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. 19352, Walters 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.
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.
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.
I also found the following representations from this group interesting with respect to Voynich iconography:
… More to follow in the next post!