9th, followed by Aquarius and Pisces in the 10th and 11th.

In other words, in a medieval chart, the sequence doesn’t necessarily start with Aries, as is typical of zodiac cycles, doesn’t necessarily include all the constellations, and sometimes repeats a constellation if the sign is in transition from one house to the next.

This method of plotting the positions of planets and stars might explain the peculiar arrangement of the VMS zodiac sequence. Imagine if you expanded out the twelve houses into twelve separate drawings rather than trying to fit them all into one grid.

To put it more simply, the VMS zodiac sequence might not represent a zodiac cycle, it might be an illustration of twelve houses and the sign that has the most influence within that house at the time and location for which the chart was cast.

Medieval horoscopes are usually organized into geometric triangles within and surrounding a square. The name, date and time of birth (or of a specific event) are inserted into the central square. The houses usually begin in the triangle on the middle-left and follow twelve divisions counter-clockwise around the central square. This chart was drawn up for the birth of Henry VI (1421) in Cambridge, England. [Image credit: British Library, Eggerton 889]

Assigning Cycles to Houses

If the VMS zodiac folios represent an expanded natal (or other special-event) chart, it should be possible to identify the twelve houses by their subject matter.

The order of the houses doesn’t really matter. In less elaborate charts, they are identified by number, or simply by their position within a square as shown above. In the VMS, if the twelve wheels, taken together, represent a horoscope, it is a clever way to combine the meanings of the houses along with whichever constellation was visible in that house at that particular time—a two-in-one solution to schematic representation that makes it mnemonically easier to understand the houses.

Relating VMS Wheels to Traditional Houses

It’s not difficult to find commonalities between the VMS zodiac wheels and traditional descriptions of the astrological houses, but do they relate well if taken in sequence?

  1. First House—One’s life and physical form. The first VMS wheel appears to be a cycle of life, from birth to death as discussed here, so it matches quite well to the first house.
  2. Second House—Household and property. The second VMS wheel looks like  a cycle of pregnancy to me, from childhood through puberty, to pregnancy and post-partum, which doesn’t seem to fit the second house’s relation to material goods and property.
  3. Third House—Kinship. The third VMS wheel has always looked like a medieval family tree to me, and the traditional third house relates to kinship and relations, so maybe this one matches.
  4. Fourth House—Ancestors and assets. Once again we have something that resembles a family tree and shows fancy clothing (material goods and assets). This relates well to the theme of ancestors and assets.
  5. Fifth House—Pregnancy and Procreation. I would have expected the second VMS wheel to be here, the one that looks like puberty > pregnancy > post-partum. The sixth VMS wheel would also be appropriate in this slot, as it has men and women together with the man’s genitals clearly drawn. Perhaps the fifth VMS fits, as it shows what appears to be a cycle of menstruation followed by a fat stomach (pregnancy?) followed by a more slender waistline, and there are men in this wheel, but I’m not completely sure.
  6. Sixth House—Illness and Calamity. The sixth VMS wheel has a high proportion of men and relates to romance and sex in both the inner circle (with the courting Gemini figures) and the images that surround it, so I can’t see any relationship here between the VMS figures and illness or calamity. The sixth wheel would fit better in the fifth house.
  7. Seventh House—Marriage. It’s difficult to see what is going on in this wheel because many of the figures are male but some of the male-like figures appear to have breasts added in darker ink in a  style that is slightly different from the other female nymphs. It’s also difficult to know if this represents marriage when sex has already been shown in a couple of the previous wheels and there doesn’t appear to be as much sex going on here (some of my friends would probably joke that that is typical of marriage).
  8. Eighth House—Death and Murder. Death and murder is not a topic we frequently see in the VMS. Most of the nymphs are going about their business quite happily and the animals have paws instead of claws and never show any teeth, not even the one that vaguely resembles a lion. So, I’m not sure how to interpret the eighth VMS wheel other than to note that many of the nymphs appear pregnant.
  9. Ninth House—Journeys. What can I say, more nymphs, some of them heavily pregnant. It was mostly the men who went on long journeys… sailors, crusaders, soldiers, explorers, merchants, so it’s hard to know if this wheel relates at all to the ninth house.
  10. Tenth House—Authority. This is another wheel in which many of the figures look like they are male and where some of them look like they’ve had breasts added. A few have fancy head-dresses. It doesn’t overtly seem to represent authority unless it means medieval authority of men over women.
  11. Eleventh House—Friendship. The eleventh VMS wheel is a mixture of male and female nymphs (once again, some seem to have had breasts added) and there are four figures across the top with long hair, two with fancy headdresses. I can’t tell if this represents friendship. There’s nothing overtly indicating friendship other than the nymph top-right and the one middle-left (inner ring) who are touching the the nymphs beside them and this isn’t enough to know for sure.
  12. Twelfth House—Sorrow and enemies. Are these nymphs more sorrowful than others? Look at their mouths. Also, note that there are nymphs across the top of this one in the same manner as the previous wheel. If wheels 11 and 12 represent the yin and yang of friendship/trust and sorrow/enemies, they might conceivably be drawn in similar ways. Note how the nymph directly above the crossbowman has a line of red dots on her cheek, rather than the usual blotch of  blush. One can sometimes find dots on the other nymphs, but not usually in a vertical line. I’m not sure if this is a sneaky way to represent tears or just an anomaly, so I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.


