Monthly Archives: June 2019

Nymphs in Niches

27 June 2019

On folio 84r of the Voynich Manuscript, there is a drawing of textured niches, with a row of nymphs below its arches. Between groups of nymphs one might expect columns, but instead there are wavy lines painted blue, resembling a flow of liquid. The nymphs are thigh-deep in water that has been painted green. As with some of the other water-related drawings, the textures and “drips” give it a grotto-like feeling.

VMS nymphs in a pool under archways

To the left is a pipe-shape with a large opening at the top and a smaller one at the bottom. A thinner rivulet connects the image to another pond pic at the bottom. Note that the water-like pools and rivulets on the left are blue.

In the top-left is a scaly textured mass that reminds me of the shape in the corner of 86v (right). It holds a high position and appears to have something pouring out of it (air? water? spiritual emanations?).

Each archway is adorned with hanging-bead curtains, but since I don’t think the VMS is a drug-induced 1960s-era hallucination, perhaps the “curtain” shapes represent dripping water or an artistically shadowed backdrop.

Pinpointing the Poses

To me, the nymphs have always looked very posed, like actors demonstrating something, or as though they were frozen in time. When I first saw it, the middle illustration on 84r reminded me of frames from an animation, or a sequence of movements in which one nymph’s motion follows from that of the previous, as though each one were waiting her turn in line:

Middle pool with nymphs on Voynich Manuscript folio 84r

Part of the reason they look so posed is the formulaic way in which they are drawn, but these poses have always intrigued me because they seemed somehow familiar.

Here is a 13th century image of Tisbe and Piramus, the famous lovers who whispered sweet nothings through a crack in the wall—the forbidden love that inspired Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Ovid's Tisbe and Piramus in a 13th century manuscript

Even though they are quite posed, I don’t get the feeling the nymphly pool party was inspired by this story, so I looked for other examples.

There is too much on this folio to cover in one blog, so I’ll constrain my comments to the nymphs at the top, under the arched textures.

Posing in Pairs

Let’s look at how the nymphs are arranged…

At the top of 84r are four tightly coupled pairs and two nymphs who look like they might be holding hands from farther away. Flanking them are two additional nymphs that seem slightly set apart from the others, as though engaged in a different role.

Some of the nymphs are partly obscured by their pair-mates, and the paired nymphs are back-to-back as though they just passed each other.

I can’t quite tell if some of the couples have their elbows entwined, because the drawing isn’t very good, but there is almost a suggestion of this in at least one of the pairs. Their gestures are distinctive because they are expansive and seem to point beyond the confines of the niche:

VMS archway nymphs posed in pairs

It was the pairing and extended hands that drew my attention to a Byzantine relief sculpture with archways and paired figures:

Christ giving the law to St. Peter, with apostles in niches, late 4th century
Byzantine marble sarcophagus courtesy of The Met [public domain]. This fragment may have originated in Rome, but also passed through Paris and New York so it’s difficult to know where it might have been seen and how many artists it might have influenced.

Note the shell-like “curtains” at the back of the niche, with their downward-pointing lines and lightly scalloped edges, and how the gestures of some of the figures seem to point at something beyond the archways:

Comparison of gestures between the VMS and figures on a Roman sarcophagus.

The nymph on the left is posed similarly to the figure on the sarcophagus, but the one on the right seems to be in some kind of LSD-induced reverie. She looks like she is about to serenely leap off a cliff. Or perhaps, in a moment of zen, she knocked her opponent to the ground with the heel of her board-breaking hand. Well, maybe not. There might be other explanations…

For some interesting ideas on VMS poses, refer to K. Gheuen’s blog.

Is there some overall pattern to the nymphs’ gestures that might explain the poses? Are these poses typical or uncommon?

Pairs and Poses on Sarcophagi

This row of figures, similar to the fragment in The Met, is on a sarcophagus from the Alyscamps cemetery, in Arles, Provençe:

Christ with scroll and figures in groups of two and three on the Alyscamps c. 4th century sarcophagus [courtesy of Ad Meskens, Wikipedia].

Christ stands in the center, flanked by figures in twos and threes within scalloped archways, but the gestures and poses in this relief are not as close to the VMS as the relief in the Met.

The arrangement of the figures in pairs, with one obscured by the other, and the slightly more expansive gestures, is similar to another 4th-century sarcophagus in the Gregoriano Profano Museum, but it lacks the shell-like embellishments and archways:

The theme of many of these sarcophagi is traditio legis and Christ is often shown at the center of apostles and evangelists handing a scroll to St. Peter. There are twelve nymphs, a number associated with apostles, but there is no suggestion of a Christ-like figure or evangelists in the VMS pool party.

