Voynich Q13 Marginal Nymphs & Waters: Comparison with an Unusual Group of Psalters

So my big Q13 post rollout has begun, and its going to mostly be about the sub-quire I refer to as 13M. I’ve decided to make this a multi-part series so I can focus on each aspect more in depth. In this series I’m going to start looking at water in the marginal illuminations of manuscripts and how human figures interact with it. For this first post, I will discuss a group of psalters that struck me as very interesting in relation to the Voynich manuscript.

These are a group known as “marginal psalters”: they are richly illustrated but unlike most psalters, they relegate the illustrations to margins and bas-de-pages. They caught my eye because I was on a hunt for images of water flows in marginalia, and while these are rather rare, they were prominently, repeatedly and distinctively featured in the “marginal psalters”.

The group includes BL Add. Ms. 19352Walters Ms. W. 733 , Vatican MS. Barb. Gr.372, and two other manuscripts held in Moscow (State Historical Museum, Ms. Muz. D29) and St Petersburg (National Library of Russia, Ms. OLDP. F6). The Moscow one, also known as the Chludov Psalter, dating from the 9th C, is apparently the oldest, but only a few images of it are available via Wikimedia Commons. If anyone knows of a full digital scan I would be very interested in seeing that. The St Petersburg one the most recent (ca. 1280-1320), and can be viewed in full here, but it is of least interest to me as it is an almost exact but less ornate copy of the Walters one, and several images are missing due to vandalism.

The BL (ca. 1066), Walters (ca.1300) and Vatican (ca. 1050) marginal psalters feature some rather striking resemblances to things we see happening in Q13.

Some of the fluid-bearers of MS. W. 733, pouring water, water turning to blood, or just blood.

The fluid bearers in these manuscripts seem to be derived from a model in the Chludov psalter, where we find the personification of the rivers of Babylon (see here) and some blood flow which seems to come straight out of the page itself (see here). In a commentary on the latter image, Glenn Peers suggests that, as the psalter was produced at a time when Iconoclasm had only just been defeated, the blood coming straight from the page is a political and religious statement: it serves to enhance the image’s holiness: the page bleeds like only the most sacred, miraculous icons and statues were known to do. In aesthetic terms, the author also notes that “blood frames the scene”: while the political illustrations would be dropped from later marginal psalters, the framing function of fluids would be reprised, and expanded. In the marginal psalters, even land is often represented as a sinuous strand, upon which various scenes take place, often supported by underlying water. The preference for undulating, fluid looking flows as framing devices in the marginal illustrations is clear.

Most interesting to me was the fact that these psalters contain copious amounts of water flow and the depictions of rivers and seas, which feature many times in each. The Walters one is slightly less aquatic, limiting the depiction of liquids to the folios where it is relevant to the text, but the others seem to show fluids flowing at every possible opportunity, even when there is no mention of it in the text nearby. I guess the artists enhanced the depiction of fluid flows because of their aesthetic value, and they can be found curling and swirling around many of the marginal scenes.

There are two aspects which are of interest here: Firstly, the mostly nude, crowned figures, whose interaction with the water is very reminiscent of the way the Voynich nymphs pour and bend the water flow in Q13. Unlike in these psalters however, the Voynich nymphs only rarely appear to be the physical source of the water themselves, and rather seem to be interacting with the flow, either affecting it or being affected by it. However, many other figures in these manuscripts can be found reaching into the flow, sometimes seemingly just to touch it, sometimes to collect water, or to collect things in the water such as relics.

The second aspect that we can observe here is the actual depiction of water flow itself and its use as a decorative motif in marginal art.  As I will be showing in this series of posts, the depiction of water as a decorative element in margins appears in certain contexts far more than others. Here, what we can observe is that the water is represented as a continuous flow, a wavy cylinder almost like a lock of hair, which is given some shading and highlighting on the edges as it unfurls downwards through the margins towards the bas-de-page. The placement of these streams on the page is very similar to that of Q13, especially the subsection I refer to as 13M. However, looking at the actual depiction of the water flow itself, substantial differences appear; we see none of the squiggles and zigzags which animate the Voynich waters.

Capture d_écran (355)
Water flow as a decorative framing device in the margins of Add MS 19352

I don’t want to draw definitive conclusions but this group of marginal psalters seems to show that margins with gratuitous nude crowned figures who are connected to decorative water flow used as a framing device are something that existed in a certain current of medieval Christian manuscript illumination. Whether these could have served as inspiration for the Voynich artist remains to be determined.

Capture d_écran (348)
A tub, nude figures spewing water, and fish linked together by strings…

I also found the following representations from this group interesting with respect to Voynich iconography:

Capture d_écran (350)
These baskets in Barb. Gr. 372 look a lot like the mangers in the Voynich Taurus folios
Capture d_écran (349)
Barb.Gr. 372: A personification of the Jordan, in a very Voynich-y pose, looks on while a baptism scene takes place.
Capture d_écran (354)
This image of antipodeans in Add. MS. 19352 echoes the layout of some of the “astronomy” folios

… More to follow in the next post!