Many of the VMS wheels can be related to medieval astrological houses, and several appear to be in the right sequence, but is the similarity strong enough to support the idea? Let’s go back to the horoscope and see if there’s anything that can help confirm or deny this impression…

Looking at Henry VI’s chart, shown above, we see Gemini listed in the first house, Cancer in the second and third, “Leon9” (Leo), in the fourth, and so on, with Pissz (Pisces) in the 11th, and “Taur9” (Taurus) in the twelfth.

Thus, in King Henry’s chart, Gemini is first, Cancer and Capricorn are each represented twice and Aries and Libra are missing. Why is this? Because a natal chart is drawn up for a specific time and place. It doesn’t have to start with Aries, it starts with the person’s “birth sign” or ascending constellation. At the same time, some of the constellations may be transitioning from one house to the next, and others may not be expressly visible.

This is very similar to the way the VMS zodiac symbols are represented. The cycle begins with Pisces, not with Aries, and Aries and Taurus are shown twice, while Capricorn and Aquarius are not shown at all.

If the VMS zodiac-symbol sequence is a natal horoscope (or one for a specific event, like the investiture of a king), whose is it? Does it relate to the creator of the VMS or perhaps to a patron, or to one of the prominent individuals of the time? Or is it a teaching tool, to give an example of how a prognostication chart might be organized? Is it perhaps an example of “judicial astrology” in which a legal judgment for some infraction is said to be written in the stars?

Here is a simulation of the sky above Rome, Italy, at midnight on January 1st, 1408. Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, and Virgo are clearly visible and the others are outside our current point of view:

If we want to see how the sky might have appeared after Pisces came into view (for the same location) we have to look later in the year—around the end of November or beginning of December:

This, of course, will change as you go farther north or south (and east or west). For example, if you go south to Cairo, Egypt, and look up at the same time and date as the previous example, Pisces will not yet be visible.


I’ve said this in the past, but wasn’t sure how to explain it in a blog before now, but I think the VMS sequence may be a horoscope, rather than a zodiac cycle or calendar. Many aspects that seem strange in the context of a zodiac cycle are not, if the entire sequence is viewed as the chart for a specific event. It would also be a credit to the VMS creator, if he or she found a unique way to pictorially combine the concepts of astrological houses with an “expanded” prognostication chart.

As a bonus, if the VMS zodiac series is a horoscope for a specific event (rather than a teaching example using arbitrary zodiacs) then, with a bit of computing power, it may be possible to calculate the specific times and places during which Pisces was rising, Aries and Taurus were on the boundary between houses, and Capricorn and Aquarius were not visible enough to be included.


Postscript [3 hours later]: I don’t know if I was clear enough about how I think the VMS wheels might relate to medieval horoscopes, such as the one cast for Henry VI, so I have expanded each of the sections of the Henry VI chart and added the influences of the houses, so they can be compared more easily to the VMS wheels. With the exception of the Gemini nymphs (which seems better matched to House 7 than House 6) and the 8th House (Death, Murder, Estate), the correspondence between the houses and the VMS figures is not too bad. You can click on the images to see them larger:



J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved.      Citations: J.K. Petersen, 12 July 2017,

Nosing Around Again

In March 2016, I posted details of the noses of the green and white rams in the Voynich Manuscript, to point out that they were drawn by different people (I am quite sure of this). The first is a more confident hand with a better sense of anatomy, the second is drawn with less dexterity and the person who drew it was less aware of the structure of the bones underneath the form.


