In this post I’m going to be taking a closer look at the way in which people in the Voynich manuscript are depicted, paying attention to their poses. Although there are hundreds of nymphs and other people in the various sections, seemingly performing lots of different activities, it appears to me that the range of poses is quite limited. It dawned on me that perhaps I could try to survey these poses and classify them.
What I am going to try to do here, then, is to create a catalogue of the poses which the artist has used in his illustrations. Not all of the Voynich people fall into these categories, (the poses of some of the busier nymphs in the balneo section are unique), but the overwhelming majority of them do. In some cases there are so many nymphs for one pose that I have only selected a few in the examples I give here. This post will be subject to change as I continue to investigate the poses and also taking into account reader contributions. Maybe something will emerge from this at some point.
Pose 1: “The Classic”
One hand on hip/waist or behind, the other arm outwards and upwards, slightly bent.
This is the typical pose for nymphs in the Voynich manuscript zodiac, but it also appears in the balneo section. The pose can often appear to convey a greeting or salutation, or more generally, speech. It does not appear that the pose relates to holding things: the nymphs in this pose in the zodiac section are not actually holding the stars, but rather depicted as connected to them by a line. Exceptions to this could be the people in 85r2 and 86v4, who are actually holding objects: to me these should fall into the next category.
Pose 2: “The Brandish”
This is a variation of the first pose, where one arm is stretched out forward, and not up. It is only found in the balneo section. This pose is generally used when a nymph is holding an object, and conveys a certain impression of power.
Pose 3: The “Hands-off”
In this pose, both hands are behind the back of the nymph, sometimes with the arms outstretched backwards. The nymphs in this pose do not hold objects, except for one who may be cradling the object with her neck/shoulder (contrary to what one might think at first, she is not holding it with her mouth: the object does not connect to it). These nymphs appear to be passive, powerless and rather overwhelmed by the things that are going on around them. In the cases where the arms are outstretched backwards and up, it is tempting to read the pose as an expression of surprise or even fear.
Pose 4: “The Spectator”
Both arms are down, sometimes in a rather uncomfortable-looking position. In the zodiac folios, this pose is only featured in two places: the outer ring of Pisces, and in the dark Aries folio (all of the inner ring, some of the outer ring).It is also present in the balneo section. These nymphs typically don’t hold objects, or engage in any discernable activity.
Pose 5: “The Spread”
Both arms are stretched outwards from the sides of the body, more or less upwards. In one case, it may be explained by the tubing. In the others, not.
This pose could be related to the iconographic tradition of the “orant” pose, or to that of the crucifixion. This study of the imagery in Nicolas Oresme’s translation of Aristotle, the Livre d’Ethiques, shows a pattern of using this pose to depict the incarnation of various virtues. Hildegard von Bingen uses this pose to represent the “Universal Man” in her Liber Divinum Operum . In all of the above examples, the pose is in some way indicative of a virtuous or pious person.
Pose 6: “The Bend”
This pose is exclusive to a few folios in the the balneo section. The nymph is bent over, apparently picking something up with one arm, while the other either lies flat against her side or is slightly bent.
Pose 7: “The Two-Armed Reach”
This pose, in which both arms are stretched out, slightly bent, towards the front, appears mainly in the Zodiac section, and mostly among male “nymphs”, although Virgo and the female half of Gemini are exceptions. It is worth noting that all of the human figures in the Voynich Zodiac’s central roundels are depicted in this pose.
Application: Groups of Nymphs
When we examine groups of nymphs in the balneo section using this classification, the action almost becomes readable. For example, in f75v:
The classification allows us to see that in this illustration, what might at first appear as a homogenous group of linked nymphs is actually two groups, of nymphs doing the “Brandish” around the central “Spectator” nymph. As we have seen, the Brandish is associated with holding something, while the Spectator is a passive posture. The two groups appear to be engaging in some kind of tug-of-war over the central nymph.
The structure above them which connects to each nymphs’ head is also divided in two. The central nymph appears to belong to the left side group, as her head is connected to the left structure, but her body is turned in the opposite direction, facing in the same direction as the right side group. Which side will she end up on?