Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Voynich Manuscript: Eagle

The plant on fol. 46v of the Voynich manuscript has one of the most fascinating roots in the book. D'Imperio describes it as "a bird with spread wings: an eagle!" in An Elegant Enigma. I believe the plant was meant to represent costmary (Frauenminze) - found in the old herbals as the herb of Virgin Mary.

So I looked around to see if I can find any connection in iconography between Virgin Mary and spread-winged eagle. Here are couple of examples.

1491 propaganda brochure by emperor Maximilian I tells the story of celestial vision at Constantinople described as virgin with wings held by three-headed knight. BSN cgm 598, Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit, dated 'not before 1467' shows the Virgin and Jesus crucified in a form of double-headed eagle. Other alchemy manuscripts (15th-16th century) show winged Virgin as symbol of philosophical mercury.

So in late 15th century Germany somebody could have made association between costmary (the herb of Virgin Mary) and eagle with spread wings.


  1. Ellie, your example of the Virgin and shield from BSN cgm 598 is very good. A number of people have mentioned it to me, quite apart from any effort to identify the plant. Maximilian I was very interested in various styles of imagery, sometimes adopting imported forms and sometimes consciously reviving antique ones. If you look at the coins and other artefacts produced during his reign, you find some wonderful examples. For example, some of his coins imitate Byzantine style; others deliberately re-work the style of Roman coins and medallions. One of the coins shows an eagle-on-globe though that eagle is in Roman style, not the Asian and Persian - which is what we see in the very late fifteenth century manuscript.

    So the reason that this eagle with the Virgin looks so like the bird in VMS 408 is that both employ that eastern style, not that one was produced at the same time or in the same place as the other. The VMS botanical drawings use conventions - especially in the roots - which are very closely matched indeed by works produced in the thirteenth century, in Mesopotamia and in Persia. So the difficulty with drawing conclusions from comparing the VMS botanical imagery with that created under Maximilian is partly a chronological difficulty, but also the deliberate eclecticism which characterizes imagery produced in late fifteenth century Europe generally, but under Maximilian I particularly in this case. This is not to dismiss the comparison between this sort of eagle and the style of that bird in MS Beinecke 408. I myself interpreted the relevant folio as probably a reference to Eaglewood, a species we now know only through documentary evidence of the high demand for it in earlier centuries.


  2. Ellie, Writing about the opacity of issues around whether or not the Voynich ms was ever in the libraries of the Collegium Romanum or Vatican, I asked Rene (a) whether there is any library document which certainly references the manuscript - and if so how: by catalogue number, shelf-number, description, title etc. and (b) whether I am mis-remembering when I think it was you who first drew attention to some worm-holes which matched others from one of those libraries. Rene was unable to answer either question - on the second point, would you be kind enough to clarify? I shouldn't like to omit credit for what may be our only item in proof.
    If you don't want to respond here, do feel free to email voynichimagery gmail.