There are other parts of the manuscript with slight differences in drawing styles, and there appear to be at least two painters and at least two scribes, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there might be more than one illustrator as well.

Quite unexpectedly, when looking at commonalities between some of the drawings in a Welsh book of law, and the Picatrix, I came across something in one of the illustrated versions of the Sachsenspiegel (The Saxon Mirror, a book of Saxon law) that reminded me of the VMS. It took me by surprise because the two different drawing styles are evident in rams and goats and makes one wonder whether the VMS rams might represent goats (we only assume from their position relative to the other roundels that they are probably rams, the drawings are not expert enough to know for sure).

Two Pairs of Noses

The Sachsenspiegel illustration includes human figures, a building, and various herd animals in pairs. If you look closely at the two goats with their heads raised, you will notice the one in front has a nose and neck that is more deftly and confidently drawn (marked with a red arrow). Note how the upper lip is more clearly modeled with a better sense of line and the underlying anatomy. In contrast, the other animals have rounded indistinct features with a much weaker sense of the structure under the skin. I instantly had the feeling of a teacher/apprentice or parent/child relationship. The teacher (or team leader) draws in some of the key points, to give an idea of what is desired and where things go, and the apprentice fills in the rest.

Could the Sachsenspiegel have been drawn by the same illustrators who created the VMS?

The more accomplished hand in the VMS is similar to the drawing style of the more accomplished hand in the Sachsenspiegel and the less accomplished is quite similar, as well, but it seems unlikely that they had any involvement in the VMS. Both the more and less accomplished hands in the Sachsenspiegel show stylistic differences from the two hands in the VMS. Note especially that the hind legs of the animals in the Sachsenspiegel point in the anatomically correct direction and the hooves look more or less like hooves.

In contrast, in the VMS, the hind legs of most of the animals are anatomically strange, with the middle joint almost nonexistent. The VMS hooves are also unusually round and include prominent dewlaps. These characteristics, especially the missing joint, are very difficult to find in other medieval drawings and are not characteristic of either hand in the Sachsenspiegel.

So, the drawing styles in the Sachsenspiegel and the VMS do not match, but perhaps they are similar in the sense of a mentor-student relationship.

If I had to guess, I would say that the more skilled illustrator drew many of the human figures and perhaps some of the buildings in the Sachsenspiegel—in other words, a substantial portion of the drawings. In the VMS, I get the opposite feeling… that most of it was drawn by the less expert illustrator, with only a few possible additions by someone with more skill (and perhaps some later additions by a third person with even less skill).


I keep hoping I’ll find other drawings by whoever drew the VMS, but haven’t been lucky so far, but maybe the Sachsenspiegel goats can explain the dots on the horns of the VMS animals.

In the Sachsenspiegel, the goats have bumps on the horns like the Ibex, a form of mountain goat. On the VMS, there is a series of dots that might indicate the more shallow ridges on the horns of most other species of goats and rams.

I’m not 100% certain the VMS white and green rams are actually sheep/rams, I never have been. I’ve always wondered why there are two, which is not typical of a zodiac sequence. It occurred to me that the white one might be Capricorn and the green one Aries, for example, but their position in sequence with the others seems to argue against this. I do have one idea as to why they might be out of sequence, however, which I’ll blog about as soon as I have time.

J.K. Petersen

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

Medieval Fashion VMS Style

As a follow-up to a previous blog, I have added tunic images to a map of the Holy Roman Empire as it was about 1400. They are not perfect matches to the tunics in the Voynich Manuscript, but they are close, and it gives a visual sense of how this kind of clothing was depicted in manuscripts and paintings, and where this style of dress may have been worn.

Hunting for Hats

Locating tunics similar to those in the VMS was a challenge, and finding hats similar to the one on the crossbowman just as hard. Those with a rounded turban-like base with a portion that hangs to the back usually have tails made of fox fur or sheepskin or several tails or folds of fabric. Some are too short, others are squared off at the bottom.

