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Analysis of the illustrations


This section attempts to present an analysis of the illustrations found in the Voynich MS. Such an analysis should be made by competent specialists, such as historians of botany or astronomy, of paleography, or of medieval history in general. There is still a lack of such expert reports and the interpretation of the illustrations inevitably allows for a lot of well-meant speculation. It cannot be completely avoided that such speculation is also present in this page.

The first part of this page follows the various 'sections' of the MS as explained in the description of the manuscript:

After that, some specific details of the illustrations are addressed (1).

Illustrations by section of the Manuscript

Herbal illustrations

As the herbal section of the Voynich MS covers about half the mansucript, this whole topic deserves a thorough discussion, and a dedicated page will be written to address it. Until that time, a more summary discussion is presented here (2).

Herbal pages typically contain one, sometimes two, page-filling plant illustrations with some short paragraphs of text written to carefully avoid the drawings. This composition is very similar to some of the herbal manuscripts produced between late antiquity and the early Renaissance. Apart from this similarity, there is also a striking difference. While the herbal traditions were primarily copying illustrations from one manuscript to another, all the way from antiquity into the 16th Century, the Voynich MS has truly unique and original drawings, and was apparently not further copied (3).

The oldest surviving illustrated herbal manuscript is the Juliana Anicia Codex, which includes the herbal of Dioscurides. It was written in the 6th Century and its quality remained unsurpassed for many centuries. It was brought to Europe after the Voynich MS was most probably written, so it is relatively unlikely that the Voynich author has seen it. This MS also has single page filling plant drawings. Later versions of the Dioscorides herbals tended to have two or more plants per page, and a page layout different from the Voynich MS, and they all tended to be copies from each other. The plant drawings degenerated almost into caricatures in the course of the centuries.

A second herbal tradition is best known as pseudo-Apuleius, and it has generally less elaborate plant drawings than the earliest Dioscorides MSs. Again, illustrations were copies from manuscript to manuscript through the ages. By the time of the Voynich MS, they had become quite abstract, and it was not usually possible to recognise any plant just from the illustration.

During the transition from the 13th to the 14th century a new herbal tradition arose around the medical school of Salerno in S. Italy. It has become known as the Tractatus de Herbis. It featured new, original plant drawings, based clearly on observations from nature, but in some cases also based on Dioscurides or Pseudo-Apuleius. Again, this tradition was propagated by the copying of manuscripts, and two branches arose: the north Italian branch known still as the Tractatus de Herbis, and the French branch better known as the Livre des simples Médicines.

It was during this time that the Voynich MS was probably composed, and at this time, Dioscurides was still an important reference, but the pseudo-Apuleius appears to have lost popularity. It has always been stated that the Voynich MS illustrations do not look like any of the three above traditions. The plants cannot be easily recognised, and appear mostly fantastic, but I will come back to this later.

In the 1990's the herbal MS expert Serio Toresella (4) inspected the Voynich MS and observed similarities to the herbal tradition known as 'alchemical herbals', a shorter-lived tradition mainly from Northern Italy, between the end of the 14th and the first half of the 16th century. The plant illustrations are mostly fantastical (though they derive to some extrent from existing plants). A good summary of the main reference on this (5) is given by Philip Neal (6).

Most of the alchemical herbals are combined with copies of a selection of illustrations from the Tractatus de Herbis together in one manuscript. They have a very similar page layout as the Voynich MS, with usually one, sometimes two plants per page, and short paragraphs of text, referred to as recipes (7). They originate from Northern Italy, and a time frame overlapping with the probable origin of the Voynich MS. There are a few alchemical herbals which have been painted with almost the same lack of detail as the Voynich MS.

As I have attempted to demonstrate at the Voynich Centennial meeting in the Villa Mondragone in 2012 (8), the drawings in the Voynich MS are most similar in style to the alchemical herbals, but have a level of detail in the outline drawings that is not worse than the contemporary Tractatus de Herbis copies. This will be discussed in more detail in a dedicated page already announced above.