This example of traditio legis, from Chartres cathedral, differs from the VMS and The Met sarcophagus in a number of ways, including the elevated position of Christ and symbols for the four evangelists. Below them, each apostle has his own archway, in groups of one or three between the pillars. The poses are constrained, and the gestures do not point to a distance beyond:

Chartres frieze, traditio legis
Traditio legis relief carvings in a portal of the Chartres cathedral [source Urban, Wikipedia].

The tympanum of the south portal of the Abbey Church of St. Pierre, Moissac (12th century) is similar in arrangement to the one at Chartres, except that the apostles are sitting, and a wavy cloudband (instead of arches) separates the Christ imagery from the apostles:

Moissac Tympanum with apostles, evangelists, and Christ top-center.

The figures of a sarcophagus from the Basilica of S. Ambrogio, Milan, are also quite constrained. They are arranged in a tidy row, slightly overlapping, and there are no fully-extended hand gestures. There are archways, but they are narrow, and placed behind (rather than around) the figures:

There is a large, very ornate relief in the tympanum of the abbey S. Foy à Conqes in France. The lower left corner feature twelve figures in pairs within archways, surrounding a Christ figure with his arms around two smaller figures:

Tympanum of the Abbey St. Foy in Conque [Daniel Villafruela, Wikimedia]

But the figures all look very respectable and constrained, no expansive gestures.

What we find is that pairs of figures within archways, combined with expressive highly extended gestures, are not common. It also seems to be easier to find VMS-like paired-poses in relief sculptures than in manuscripts, a situation that is reminiscent of some of the earliest VMS zodiac themes, which appeared on churches before they became common in manuscripts.

Another Viewpoint

Moving away from the arches for a moment, could there be another reason the nymphs are extending their arms and shown in pairs? Is it possible they are dancing?

The two VMS nymphs to the right look like they might be holding hands through the stream of liquid, and the two on the left look like they might be about to touch hands, so there is a hint of interaction between them. In fact, pairing may exist in two different senses. There are pairs in which the nymphs are very close together, but back-to-back, and there might also be pairs where the nymphs are farther apart but making eye contact:

VMS bathing nymphs possibly making eye contact.

Are these poses similar to historical images of dance?

In this c. 480 BCE cippus (tomb-marker), a piper stands in the middle as two toga-clad figures dance with gestures that are reminiscent of Egyptian styles, and similar to today’s Middle Eastern and Eastern dances (note the angles of the elbows and wrists). The style of pose is even more apparent on the accompanying face (right) with three dancers:

Limestone dance cippus, Italy, c. 5th century BCE.
Greco-Roman cippus (Etruscan period) courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum.

This style of cippus and dancing pose was commonly depicted on funerary art in central Italy around the 5th century BCE, when Etruscans flourished in this area.

It has been asserted that the Etruscans came from a different language-family than Indo-European and that their DNA history is somewhat diverse (with a segment originating in Turkey). It is, in some cases, unique (neither European nor Middle Eastern). It has also been suggested that the Etruscans originated from the Sea Peoples, some of which are said to have migrated to the Middle East. Whatever their origin, these poses are more similar to Middle Eastern than to early modern European dance styles, perhaps through the Turkish connection.

If the VMS nymphs are dancing, the cippus style is not the style we see in the drawings.

And where are the women?

Woman in Motion

By now it should be apparent that most of the previous examples of figures in archways are male

Are there women in archways posed like the VMS nymphs? Do they compare to the VMS in terms of organization and gestures? Are the nymphs symbolic of mythical figures, people in general, or are they specifically meant to be female?

Here is an early Roman relief with three nymphs dancing:

Roman relief three nymphs dancing
Early Roman-era relief, three nymphs dancing [Christelle Molinié, Wikidata & SBMA]

The background is plain, no archways or shells. The head poses are provocative, but otherwise these nymphs look very chaste, dressed from head to ankle, with their hands barely showing, and the hands are simply clutching the drapes of the nearby nymph, not calling attention to themselves.