[Image credits: left BL 1231 f2r, middle Codex Sang 602, right Houghton Typ 127]

A long round tail like the one in the VMS is less common, but I was able to find one (below left). Note that the tunic is a little more fancy than the VMS, with much wider sleeves and a cape the covers the shoulders. There are a number of similar hats in Vatican Pal Lat 871 and the one shown right notably wears a simple tunic with a plain band at the collar and waist. Note also that it is enclosed in a circle of text:

[Image credits: left Morgan M.453, right Vatican Pal Lat 871]

These images [added July 11, 2017] are from a Swedish book of law. They illustrate tunics that are more elaborate than the VMS, with fancy collars and sleeves as were worn by the upper nobility. The tails on the hats are not as long as those of the VMS, but they are of interest because they are the correct general style, and resemble those in Pal Lat 871. [Image credit: Eriksson’s Landslag Cod. Ups. B.68]

I have only located one image so far that matches well to the VMS tunic that also shows a man with short legs and a similar hat, in Vatican Pal Lat 1806 (included at the bottom of the following map). The origin of this manuscript is thought to be Augsburg, Germany. It includes quite a few images of tunics similar to those in the VMS.

And now to the map (you can click on the image to see it larger):


In searching for these pleated tunics, I looked all over the world but was not able to find any that were closer than the ones illustrated above in the more distant countries. Not only were the clothing styles different, but the drawing styles, as well. I also rejected tunics that were a combination of vest and tunic as separate pieces of clothing and those with split sleeves.

We cannot know how accurate the VMS illustrator drew the clothing, but it’s noteworthy that the VMS Gemini twin shows the laces on the boots, a detail that is absent from most other drawings. The illustrator made an effort to record details despite the small size of the VMS, which is why it seemed worth the effort to look for costumes of a similar style.


                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen

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

The Mystery of the Short-Legged Knight

The Ghâyat al-Hakîm fi’l-sihr (the “Picatrix”) is an occult manuscript brought to my attention on the forum and in a comment by K. Gheuens. I had noted some similarities between the VMS dragon-critter and some of the VMS men, with illustrations I saw in an Icelandic text. The Picatrix includes some provocative drawings of figures proportioned like the VMS archer.

The Picatrix

The Picatrix brings together older writings on proto-science, prayers, magic, and astrology.

It was written in Arabic around the 10th century and was translated into Spanish in the mid-13th century and, afterward, from Spanish into Latin (Benedek Lang, 2010). It is mentioned in two of the volumes by 16th-century polymath Johannes Heidenberg, commonly known as Trithemius, who is famous for his contributions to the history of cryptography. The Arabic Picatrix was apparently not known in the west until about 1920 (W. Hartner, Isis, V. 56, 1965).

The Picatrix (Biblioteka Jagiellonska MS 793) includes many interesting details. The origin of this version is debated, and the text breaks off abruptly in the second of four parts, but it is thought to have been created by a Polish scribe in Italy, or possibly in the region around Kraków. Its creation date is estimated to be in the mid-15th century, with a binding date around 1460 (B. Lang, Unlocked Books, 2010). Lang describes it as the only illustrated copy. Fortunately, the illustrations continue beyond the disrupted text.

For Voynich researchers, there are a number of interesting details. As examples, in the astrology section, there are two long-triggered crossbows held by figures with legs, as well as a number of figures holding ball-like forms. There are many wearing plain-necked tunics similar to the VMS archer’s, except that the sleeves are not as wide at the elbows.

Of particular interest is a panel of figures in a style that differs from the rest of the manuscript. K. Gheuens commented on the drawings when discussing proportions of the nymphs in October 2016.

For those who haven’t seen them, here are the figures, which strike me as very King Arthurish. There is a figure with an extravagant cape and a forked beard, in the middle a female, and possibly a knight on the right, oddly holding his sword by the blade. They are distinctly long in the waist and short in the legs, like the VMS archer:

I have a particular interest in these figures because I noticed a similarity between them and those in another manuscript, one that was created in Wales. The history of the Picatrix manuscripts does not include any mention of Wales, and a search of the Web did not yield any comments connecting the Picatrix figures and those in this Welsh manuscript, so this may be the first time the connection has been noted.

Leges Hywel Dda

The Leges Hywel Dda is a book of Welsh law. John Dee wrote comments on the version that is now Leges Walliae, Oxford, Merton College MS 323. The copy that includes the illustrations that follow is the Leges Hywel Dda, available from the National Library of Wales.

The figures in the Picatrix and the Leges Hywel Dda are clearly not drawn by the same person and it’s not common for a book on the occult to share similarities with a book of law, but there are details that suggest that one illustrator may have seen the works of the other, or that the illustrators might have some kinship in terms of blood, culture, or education.

