My last post on Elmar Vogt’s new blog received a comment from infinitii, asking me for the source for the suggestion that the zodiac motifs may have been copied from a (possibly 14th century) German woodcut calendar. I had long forgotten the story’s origin, but a quick grep through the VMs mailing list archives (the ones before 2002 that aren’t yet on the web) turned up what seems to be the key thread.

Jorge Stolfi began (29Dec2000):-

In the meantime, I remembered I had seen something like the VMS Sagittarius somewhere in the astrological books. And I have found it on the Web – have a look at:

This is from an early (15th c.) German “Planets’ Children” blockbooks (the planets’ children theme was also found in some of the Books of Hours – eg. the most beautiful one of Duc de Berry). The crossbow man looks *very much* like the VMS Sagittarius to me. Also note that the actual Sagittarius in a small circle at the feet of Jupiter above is represented as a man – not a traditional centaur (even though he holds a standard bow).

I think this confirms the 15th c. German origin as stated by Panofsky (a great authority, after all) – at least until a better argument is put forward (I am not convinced by the humanist hand argument and still less by the other Italian origin arguments recently presented by Dana – people were coming to study in Italy from all over Europe and thus
were heavily influenced by Renaissance culture and art).

Rene Zandbergen then replied (30Dec2000) to the last two paragraphs:-

Yes, very ‘block book’ and very German. In Saxl’s ‘Verzeichniss’ other nice examples can be seen.

I’m not yet ready to decide. Is the theme German and the execution Italian? Or in the block book, where the execution is German, the theme of the planets’ children was widespread. The profusely illustrated but otherwise only moderately useful book ‘Alchemie & Mystik’ by Alexander Roob gives a lot of nice examples.

Jorge Stolfi continued (30Dec2000):-

What I meant is that the crossbow man really looks like the VMS Sagittarius and that I have not seen that sign represented by a man rather than a centaur elsewhere. Are there any examples of non-German non-centaur Sagittarius?

Rene Zandbergen responded (30Dec2000):-

He does indeed. I found out I have copies of some illustrations from the same block book (in German) but these are not including Sagittarius.

Certainly, there are German Sagitarii which _are_ centaurs, but that doesn’t really help. I’ll scan a few nice images from a book called ‘Flores Albumasaris’ printed in Augsburg around 1480. They’re woodcuts but allow a nice comparison with some of the VMs images. Sagittarius is a Centaur here.

Then there’s a brief lull, until Rafal Prinke continues the thread (09 Jan 2001) with a number of closely related art historical bombshells:-

I have received a very kind and informative reply from Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow (my repeated apologies to the list I had not written to her earlier). Below is a translation/summary of her letter.


I have inspected the VMS at Beinecke. The signs of the Zodiac do not present problems – they are simply not of the Arateia type but were modernized. As I wrote in my books, because of linguistic mistakes and changes in artistic styles, human figures were represented in contemporary garments (viz. Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius). Attributes were changed in the same way, eg. Sagittarius’ bow developed into a crossbow in the 15th c.

The genre scenes, eg. Aries eating a bush, suggest that the signs were redrawn from a calendar. Garments: the jopulas [?] of men with a belt suggest the 14th/15th c. but headdresses of men (Gemini, Sagittarius) definitively indicate the 15th c. This was common fashion in Europe at that time. The Sagittarius’ cap with fox tail points to Germany – but they were also worn in Poland. I believe that the manuscript can be dated
to mid-15th c. From the astrological iconography point of view, the Taurus at a well is somewhat strange – unless an image of donkeys was a basis for it and then it would refer
to Cancer – but that is certainly going too far.

In my opinion it is a notebook of a liberal arts student. Similar notebooks are Beinecke 225 and 226. The former belonged to Paul de Worczin who studied in Cracow in 1422
(according to the Beinecke catalogue Cracow is in Bohemia!). The latter is also from Cracow.

In our Institute we have a database with descriptions of most of existing medieval zodiacal iconography. I am now preparing a similar database of the iconography of
individual degrees of the Zodiac.


Thus she confirms the opinion of Panofsky (and my own amateurish feeling) that the VMS should be dated to mid-15th Germany/Poland/Bohemia.

The suggestion that it is a student’s notebook is a bit of a revelation to me! Drawing naked ladies and fantastic pipelines during boring lectures is perhaps what they were doing from the dawn of time.

Prof. Sniezynska-Stolot has not addressed the VMS script but I hope to keep in contact with her. Maybe that was some kind of a medieval “beta-kappa” students’ corporation fun popular in Cracow and there are loads of similar manuscripts at the Jagiellonian Library?

Here’s a picture of a [modern] jopula (no, I didn’t know what it was either): basically, it’s a 14th/15th century outer garment made of four pieces plus sleeves, something like a doublet. Looks quite snug! 🙂

Rene Zandbergen picked up on the Sagittarius crossbowman’s hat’s fox tails (11Jan2001):-

Brumbaugh always made a point of stressing that this was a Florentine archer’s hat. Guess in whose opinion I put more trust.