Many attempts have been made over the years to identify individual herbal illustrations in the Voynich MS. The first known attempts have been collected in the Petersen hand transcriptions, and by Ethel Voynich in her notebooks. I have collected these at a dedicated page. These have barely been studied, but this is presently changing.

Some 'furore' was generated by the identification of a Sunflower and a pepper plant by the herbal expert O'Neill (9), suggesting that the MS postdates Columbus' second voyage to America, in 1493. These ientifications are far from being generally accepted, however.

An interesting feature was observed independently by Petersen in the 1930's and Jorge Stolfi in the 1990's, that a number of drawings in the pharmaceutical section of the MS are copies of herbal drawings in the MS (or vice versa). Some cases are very obvious and other less so. This still requires a more thorough analysis.

Some highly interesting herbal identifications have been made, or attempted, by several people in recent years, and published in web sites and blogs (10). These are always subjective, but many are highly convincing. They have certainly changed my opinion of the Voynich MS herbal drawings, and I no longer believe that the Voynich MS primarily includes fantastic plants. In several cases, these (tentative) identifications coincided with the lists of Petersen and Ethel Voynich, which are presented here.

Astronomical and Zodiac illustrations

Astronomical pages feature drawings of Sun and/or moon, and arrangements of stars. It is sometimes hard to draw a clear line between astronomical and cosmological pages (see below). The twelve astronomical pages which have illustrations of the zodiac are called astrological or zodiac pages.

The zodiac pages contain concentric circles with about 30 nymphs holding stars, and an emblem of a zodiac sign in the centre. The nymphs are similar to those drawn in the biological section (see below). There is a probably relevant precedent for such nymphs in a Byzantine astronomical MS in the Vatican Library.

The zodiac does not start with Aries, but with Pisces. The following signs, Aries and Taurus are both represented in two illustations with 15 nymphs each. The illustrations for Capricorn and Aquarius are missing, but there is a missing folio (f84) exactly at the point where they should have appeared. The presentation of these illustations appears related to paranatellonta, as shown in illustrations in other MSs, that have 30 'objects' arranged in circular arrangements around emblems of the zodiac signs. See for example: IMAGE: Leo and IMAGE: Scorpius.

The zodiac emblems themselves are easily recognisable, but often unusual. Libra is completely standard, while Sagittarius represents a standing male figure holding a crossbow, deviating from the much more typical centaur with a bow and arrow. The Scorpius does not look like a scorpion at all, apart from the attempt at a curly tail. However, I have seen worse illustrations of Scorpius that this one (IMAGE: is this a Scorpius???).

A very informative and detailed analysis of the Voynich MS zodiac pages >>may be found here.

One other recognisable item in the astronomical pages are the Pleiades on fol. 68r3, given that this is illustrated as a group of seven small stars very close to each other. It has also been suggested by Newbold that fol. 68v3 represents the Andromeda galaxy. This is, however, not realistic.

Cosmological illustrations

Cosmological pages feature geometric designs, all essentially circular, which cannot be easily classified. The use of the term 'cosmological' for these pages was first introduced in Newbold (1928) (11).

There is one very large composite drawing on a six-page fold-out consisting of nine connecting circles with four smaller items on the corners. This is usually called the 'Rosettes' page. It includes innumerable details, among others with several illustrations of buildings, one reminiscent of a N.Italian castle. The central circle includes six minaret-like towers supporting a plane filled with stars (the sky?).

Biological illustrations

The following section of the Voynich MS has traditionally been called the biological section, though others prefer to call it the balneological section. D'Imperio qualifies it as the most unusual part of the Voynich MS.

It contains drawings of so-called nymphs (unclothed female figures) populating arrangements of pipes or vessels, and what seem like baths or clouds. These nymphs are very similar to the ones in the zodiac pages described above. Many illustrations leave the impression of representing a chemical (alchemical) or natural process, or appear to represent organs in the human body.