Women within Archways

This old Pagan relief found in Carrawbrough features three water nymphs each with her own containers—one held high, the other illustrating the flow of water, each within her own archway:

Nymph relief from Coventina's well, Carrawburgh
Three nymphs with jugs within archways, from Coventina’s well, Carrawbrough

This imagery probably descended from Pagan representations of the three water-nymphs (a trio of nymphs was a very common theme in Roman art) flanked by the god Zeus and Pan, but this older example does not include archways and the figures look at the viewer rather than interacting among themselves:

Three Nymphs with shell-like vessels flanked by Zeus and Pan [Photo of Limstone relief of The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)]

There is a relief of three dancing nymphs from Saladinovo (c. 2nd century BCE) in the Archaeological Museum of Sofia where the nymphs are more animated and the scarf-like fabric that flows around them almost has the effect of archways (the image is copyrighted by the Lessing archive, but you can view it here).

Here is a scene with Apollo, Athena, and the nine Muses, with two pairs on either side of the central figures, but the gestures are not expansive and the figures are not within archways:

Apollo and Muses [The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)]

Another Christian-themed example of figures within arches is the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden, shown here in a Modena relief by Wiligelmo:

Adam and Eve story by Wiligelmo in the Cathedral of Modena, Italy
The creation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden on the Cathedral of Modena in Italy [Photo Sailko, Wikipedia]

The Modena relief is interesting because it doesn’t just show a static event, it is, in a sense, a cartoon-strip style, with each section representing a different event in time. In other words, this storytelling format existed not only in medieval manuscripts, but in relief carvings as well, lending strength to the possibility that the multitude of figures in the VMS might not always be different people, perhaps some of them are the same figure in different points of time.

Myths and Muses

Something a little closer to the VMS pool party is an Italian sarcophagus with nine muses. In the center is a single figure separated from the paired nymphs on either side by two theatrical masks. It is similar in form to the traditio legis except it has a Pagan rather than a Christian theme.

So one can find women in pairs in archways, but the figures don’t overlap as much as the VMS characters and the gestures are less expansive:

British Museum row of muses in archways in pairs.

As we go farther east, we see increasing differences in clothing and the ethnic features of the figures, but there are some similar themes. Here is one with figures in groups of two to four within niches, but there are no arches or out-reaching hands

Eastern stone relief with figures in niches

It seems that groups of woman in motion are largely dance-themed.

There is a pre-Roman Peucetian fresco in Ruvo di Puglia, Italy (c. 5th century BCE) that features a row of fully robed women dancing, each one holding hands with the second person behind:

c. 5 BCE Peucetian frescue of  figures dancing
Peucetian tomb fresco of a row of women dancing, Le Musée absolut, Phaidon, Wikipedia. Note the similarity to the Greek tomb painting shown farther below.

There are no arches, but the gestures are a little more expansive and interactive than most of the relief sculptures.

In the next example, male and female dancers alternate and the action of their feet is more lively (this particular theme of “line dancing”, with hands touching, is quite common in ancient Greek art):

Greek tomb painting, dancing c. 400 bce
From a Greek tomb painting, c. 400 BCE

And this example from the 4th century BCE is quite unrestrained, one of the few with truly expansive gestures (perhaps a little too much Retsina), although there’s no actual physical contact between the figures:

There is a legend about the nine muses dancing with Apollo, and here we see them in a painting by Baldassare Peruzzi (c. 1510) based on traditional imagery:

Apollo and muses painting by BaldassarePeruzzi

In some of the earlier depictions, Apollo was to one side of the muses, playing a lyre.

Stylistically, these western dances are quite different from eastern depictions, some of which can be seen here.


The above images are mostly on frescoes and relief sculptures. What about imagery in manuscripts? As I’ve mentioned before, when writing about the zodiacs, it was easier for most people to view architectural art than to have access to a manuscript. A manuscript cost about a year’s wages, sometimes much more. There were a few chained libraries, but most of the manuscripts were in the private collections of kings and nobles. Embellishments on public buildings and open-air sarcophagi were free.

Nevertheless, I tried to find examples that might bear some relationship to the VMS in manuscript art.

In the Florentine Homer (1466), Homer is surrounded by nine muses (one behind his shoulder) and four wise men. There are roundels rather than arches, and each nymph is in a different pose. In total, there are 14 figures, so it doesn’t quite match up with numbers in the VMS:

British Library. In this title page to the Florentine Greek “Iliados”, Homer surrounded by nine muses and four additional figural medallions, 1466 [Harley MS 5600].

But muses would only account for nine dancers and the VMS has 12. If there is any connection between the VMS and classical literature, that discrepancy might be resolved by the three graces, who were sometimes shown together with the nine muses:

Apollo plays music while nymphs and graces play music and dance.
Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon (1807). “For it is through the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that there are singers and harpers upon the earth…” –Hesiod, Theogony [Bertel Thorvaldsen, Alte Nationalgaleirie, Wikipedia].

