Voynich Manuscript: Ring-Bearing Nymphs

Among the many mysterious figures in Quire 13, one appears to be of particular importance in the story being illuminated by the illustrator, as he/she has repeated it several times: the nymph holding a ring. We find this motif on three occasions, in three different variations:

voynich79v
Folio 79v
Voynich80v
Folio 80v
voynich82r
Folio 82r

As discussed in my previous post, when Quire 13 is returned to its original order,(https://voynichviews.wordpress.com/2015/10/10/voynich-manuscript-re-ordering-the-folios-in-quire-13/), these three folios follow each other. Whatever the motif of the nymph holding the ring may refer to, it appears to be a feature in the “story” that is being told across these three folios, and nowhere else in the manuscript.

Here I would like to introduce another lady, this one from the world of heraldry, who struck me as particularly reminiscent of the third ring-bearing nymph. Meet Mrs. Von Lehwaldt:

Lawalt-Wappen
Lehwaldt/Lawalt family arms

This is the coat of arms of the Lehwaldt family, from Germany. Though the line is extinct, this is still the coat of arms of the town of Lawalde. The earliest record of this image is 16th century, but the title was granted in the 12th so who knows when they came up with the bejeweled arm(s).

To be fair, Miss Lehwaldt isn’t the only heraldic figure to sport an oversized ring like the three nymphs in the VMS. There are also rings being held by hands in various other shields, but I did notice a pattern: All of the shields which feature a hand holding oversized jeweled rings like this are from the same area: a part of Germany known as the Mecklenbourg-Strelitz district, in that intermediate area between Pomerania and Brandebourg.

There we also find the arms of the Oertzen family (but the ring is held by two arms), the arms of the Lords of Stargard (as early as the 13th century), those of the town of Furstenberg/Havel and those of the town of Neustrelitz and Strelitz, all featuring the ring being held by a hand. The only exception I’ve found to this localization is a shield of the Royal Lordship of Molina (Spain), which also features an arm holding a ring, but it’s a plain one with no gem. I suppose that there may have been other families who used this motif in the Mecklenburg region, or elsewhere, but unfortunately I haven’t found them yet. This iconographic motif so far seems really very specific to the regions mentioned in this paragraph.

It’s not impossible that the three depictions of women holding rings in the balneo section of the VMS are inspired by this rare, very specific heraldic motif. Of course, this makes me wonder if it is meant to represent a person from the Mecklenburg area, or someone whose ancestry has roots there. It could mean something like “Our baths are so great that we have customers who come all the way from Lawalde!” or “Our baths were improved by the additions made by a specialist from Lawalde”, or even “Something unusual happened while we had a visitor from Lawalde”. The fact that the character is represented on three occasions does seem to make “Miss Lehwaldt” a rather important figure in whatever is being discussed here.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the balneo section isn’t about balneo at all, and that the nymphs are symbolic of something else: it could be a political or military plan to invade the Lehwaldt’s lands, or a mention of them as allies, competitors or enemies. There are so many possibilities… and sadly, no, I haven’t got a clue what heraldic symbolism might explain the original appearance of the ring-bearer on these shields. If I had to guess I would say this could be a reference to purity or honor: in the Nibelunglied for example, this parallel between Brunhilde’s ring and her virginity is made explicit. A woman holding a ring is a woman who has retained her virtue. But of course that’s just a guess.

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9 thoughts on “Voynich Manuscript: Ring-Bearing Nymphs

  1. Apparently, this image has a different meaning. It is from a XIV Century allegorical poem.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acerba_(book)
    This chapter is about “vanagloria” (boastfulness). The text says:

    Non sempre è frutto dove è verde foglia
    e nè tesoro ciò che luce e splende,
    e chi ciò crede pur del ben si spoglia;

    Rough translation:
    It is not always true that where there are green leaves there is a fruit;
    nor that everything that gives light and shines is a treasure:
    who thus believes gives up his good.

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  2. Hi VV, here are a couple of images of women with rings I have seen recently.

    http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=royal_ms_10_e_iv_f029v
    A page from a commentary of the Decretals of Gregory IX, Royal MS 10 E IV. I cannot see any connection between the marginal illustrations and the text.

    http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0003/bsb00035320/images/index.html?seite=240
    Das Wappenbuch Conrads von Grünenberg, Ritters und Bürgers zu Constanz – BSB Cgm 145. This is a collection of heraldic devices. I guess the ladies here represent marriages between aristocratic families. BTW, the same ms features a “ruby ring” device.
    http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0003/bsb00035320/images/index.html?seite=250

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    1. Hi MarcoP,
      Thank you so much for that, especially the first image! If I were to hasard a guess, this marginal illustration represents a scene where the woman is holding a ring which is coveted by the bird nearby: probably a magpie, as they are supposed to be attracted to shiny things like jewelry in popular imagination.
      The match with the way the nymph is holding the ring is also very good: it is less dainty than the standard “damsel holding a ring between thumb and index fingers”which is found in so many MSs (such as the second example you give). Not quite a firm clutch like in the Voynich pics but still much closer.
      So far, outside of Ms. Lehwaldt the only incidence of a similar grasp I have found was in the image I posted here, but unfortunately the subject is male: https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/vam-blog/dp-content/6f0ebf5bfa83308306bd7dd3231db742.jpg
      But I really, really like the one in your first link… I hate to sound so mysterious but you’ll see why soon. Been working on a post for more than a month now… I think your image is exactly what I was missing!.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Lol, I worry I’ll never be done with it, always finding out new things… I’ll try to wrap it up soon anyway.

          I can’t read the text on the BL ms page, but I wonder if it might illustrate sinful things such as ostentation or covetousness or even theft? Can you tell if the words on that page might relate to that?

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        2. Ok I’ve looked into it and the folio illustrations in f29r-38r are described by the BL as “the story of Samson”. Considering that he is fighting a lion in the next scene (30r), I think 29v may show Samson on the far left, attracted to the Philistine woman on the right (like the magpie is attracted to her ring). In the next scene he fights the lion while bringing his parents over to Thimna to ask for her hand.

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