First, a note about the differences… the Picatrix drawings are scratchy, with tentative strokes, stubby chins, and bodies all facing front, the Hywel Dda are drawn with a cleaner line, faces turned sideways, distinct necks and chins, but…

note the similarity in dress and proportions of the figure on the right. He is wearing a red and white tunic and is holding his sword or long knife by the blade in the Picatrix and almost by the blade in the Hywel Dda. The figure on the right in the Hywel Dda Picatrix appears to have been explicitly drawn with legs that are shorter than the figures on the left.

Other similarities include the wide, very rounded shoulders, the lack of ears, and the concave flare of the tunic from waist to hem. In both the tunic billows out above the waist, although in one it hangs over the edge of the belt. In both cases, the man with the blade is standing on the following text, with his foot touching the letters:

The National Library of Wales has this to say about its early provenance of the Leges Hywel Dda:

“It is known that, by the beginning of the 14th century, the manuscript was at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. The evidence for this comes from one of two pastedowns preserved at the end of the volume. These are all that remain of the original ‘old oak boards binding’ seen by J. Gwenogvryn Evans at the end of the 19th century, when it was still at Peniarth, Merionethshire. One of these bears the press-mark of the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and the name of the donor, now partly illegible but interpretable as that of William Byholte (fl. 1292-1318), prior of the abbey. It is also thought that this was the copy of the Welsh laws consulted by John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury, 1279-94, when he sent his letter to Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, denouncing the prince’s morals and those of the Welsh, and in which he makes two references to the Laws of Hywel Dda.”

Thus, we find that this edition of the Leges Hywel Dda predates the illustrated edition of the Picatrix by at least 150 years, which brings up some questions:

  • Did the illustrator of the unusual panel of illustrations in the Picatrix see this specific copy of the Leges Hywel Dda? It seems unlikely that a book of Welsh law would go far beyond the boundaries of Wales, but the scholars themselves were quite nomadic, often studying at several universities, and taking patronage and appointments in a variety of courts, some quite distant from their homelands. It’s also noteworthy that the illustrated copy is in Latin, not Welsh, a language known by most scholars of the time. There is also a half century, from c. 1500 to c. 1550 in which the whereabouts of the Leges Hywel Dda is not known, or
  • Is there an earlier exemplar that includes a figure with short legs, dressed in a bicolor tunic, clutching a knife or sword in a less-than-optimum way?

Searching for the Short-Legged Knight

The character of Turold in the Bayeux Tapestry might serve as an exemplar for a short-statured character. He is often called a dwarf, but Turold, while small, is of relatively normal proportions compared to the VMS archer and the Leges Hywel Dda figure. Turold’s clothing isn’t similar either. He wears long wide pants and a cowl and has a distinctively long goatee.

I think we can rule out Turold as the inspiration for the short-legged figures.

The character of Lancelot, from the Arthurian Legends, is often shown in red and white garb, but I’ve never seen him with unusually short legs.

Hunting for an exemplar can be a time-consuming and exasperating task. Sometimes one has to move on and hope that one finds clues along the way, or that someone else comes across a possible precedence.


I don’t have any explanations for the short-legged character, other than a few rough ideas, but since he sometimes appears in combination with long-legged figures, the proportions appear deliberate in at least some manuscripts. I can’t help wondering if he is based on a legendary character.

I was intrigued by details in drawings that might indicate a connection between a central European book of magic and a Welsh book of law.

One thing I’d like to mention in closing is that the figure clutching the blade of the long knife in the Picatrix struck me as odd in the same way as the VMS crayfish with legs coming out of its tail—an anatomical oddity I’ve never seen in another lobster/crayfish drawing. One can’t directly equate an incautious knight with a leg-challenged crustacean, but it’s a reminder that some people have a slightly different perception of the world and perhaps the VMS illustrator was one of them.

Postscript (5 hours later):

I neglected to include this in my original post. It’s a Danish almanac, written in Latin, from the early 16th century. The lower figure in particular is similar in pose and features  to the Picatrix illustrations (in the sense of having round shoulders, a front-on viewpoint, two-toned tunic, and short legs), but more similar to the Welsh manuscript in the sense of having fewer, more assured strokes of the pen. The figure in the all-red tunic it is not quite as clearly short-legged—note how the head is smaller in proportion to the body than the other—but still leans toward having shorter legs. There are several centuries separating these from the Welsh law book, so it’s difficult to know if there is any connection, but the images relate well to the subject of costumes and body proportions:


J.K. Petersen

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