And then, of course, to come back to a more literal interpretation of the VMS drawings, there are images of bathers in outdoor environments.

In the Bhagavatapurana, in a tropical locale with fast moving water, the gestures of bathers are quite expansive and almost like dancing. However, this version postdates the VMS by about a century-and-a-half. In general, expansive gestures are easier to find in later manuscripts than in earlier ones:

In De Balneis Puteolanis from the 14th century, bathers are shown within archways, in groups of two or three. This spa in the Naples region was still in operation at the time the VMS was created (it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1538):

Bathers within archways, BNF Latin 8161.
Bathers within archways in The baths of Pozzuoli, BnF Latin 8161 [c. mid 1300s]

This c. 1400 version of De Balneis from Italy not only has bathers within arches, but the gestures are fairly lively:

The figures don’t quite have the “posed” look of the VMS nymphs, however. The Pozzuoli image looks more like recorded history than a morality play.

It is interesting to note, however, that the image expresses two sets of activities. At the top are people rinsing their faces and talking, on the bottom are people more fully immersed, some of whom might be swimming.

The VMS also has levels. In the top image, the nymphs seem to be dancing. In the second one, below it, they look more like they are washing. In the third, one is bent over with her hand on her buttocks (washing her butt?) and most of the others have their hands by their butts, as well. A nymph on the left holds out an object… is it a sponge?

Here is a 17th-century depiction of nymphs bathing in arched grottoes, with the natural structures enhanced with added stonework. Could the VMS setting be based on something like this?

Nymphs bathing in arched grottoes by Van Culenborch.
Nymphs bathing by Abraham van Coylenborch, 17th-century Flemish painting.


I can’t tell if the top pool of the 84r is meant to be literal or allegorical, but I think there’s something extra going on in the arrangement of the nymphs. If it’s a literal representation, maybe the pool party included dancing. Dancing was a very popular form of entertainment before television was invented, and every well-born person was expected to know basic steps.

Or maybe the nymphly poses are telling some kind of a story, as in the panels of Piramus and Tisbe. Either way, pictures of dancers with expressive gestures in the style of the VMS, set within archways, were not common in the early 15th century, so it might be significant that the closest parallel I have found so far for the gestures, was on a Byzantine sarcophagus that traveled from Rome, possibly through Paris, and eventually ended up in the United States.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2019 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Butcher’s Broom

24 June 2019

Ruscus plant and woman with broom.

Butcher’s broom is a fascinating plant. It is native to Eurasia and is found in many medieval herbals. It has distinctive flowers and colorful fruits that are aligned with the inner part of the leaf when they first emerge. The branches and leaves are stiff, yet resilient enough to be used for broom-making.

Plant with Polka Dots

Here is a large-sized image of butcher’s broom, Ruscus aculeatus. Note the position of the flowers within the leaf:

Ruscus aculeatus botanical drawing

But if you look closely, you will notice there is a stalk. It’s very slender so the flowers almost appear to be growing out of the leaf, an illusion that was emphasized by many medieval illustrators.

Elizabeth Blackburn botanical drawing of Ruscus.

Even Elizabeth Blackwell drew it this way (which is not 100% accurate, since the fruits tend to hang down when they get ripe, but it gets across the impression that most people have of the plant).

But it isn’t just an illusion…

Some species of Ruscus have a flower that actually grows out of the leaf.

For example, Ruscus hypoglossum, also called Alexandrina’s laurel, and Ruscus hypophyllum have this charming adaptation:

Ruscus species flower and berry
Ruscus hypophyllum flowers and Ruscus hypoglossum berries growing from the inner part of the leaf [Images: Laurha of España and A. Karpov, Wikipedia]

Many species of this plant are shrubby and have a fairly extensive rhizome (side-growing root from which new shoots may emerge). R. hypoglossum has an additional peculiarity, a little leaflet that covers the flower and sometimes looks like it’s pinching the berry, a quirk that inspired the name Double Tongue:

Botanical drawing of Alexandrina laurel, Ruscus hypoglossum.

Medieval Ruscus

Both the unusual form of Ruscus and the fine-stemmed form of Ruscus are found in medieval herbals and many of them are drawn with dots on the leaves or red spots to represent the berries. Depending on the region and the species, they have names like Abrusca, Brusci, Brusse, and Bonifacia.