Several people have, independently from each other, pointed out a resemblance of these illustrations to the MSs of the 'Balneis Puteolanis', a description of some medicinal baths written in the 13th Century. This has led to the introduction of the term balneological for this section. There is also a suggestion that this section really consists of two parts that have become mixed during a (re-)binding of the MS (12).

An interesting piece of evidence for an incorrect binding of this part of the MS is the fact that the illustrations on fol. 78v and fol. 81r form one connecting design, with water flowing from the left part into the right part. Presently, another bifolium is bound in front of this one, and the combined design is invisible.

Pharmaceutical illustrations

The so-called pharmaceutical section consists of small herbal drawings and other items. The herbal drawings typically do not present a complete herb, but only leaves or roots. In a number of cases, the drawings are copies of (parts of) herbal drawings. The 'other items' mentioned above appear like jars, but have been likened to early microscopes (13).

These jars all appear on the left margin of the pages, with the 'plant parts' aligned to the right of them. This part of the MS appears unfinished. The pharmaceutical folios are also not adjacent in the MS. They are include in two quires, and the two quires have quite a different style of 'jars' among them.

The supposed pepper identified by O'Neill is included in the pharmaceutical section.

This section is not really similar to any other herbal MS that I am aware of, but it is not at all unusual for herbal MSS to include drawings of a quality and size similar to this.

Text-only with marginal stars

At the end of the MS there are some pages containing only text, with stars drawn in the margin. These stars are usually red or yellow, and many of them have a tail. This section is usually referred to as the 'recipes' section, in analogy to some alchemical MS's. One more folio in the middle of the MS: fol. 58 has a similar lack of other illustrations, and a few stars in the margin.

Illustrations by type

Missing pages

Some pages do not have any illustrations, but there are pages that do not even exist at all (14). The following pages are missing from the MS:

Some pages appear to have been cut out of the MS. When this happened is not clear, but it seems as if one page of each type is missing.

Other graphical elements in the Ms


The Sun

The Moon

Stars, constellations

T-O maps
Some pages contain a circle subdivided into two halves, with one half further split into two quarters. This design is very similar to a medieval stylized world map referred to as a T-O map. The three sections of the T-O map refer to the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. These maps may be seen on the following pages:

Miscellaneaous oddities

Christian imagery
The Voynich MS contains very few recognisable Christian symbols (indeed, there are few recognisable symbols from any known religion). However, in fol. 79v, the woman in the top left of the picture holds a cross and is illuminated by radiance coming down from above

Possible relations between illustrations and text

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it has to be assumed that, if the Voynich MS contains meaningful text, this text is related with the illustrations. Some examples of how this may help in the decipherment of the MS are given below.


A list of precedents for the illustations (and other topics) is also maintained by Dennis Stallings at his >>web site.
The following literature is recommended: Blunt and Raphael (1979) for a good basic introduction and Collins (2000) for a much more thorough introduction. Most of the historical descriptions on this page derive from these two books.
According to Collins (2000), the 15th Century, from which the Voynich MS originates, shows both trends in parallel: new and original more detailed drawings, and again a lot of copying of MSs with more abstraction.
See Toresella (1995).
The standard work about these herbals is Segre Rutz (2000).
See the >>web page of Philip Neal.
There are two types of alchemical herbals. One type has the text near the illustrations as we see in the Voynich MS herbal section. The other type has only drawings, while the texts (recipes) are collected together on a set of dedicated pages, which look quite similar to the Voynich MS 'recipes section'.
More information on that event is presented here.
See O"Neill (1944).
Work has been presented based either on comparisons with nature (Dana Scott, Edith Sherwood, Steve "D") or (more interesting in my opinion) by comparing with other herbal MSs (Ellie Velinska, Edith Sherwood).
Newbold (1928).
Work on this has mainly been done by Nick Pelling and Glen Claston.
See for example >>here
Highly interesting analyses on this topic have been presented by Nick Pelling. The research is not yet concluded.
Though research into Newbold's papers or elsewhere has not confirmed this.
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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2013
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Latest update: 06/09/2014