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Analysis of the illustrations


This page presents a tentative analysis of the illustrations contained in the Voynich MS. Such analysis should be made by competent specialists, such as historians of botany or astronomy, by paleographers, or science historians. These are not yet available. 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 MS

Herbal illustrations

As the herbal section of the Voynich MS covers about half the mansucript, this topic deserves a thorough discussion, and I can only present here what I derived from some of the relevant literature (2).

Herbal pages in the Voynich MS typically contain one, sometimes two, page-filling plant illustrations with some short paragraphs of text written to carefully avoid the drawings. This composition is 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 herbal traditions were primarily based on 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 by anyone (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 usually not 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 MS illustrations from Dioscurides or Pseudo-Apuleius. Again, this tradition was propagated by the copying of manuscripts, and two branches arose: the north Italian branch still known 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 Sergio Toresella (4) inspected the Voynich MS and observed similarities to the herbal tradition known as 'alchemical herbals', a relatively smaller herbal tradition mainly from Northern Italy, between the end of the 14th and the first half of the 16th century. The herbal illustrations are mostly fantastical, though they derive to some extent from illustrations of existing herbs in other herbals. A good summary of the main reference on this topic, Segre Rutz (2000) (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 from 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 significantly better than these, and not worse than the contemporary Tractatus de Herbis copies.

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 hand transcriptions of Th.Petersen, and by Ethel Voynich in her notebooks. I have collected these at a dedicated page. These old tentative identifications have barely been studied, but this is presently changing.

Some 'furore' was generated in the 1940's 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 Th.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 (tentative) 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 numerous cases, these identifications coincided with the historical lists of Th. Petersen and Ethel Voynich, which are presented here.

Astronomical 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 sometimes called astrological pages (see also below).

One recognisable item in the astronomical pages are the Pleiades on f68r3, 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 f68v3 represents the Andromeda galaxy seen by Bacon through a telescope. This is, however, not realistic, and there is no need to invoke spiral galaxies and anachronistic technologies to explain this illustration. Several examples of similar spiral drawings, with different numbers of spirals going round in both directions, are found in an Armenian MS in the Schoenberg collection (LJS 443) from around 1420 (11):

This folio (f68v3) is further discussed under the heading of cosmological illustrations.

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) (12). While some of these appear unique, others are quite similar to cosmological illustrations found in other medieval MSs, which relate to the months of the year, the zodiac, or the winds. Some examples of these are:

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?).

Zodiac illustrations

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 (possibly 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 next two 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 (f74) 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, notably Vatican MS Reg.Lat.1283 (13):

Cancer Libra
>> link to original image >> link to original image

The zodiac emblems themselves are easily recognisable, but in some cases 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. This illustration is analysed excellently and in depth in an online article at the blog of Stephen Bax. (Click on the image to jump to the article).

It shows that such illustrations may be found in German MSs written between (roughly) 1400 and 1500 (14).

A similarly enlightening discussion by the same two authors of the Gemini illustration may be found in a >> different article at the same blog. Again, clear parallels with the same rough group of MSs are shown.

The Scorpius does not look like a scorpion at all, apart from the attempt at a curly tail. However, this is not unusual, and there are 'worse' illustrations of Scorpius than this one:

Voynich MS Sang 827 (unknown)

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

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 (15). 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 (16). Following shows some illustrations of a MS copy of the Balneis Puteolanis now preserved in the Vatican library (17), which has the additional particularity that all water is painted in green, as in the Voynich MS.

f36r f40r f46r
>> Link to original image >> Link to original image >> Link to original image

An interesting piece of evidence that suggest that the present binding of this part of the MS is not as originally intended is the fact that the illustrations on f78v and f81r 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. 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. In a number of cases, the drawings are copies of (parts of) herbal drawings. The 'other items' mentioned above appear like containers or jars. Some of them appear empty, others appear to contain some liquid which has been painted with various colours. These containers have also been likened to early microscopes (18), though this really applies only for a subset of them.

These containers all appear on the left hand side 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 'containers' among them. The two bifolios in quire 19 have simpler, largely cylindrical containers, which, on the last folio, gradually evolve into a more elaborate style. This elaborate style is continued on the one pharmaceutical bifolio in the earlier quire 15. An interesting comparison is provided by the following illustration, showing an object with some similarity to some of the containers in this section (19):

While this is representing a cannon, which would not make much sense in this context, many drawing details are comparable. One can also observe that the artist of the Voynich MS was far less experienced in representing a 3-D object.
The supposed pepper identified by O'Neill is included in the pharmaceutical section.

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 medical and alchemical MSs. One other folio much earlier in the MS: f58 in quire 8 has a similar lack of other illustrations, and a few stars in the margin both on the recto and verso side.


Some pages contain no illustrations at all, but only text.

The following pages are text-only: f1r, f76r, f85r1 and f86v6, v5.

Illustration details


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 relation between illustrations and text

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, one is allowed to assume that, if the Voynich MS contains meaningful text, this text relates to 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 descriptions of historical herbals 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).
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). Especially for the latter, links are available in the page of web sites and references.
This is >> Schoenberg MS LJS 443. The illustration represents "eight phases of the moon corresponding to the Lunar gravitation" and traces back to the 7th century Armenian Mathematician Anania of Sirak. The source of this information is >>a blog by David Scheers.
Newbold (1928).
For the blurred illustrations of Vatican MSs, see the acknowledgment on the site map .
Written by Marco Ponzi and Darren Worley. They refer back to this page for two illustrations, namely the one in Cod.Sang 827, for which I acknowledge Brian Cham and "Job" as source, and to the one in München MS CGM 7269 for which I am grateful to Alexander Sperl of Vienna.
I am aware of Brian Smith in the late 1990's and Adam McLean (>> see here).
Work on this has mainly been done by Nick Pelling and Glen Claston.
MS Ross.379.
See for example >>here
Found independently by E.Velinska and myself. The illustration is from Pisanello, Codex Vallardi 2293, from the mid 15th C.


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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2016
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Latest update: 01/02/2016