Some manuscripts included both kinds of Ruscus, but most of them chose one. Here are some examples from my files, from 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts:

Exampls of medieval Ruscus

Dots on Leaves

Is there a VMS plant with dots on the leaves? Yes. Plants 3r and 39r have dots, but there are many dots, drawn in lines, and the plants don’t look like Ruscus:

VMS plants with spots

There is also a three-leaved plant in the small-plants section with dots on the leaves, but there isn’t enough detail to identify the plant. The label oraro isn’t much help either. It’s possible it is something like clover or medicago, which have spots or chevrons and which have leaves in groups of three, but it’s difficult to know for sure.

Plant 7v

What about Plant 7v? It has a prominent spot in the middle of each leaf. Could it be Ruscus?

Voynich Manuscript Plant 7r

No, I don’t think so. Obviously the dots are not flowers or seeds because the seedhead is at the top of the stalk. It’s a different kind of plant from Ruscus, one with a nicely drawn basal rosette, red and green leaves (this is a common trait in plants of this shape). It appears to have hairy or spiny leaves (I’m leaning toward hairy since there are other VMS plants that have more pointy margins that might be spiny). In contrast to the VMS plant, Ruscus leaves are smooth and very distinctly green.

Plant 7v has a tap root, Ruscus has a lumpy rhizome.

So if it’s not Ruscus, what is it?

Some plants have spots that are part of the plant. For example, some species of Orchis and Arum have brown speckles. Pulmonaria has numerous whitish spots (in fact, I think Plant 39r might represent Pulmonaria).

Some plants have specific parasites or diseases that consistently create spots. Some have spots that look like rust (e.g., Saxifraga mutata).

Overall Shape & Characteristics

There is a group of smallish herbs that look like VMS 7v. Most of them are small-to-medium-sized in height. They all have a tall slender central stalk and several of them have rounded seedheads. A few of the leaves grow up the stalk, but most are concentrated at the base in a whorl. Many of them are hairy.

This group of plants often has a mixture of red and green leaves later in the year when the plant goes to seed, and many of them have tap roots or a few fine tendrils similar in shape to buttercup roots.

Some of them have spots, some of them have little bumps on the leaves that look like spots because they are sufficiently raised to create shadows (e.g., Arabis, Erophila, Limonium, Silene sedoides, some species of Androsace, and Draba).

Here are some examples showing the overall form. Note the basal rosettes on the herbarium specimen bottom right is most similar in orientation to the VMS drawing. Basal rosettes were often drawn as though flattened in medieval manuscripts:

Examples of Saxifrage, Draba, Arabis, Silene, Limonium basic plant shapes, all of which are fairly similar in general form.

There are also plants that look like 7v that catch dew on their leaves, which make round sparkly dots, and have little teeth on the edges of the leaves, like Lewisia cotyledon. Some plants are incurved and collect a single drop of dew, but not all of them have hairy leaves.

It’s hard to choose among these plants. They are all very similar and all have distinctive bumps or spots, and many have red leaves mixed with the green, or are distinctly red and green later in the year, but the VMS seedheads appear to be somewhat rounded, and Arabis tends to produce long narrow pods, so perhaps Arabis is less likely than some of the others. Draba has rounded seedpods but it’s still difficult to eliminate the others.


I hope it is clear from these examples that Plant 7v is not likely to be Butcher’s broom. It has the wrong overall shape and a completely different seed stalk. Which of the rosette herbs it might be is difficult to say, but the seedheads are more similar to Draba and Silene than most of the others.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2019 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Pinning Down the Pangolin

15 June 2019

There’s been a fervor of renewed interest in the VMS mystery animal on folio 80v (including a post about the catoblepas on Nick Pelling’s blog), so I looked at the folio again (and glanced back through my blogs) to see if there was anything that could be said about the critter that hasn’t already been thoroughly investigated.

Looking at the Details

Mystery "pangolin" on VMS f80v

The mystery animal usually goes by the working name of “pangolin” or “armadillo” since it appears to have scales and to be in a curled-up position.

The scales are not certain, however, since the bumps are pointing in the wrong direction, and they don’t really look like the plates of an armadillo. They might be scales (they do appear to overlap), or maybe it’s a VMS version of bumpy fur or wool.

The Wispy Tail

The tail is quite ambiguous. Are those untidy hair strands or is it a forked tail? In other VMS drawings, fish tails are quite detailed:

If the “pangolin” has a fish tail, why is it so tentative—why is it strandy instead of loopy? Is it intentionally vague? Or did the different context inspire the illustrator in another direction? Or is it a different kind of tail altogether, like a hairy tail? Maybe it’s vague because it’s an animal the illustrator has never seen.