9 thoughts on “Voynich Q13 Marginal Nymphs & Waters: Comparison with an Unusual Group of Psalters

  1. Thank you, Vviews!
    This is a great collection of images. The BL ms Add 19352 labels many of the personifications appearing near the streams “oi potamoi” “the rivers”.

    I find this interesting because many of the “stream” Voynich “nymphs” are labeled (but in the VMS the labels are all different from each other).

    It seems clear that the river personifications in this psalter derive from classical models.
    This is particularly evident for the figures holding jars
    I am not sure these illustrations are gratuitous. The rivers might be mentioned in the text and the personifications are part of the illustration of rivers in a well established tradition.

    Another difference with the VMS is that almost all the river personifications in the Psalters are male, while the figures VMS quire 13 are almost all female.


    1. Thanks for your comment Marco P!
      I absolutely agree that these figures are derived from classical models: this is explicitly stated in the Libraries’ notes about these manuscripts.
      Personifications of rivers are not rare: what is rare is to find them in the margins of a manuscript, and to have the water play such a prominent role in the overall marginal ornamentation of the page.

      One of my goals in this post was also to show that such classical personifications can and do occur in a Christian context, and thus dispel overly rigid notions about medieval christian manuscripts. Pagan elements were integrated and adapted in various ways into the iconography in the history of most of Christian art.
      Also, you are correct that such personifications of rivers are mostly male, but the ones holding horns (representing the seas) are often female. Furthermore, as we can see in many of the examples above, it is often quite hard to tell what their gender is. If the Voynich illustrator was inspired by these figures, it’s quite possible that the gender may have been misinterpreted, overlooked as unimportant, or intentionally reversed.
      There are also other instances, which I will go into in a later post in this series, of female characters represented alongside water flows, for a completely different reason. And bear in mind that several rivers have explicitly female “goddesses” such as Sabrina (Severn river) and Sauconna (Saone river)
      I also wanted to show that in these manuscripts, the illustrators, especially those of the BL and Vatican versions, became rather enthusiastic about using water as a framing device, and it didn’t really matter anymore if it was a named river from the text, or even if there was any need for it other than ornamental.
      About the issue concerning labels being different: I don’t believe that the Q13 illustrations are a literal copy of the Marginal Psalters’ waters, but I think it might be possible that the Voynich artist saw such material and thought “that’s a nice framing device, I’ll adapt it to what I want to do”.


      1. I agree that these figures are derived from classical river gods. Even the bloody ones are rivers, from the story of the plagues of Egypt. Some of these figures are draw in exactly the same style as images from the Aratea tradition, which also derives from classical models. For a large collection of such images, see the Eridanus (river constellation) section on the Warburg’s website:

        I don’t think these images somehow inspired the Voynich illustrator though. I’d rather say the VM itself derived from different, less mainstream classical sources.


      2. These parallels really are quite interesting! About the labels, what I find interesting is that they appear in both the VMS and the Psalters. They strongly suggest that these illustrations are related with the text and don’t belong to the “drollery” category.
        The comparison also seems to me to suggest that the Voynich illustrations were created before the text was written.

        I think in the case of the Psalters it was likely the other way round: the pages have regular wide margins that are sometimes left white. Also, the illustrations only appear in the outer margins (not towards the center of the bifolium).
        Anyway, your idea that the VMS illustrator might have been inspired by framing marginal illustrations like these seems very reasonable to me. The final effect is very similar in some pages.


        1. I completely agree with your point about the illustrations in Q13 probably having been done before the text, and to me the folio that illustrates this best is https://www.jasondavies.com/voynich/#f76v/0.796/0.436/2.00
          Water and fluid flows as a framing device in the margins is a very rare thing in manuscripts. I have tried to gather as much as I can for this series, but it is still a work in progress! I will post the next part of the series next week.


  2. Excellent!
    I particularly like the antipodians.
    If you look at the Rosettes page, and consider that the far upper right corner could represent the Earth (with T-O map and all), then the far lower left corner could represent the antipodians.


    1. Thank you Rene!
      I hadn’t thought about connecting the Antipodeans to the 9-rosette map page, but that is a very interesting take on it!
      I am still trying to track down where these manuscripts went after their creation in the Stoudios Monastery in Istanbul to see what influence they may have had on other productions.
      The Chludov one was kept at Mount Athos monastery until the 19th century but I don’t know about the others. Apparently the St Petersburg one was made in Kiev, so it’s probable that at least one of the earlier marginal psalters ended up there.
      Unfortunately, I can’t tell if the Antipodeans were already in the Chlodov Psalter or are only featured in the later ones.


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