In Marco Ponzi’s extensive study of the Voynich Zodiac roundels, he describes Taurus in the following terms:
“The bull seems to be eating from a cylindrical manger, or drinking from a cylindrical well or bucket. It has been impossible to find any parallel for this detail. I think this point deserves further investigation.”
For a while now, I’ve been searching for something that might explain where the image of Taurus near a cylindrical manger might come from. I found nothing in astrological imagery. Even outside of zodiacs, most of the medieval images of bulls that I found represented them in nature, or interacting with other animals and people, or grazing in fields, or eating out of rectangular troughs. The cylindrical manger seemed elusive.
In this seasonally appropriate post, I will be exploring the possibility that the Voynich Taurus could be derived from the imagery of Nativity scenes. In Nativities, the round manger is a lot more common than in any other genre of medieval art. It is often represented as a structure made of wattle or some other type of basketry, which offers a compelling explanation for the criss-crossed pattern that is present on the manger in the Voynich image.
Bulls in Nativity scenes are most commonly portrayed near the manger where Jesus is laying, gazing upon him. Their position in the scene conveys either that they are adoring him (based on the 7th C Gospel of pseudo-Matthew) or that their breath keeps the baby warm (according to oral tradition).
There were variants of course, and medieval artists sometimes presented the bull as rather unconcerned with Jesus’ birth, or focusing on the food.
In most nativity imagery however, the bull is not portrayed eating, but rather looking on, with his head hovering just above a manger, usually the one Jesus is laying in, but not always.
The bull with a round manger motif in Nativity imagery is found in many places, as these examples show. Geographically, this iconography alone cannot really help us to pinpoint a local tradition which the Voynich image would fit. Chronologically, however, the period is very restricted: all of the images I found were from the mid 14th to the mid 15th century. In this sense, the Voynich Taurus imagery appears to be firmly rooted in its time.
If the Voynich Taurus is based on Nativity imagery, this means that the period of production of the source material was very close to the time of production of the Voynich manuscript: the artist who created the Voynich zodiac roundels was inspired by recent or contemporary material, rather than by an older source.
How would Nativity imagery find its way into a Voynich zodiac roundel? In many medieval works, especially Books of Hours, Psalters, calendars and almanacs, both astrological imagery and biblical scenes can be found. In my opinion, the Taurus roundels could result from the presence of a Nativity in a book of Hours (or other such book) from which the Voynich artist drew his inspiration.
We don’t know what the Voynich text says, but some researchers have suggested that the human figures which surround the central roundels in the Zodiac section could have some relationship with the theme of fertility, pregnancy, or the cycle of life (for example, this one ). If this possibility is entertained, the use of a Taurus borrowed from a Nativity scene would be rather fitting.
EDIT: I want to highlight the importance of the references MarcoP left below. Here is a zoomed image of Vat. Gr. 1087, showing the Aselli:
This image is very close to the nativity images I posted above, especially the Ethiopian example. It opens the possibility of a shift from Aselli to Taurus via the light and dark pair of the bull and donkey in Nativity scenes. But as MarcoP points out, this doesn’t account for the doubling of other signs in the Voynich, so we are still missing many pieces of the puzzle.