The Feet

The mystery animal’s feet look like cat’s paws without the claws showing. They look nothing like the feet of a pangolin or armadillo. But the VMS illustrator wasn’t exactly a rock star in the matter of drawing feet, as can be seen by the drawing on the right. These are the hooves of Taurus in the zodiac-figures section. Unlike most medieval drawings of hooves, they have soft edges.

This peculiarity is even more apparent in the feet of the dragon-like critter on the right. Instead of the fearsome eagle-like claws often seen on mythical animals, they are distinctly round, like those of the the mystery animal on f80v. Also, like the 80v animal, this critter has a long nose, long ears, a somewhat ambiguous tail (is it a medieval flower-tail? if so, why does it look like an extra paw?). It has some scaly stuff on its back (are they wings or a turtle shell?). Even though it somewhat resembles medieval dragon drawings, it’s hard to pin down the details.

The Head
Head of 80v mystery creature

The head of 80v, depending on how you interpret it, has a pointy upturned snout, possibly a round eye, and possibly a pointy horn or ear.

If it’s a horn, then it might be a reference to Jason and the golden fleece, something I’ve blogged about previously. Or maybe it refers to Aries.

If it’s an ear, then it seems to be one that’s long and pointy.

Other Possibilities

I try to look at the animal in as many different ways as possible (fur? hair? scales? leaves?).


Here is Pliny’s description of the catoblepas from Pelling’s site:

“…the source of the Nile… In its neighbourhood there is an animal called the Catoblepas, in other respects of moderate size and inactive with the rest of its limbs, only with a very heavy head which it carries with difficulty — it is always hanging down to the ground; otherwise it is deadly to the human race, as all who see its eyes expire immediately.”

When I read it, I thought to myself, that sounds like a warthog. The warthog roots along the ground with its head down, is somewhat hairy with a long mane that blows up when it runs. It has a very heavy head and is a very aggressive animal, dangerous to humans. In other descriptions, a mane like a horse is mentioned:

The well-armored warthog has a very heavy head and a boar-like tail with a hairy tuft [Photo: Bernard Dupont, Wikimedia Commons].
Catoblepas from Der naturen Bloeme bestieary
Could Catoblepas Alches from Der Naturen Bloeme (KB KA 16 c. 1350) be a hoofed and heavy-headed warthog?

The rhinocerous also has a very large head and forages with its head down, but it doesn’t have a mane, and most of the descriptions of catoblepas fit better with warthogs.

The range of many African animals has greatly diminished. There used to be lions as far north as the Caucasus and giraffes in northern Africa, so it’s possible the warthog ranged farther north in medieval times than it does now. It is closely related to the wild boar and it’s possible their range originally overlapped. They are very similar in form, but the wild boar does not have the long distinctive mane of the warthog. This Roman mosaic shows a mane and also buffalo-like shoulders:

Roman mosaic preserved in Bardo Museum, Tunisia

Here is another from the Bardo Museum with the mane and forelock standing up:

Warthogs are not especially known for smelly breath (it’s dangerous to get close to a warthog so it’s hard to get a whiff), but they do root around in poo, which might give them a reputation for smelly breath.

So I think there’s a fair possibility that catoblepas was inspired by the warthog. I noticed that Pliny does not mention scales, a feature that appears to have been added in later descriptions.

Wildebeest (gnu) [Photo: Derek Keats, Wikipedia]

Other animals, like the wildebeest are also possible. In basic form it is similar to the warthog, with heavy shoulders and a mane, but it is much larger and has the snout of an ox. In proportion to its body, however, the head is not as big as a warthog’s.

Both warthogs and wildebeests are very aggressive animals…

I wonder if an animal as aggressive and smelly as the catoblepas would be portrayed as the mellow-looking creature in the VMS. Are there other possibilities a little more in keeping with nymphs and cloudbands and more pleasant topics?

The Amiable Aardvark

On the forum, I’ve suggested the critter on 80v looks like an aardvark (they often curl up like a cat when they are sleeping). The problem is that aardvarks don’t have scales and the critter on 80v might. They do sometimes have fur up to about 4″ long, depending on the climate and variety (seven species of aardvark have been merged into one, so they no longer consider them separate species, but the length and color of their coats can vary widely):

Mother and baby aardvark sleeping, courtesy of
Snout-nosed aardvark mom and baby curled up together [photo courtesy of]

The nose of the ardvaark is a good match for the VMS critter. It turns up at the end, like a pig’s snout, and is used to hoover up ants and termites:

Screenshap from youtube video on aardvarks

When foraging, aardvarks always keep their noses to the ground and hunt by smell. For a long time it was thought that aardvarks and pangolins were related, perhaps because of their long tongues, and similar overall form and diet:

Could the VMS creature be a cross between an aardvark and a pangolin, cobbled together from a confused verbal report that describes ant-eating animals? There are many strange African animals in medieval bestiaries drawn from poorly understood verbal descriptions.