Rafal Prinke then made a related calendaric aside (13Jan2001):

There were 3 styles of beginning the year in March:

1) Venetian – 1st March
2) Florentine and Pisan – 25th March (with a year’s difference)
3) Gallic – Easter Sunday (ie. not always in March)

The Venetian style was also used in Ruthenia (but not in Poland, which used exclusively Christmas and 1st January, along with Germany, Bohemia and Sweden). Russia changed to the Byzantine style in 1492 (1st September), also used in other Orthodox countries and in southern Italy.

The Florentine style was used in England, while the Gallic style – in France and the Netherlands.

So – if we accept the calendaric basis for the VMS Zodiac, it points either to Venice (and thus Northern Italy, which is the favoured hypothesis now) or pre-1492 Ruthenia, which might suggest further possibilities of a connection with Cyrillic, Greek, Georgian, Armenian or Turkish influences on the VMS script and content.

Incidentally, I should also flag this as a good example of how a single small thread in the VMs mailing circa 2000 typically contained more effort, historical research, genuine collaboration and reflective thought than entire months of postings there do now. People sometimes think that I’m perhaps being nostalgic or unrealistic when I talk of the decline of the list: but sadly it’s a very real phenomenon.

7 thoughts on “German zodiac woodcuts…?

  1. infinitii on January 17, 2009 at 8:41 pm said:

    Stolfi’s link didn’t work anymore (of course) but I found this:

    I also found this, which seems to be of similar stock:

    My own thoughts are that the VMs illustrations are German. With that in mind, it seems to me to make more sense that the Italian humanist hand (if the VM script is that…I’m no handwriting expert, and while it is certainly not Gothic by any means, I don’t know if I would describe it as humanist) would have traveled to Germany rather than any type of German illustration techniques traveling to Italy during that period of time…I’ve recently been trying to connect Martin Ruland (the Elder? the Younger? both? eh..) to it, mostly because of the Younger’s connection to the court of Rudolf II (but certainly for other reasons too), but I can’t say I’ve discovered much, and I don’t know if this zodiac information helps at all except just to suggest there is a precedent for these sorts of visual representations…

    Thank you very much for finding this information though. I wonder how much else of interest is still waiting to be discovered on the mailing list archives.

  2. Hi infinitii,

    Errm… I didn’t exactly find it, as I knew it was there in the first place. 🙂

    As a general rule these days, I would recommend people trawl through the pre-2002 (non-web-visible) mailing list archives in preference to the live mailing list. With the honourable exception of Rene Zandbergen, far more useful Voynich research has been forgotten (such as the above) than tends to be actively remembered. Having said that, I really ought to post separately about those old archives, there’s an awful lot more to be said about them…

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. Yes please. – Nick, could you tell me how one trawls non-web-visible websites?

  4. As far as I can see, Beinecke 225 is a copy of the prophecies of Joachim of Fiora, and 226 is a copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. 1476)

    Yale/Beinecke method of numbering, like its search engine, sometimes brings up unexpected results, but:

    Beinecke Marston MS 225 Southern Germany, s. XIV 2/4
    MS226 Casar, Comentarii de Bello Gallico, Jean Duchesne. Flanders, 1476.

  5. Diane O'Donovan on November 22, 2012 at 9:26 am said:

    I have pointed out one, and possibly two Standing Saggitas as early as the 4th-6thC. Not from mainland Europe. One is the Beit Sh’an mosaic (known unofficially as the Beth Alpha mosaic) and another – I’ve only photos to go by and feel the figure’s not quite… maybe renovated at some time. But that the Maltezana mosaic.
    There will be others, around the periphery of the old pre-Roman semitic areas, I expect. And no later than the 6thC AD, with most probably in about the 3rd-4th, re-made under pressure from Rome from older forms.

    .. but Nick, no need to credit this find – none have been credited so far, so why break the 4-year record?

  6. Diane O'Donovan on July 17, 2013 at 7:19 am said:

    I have found four schemes attrbuted to Panofsky, but none with references save the first:
    According to Ann Nil – Panovsky was convinced in 1916 that the manuscript was Spanish, Jewish and related to Kabbalah.

    Other remarks in comments to various blogs and mailing lists say that he later suggested 1470 as date.

    In the post above, he is reported saying that he now believed it was made in the mid-fifteenth century in “Germany/Poland/Bohemia”.

    Has any reader accessed the Friedman/Panofsky correspondence? In 1994, Jim Reed said it was in
    Box Folder 1614 in the William F. Friedman Collection of the George C. Marshall Foundation.

    Grateful for any more information.

  7. Diane O'Donovan on July 17, 2013 at 1:33 pm said:

    a little more about Panofsky. The ‘1916’ was a blogger’s error in quoting matter in Rich Santacoloma’s blog. Should be 1931-2.

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