Part of the aardvark’s distribution is Ethiopia, a pilgrimage site sometimes included on medieval maps with a little line of European castle icons. The aardvark is a more amiable creature than the warthog—it is sometimes kept as a pet.

Back to the Beaver

In a 2016 blog, I suggested the critter might be a beaver, the animal most often depicted in herbal manuscripts and bestiaries as the unwilling donor of castorum, a substance in testicles that was thought to have medicinal value. Beavers were often drawn with scales, long ears, and long snouts, as in this example from the previous blog:

Medieval drawing of castor beaver

It was the curled-up position and scales that made me wonder if it might be the castorum beaver, since it is usually drawn with its nose in its groin, biting off its testicles. A cloudband might also be relevant since the beaver is making a choice between death or life without progeny.

Reptilian Possibilities

I wanted to include these enigmatic drawings because they show how far medieval drawings can diverge from nature. This furry doglike creature with chicken legs is from the Northumberland bestiary (c. mid-13th century):

And this c. 1315 creature has long ears, a wavy mane, fluffy tail and doesn’t look reptilian at all (BL Royal 2 B VII):

C. 1315 English MS crocodile

It may be hard to believe, but both of them are crocodiles. However, a crocodile is not really designed to tuck its head under its body.

The Folio as a Whole

What else is going on on the folio? Critter 80v is sandwiched between hovering nymphs holding a spindle and a ring. And, oddly, the critter is lightly dabbed with streaks of green, a color associated more with reptiles than mammals.

In the green pool at the base of the folio is a nymph that started out with no breasts and has an unusually shaped pair of “eyeball” breasts quite different from the other nymphs (they look like they were added by a different hand).

There’s a lot going on on the right-hand side, too much to cover in this blog. K. Gheuens has suggested an interesting possibility—a connection with constellations. That’s a provocative idea and a topic in itself, so I’ll leave it to the reader to consider his interpretation while I get back to the critter…

What about the scalloped shape under the critter?

Curled critter on VMS f79v

Is that a cloudband? Do the vertical lines represent rain?

Is it water, do the scallops represent waves?

There is certainly the hint of a cloudband in the middle-right rotum on the VMS “map” folio. But similar shapes also appear to resemble fabric.

On folio 79v, which is stylistically similar to 80v, the scalloped shape looks like an umbrella or tent-top with a finial. I don’t think we can assume every wavy shape is a cloudband.

If it’s fabric, maybe critter 80v is curled up on a cushion—a squarish cushion with a scalloped trim. Is this some nobleperson’s pet taking a nap?

The idea of a pet aardvark or catoblepas doesn’t quite fit the context of hovering nymphs with attributes. The nymph above the critter sits in something resembling a double cloudband, at an elevated position on the folio, all of which makes her seem somewhat important. The one below holds out a ring… which brings me back to the idea of Agnus Dei (the lamb of God) that I suggested in a previous blog.

Agnus Dei

The lamb of God is associated with ascension and redemption, based on biblical passages. Much of the time, Agnus Dei is represented like this, standing in a prominent position, with a cross-staff and banner, often nimbed:

Here is another from British Library Additional 17333, with the lamb standing on an altar:

The lamb is often surrounded by a wreath or a rainbow, or decorative elements that one sees in church alcoves.

In almost all instances, the lamb is on some kind of pedestal or cloudband, or perched on the top of a crucifix. Frequently it is positioned midpoint on the page or fresco, between earthly matters and God:

Armenian Agnus Dei over Crucifix

In a 6th century mosaic in the Basilica of Santi Cosma e Damiano, the lamb is standing on a base with water flowing out below its feet. Pagan influences are still present in this very early depiction:

Lamb of God Santi Cosma e Damiano
Lamb of God on a rock with flowing water in the Basilica of Cosmas and Damien, Rome [Photo credit: The library of Lee M. Jefferson, CC License 3.0]

Toward the Middle Ages, it became popular to add a scroll or book with seven seals dangling from the base:

Agnus Dei and seven seals in an apocalypse manuscript from the early 14th century [Credit Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, CCCC MS 20]

Another popular medieval theme was setting the lamb on a cushion, cloudband, or book with seven seals dangling from the edge, as in this early 14th-century example in the Martini church in Braunschweig, Germany:

Agnus Dei on a book pedestal with seven dangling seals.

This 19th-century interpretation retains the traditional cross-staff, book, and seven seals, and places the book with the seals on a cloud-cushion:

Agnus Dei by José Campeche (early 19th century)

Could the lines under the VMS “cushion” be rain? Or does it represent movement (ascension?), or possibly an abstract reference to the seven seals?

In this c. 1260 drawing, the lamb stands on a cloudlike line above the heads of watchers, facing an empty cushion, a place for it in heaven ringed by a double-layered cloudband:

Agnus Dei’s place in heaven, c. 1260 in an apocalyptic manuscript from the Flanders region [Bibliothèque minicipale Cambrai MS 0422]

The Sacrificial Lamb

Agnus Dei, St. Antonius, Potsdam-Babelsberg [Photo by Liebermary, Wikipedia]

This version has blood pouring from the chest of the lamb, a detail that might be relevant to the VMS…

The lamb was used for sacrifices and one of those sacrifices occurred after a woman had given birth. There are many hints at ob/gyn themes in the VMS and perhaps this is another one. Below the 80v animal we see a ring, often representing marriage, then we have the lamb, used as a sacrifice following childbirth, above it a woman with a spindle—spinning was an activity that many women took up when the children were grown and their nest was empty. Is there a life-story narrative here?

Notice also, in the St. Antonius example, that the texture of the fur has been drawn as scales.

Notice also that a turned head is very typical for lamb-of-God imagery.

The lamb doesn’t always look like a lamb. Depending on the skill of the illustrator, sometimes it looks like a kangaroo with its head down:

The lamb of God in a 14th-century English manuscript, looking more like a kangaroo or rabbit than a lamb [Corpus Christi College MS 394]

Sometimes the lamb looks vaguely like the VMS drawing of Aries, drawn within a circle, with a leg held high:

Agnus Dei in c. 1360 Liber Floridus, drawing within a circle, with the leg liftedd [BnF Latin 8865].

This example has a couple of things in common with the VMS: the drawing is not professional level and the “pedestal” is hard to identify. Is it water or a cloudband? Given its early date, it’s probably water:

An early 9th-century representation of Agnus Dei in a Grammaticalia manuscript. The lamb is standing on an ambiguous platform that is probably water, as in the Basilica of Cosmas and Damien example, or possibly clouds [BnF Latin 13025, c. 820].

This example is interesting because it combines Agnus Dei on a fabric platform with imagery that is similar to VMS 86v, and also represents an early example of a sun and moon with faces:

Apocalyptic vision with Agnus Dei, people hiding, and a sun and moon with faces.
Apocalyptic vision that includes hiding figures, a high tor with a tree, wavy cloudlike shapes in each upper corner, stars, Agnus Dei on a cloth pedestal with head turned and held with a cloudband, and a sun and moon with faces [BnF Français 13096, c. 1313].

Here is one possible interpretation of 86v that I posted in a previous blog:

Could the 80v animal be somehow connected to the imagery on this folio, as well?

Is it possible that the object and wavy lines under the animal represent water, clouds, and cloth all at the same time, and thus encompass all the popular ways of representing it?

Could the nymph holding the ring under the animal represent a marriage scene, as in some of the English apocalypse manuscripts from the 13th century?

Wedding ceremony with lamb and ring [British Library Add 35166, c. 1280]
“Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb,” Revelation 19:9
Flawed parchment turned into "holy" lamb.

As an aside, I thought I’d share this little gem I stumbled across in an early medieval manuscript. The scribe has turned a flaw in a piece of parchment into a “holy” lamb.


I have tried hard to find an explanation for the animal on 80v that fits as many aspects of the folio as possible. I suggested the idea of Agnus Dei in a previous blog, but the blog was already too long to add all the pictures, so consider this a continuation.

I rather like the idea of an aardvark on a nobleman’s pillow, or the infamous life-or-death castorum beaver, but the folio does not look like a bestiary—the relationship of the images to one another has a more narrative feel. I wanted to explain the relationship of the lamb to the other figures and to the various props in the margins and, hopefully, to some of the other VMS folios.

The idea of Agnus Dei seems more cohesive than the other possibilities and the fact that the animal appears to have scales is apparently not a problem, since the St. Antonious lamb does, as well.

Many medieval drawings are ambiguous, it may turn out to be something completely different, but at least this idea relates to some of the other elements in the VMS.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2019, All Rights Reserved