Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Voynich Manuscript (Part 3b) - The Empress & the Alchemist

Three classic versions of The Empress tarot card, the third trump of the Major Arcana.
From left to right: 1. The Empress from the Visconti Bergamo deck, 1452.
2. L'impératrice from the Tarot de Marseilles, 1890 reproduction of Arnoult's 1748 edition. 3. The Empress from the Rider-Waite deck, 1910.

"Then again, via the Wiki entry for salamander folklore we learn that the Bretons of France so feared the salamander that to even utter the amphibian's name aloud was potentially lethal; especially if a local salamander was in ear-shot!  Oddly enough, however, the French King, Francis I (1494-1547), had as his symbol the salamander, and emblems carved with salamanders (inset, right) can be found in a number of places in his chateau at Fontainbleu... That a king might choose a salamander for an emblem is a curious thing, especially when his countrymen so loathed the creatures. Well, that is, unless King Francis had some knowledge of alchemy. For, it was around the time of Francis's reign that a Swiss-German alchemist by the name of Paracelsus ordained the salamander as the honorary elemental of fire, although it wouldn't be till the next century that Michael Maier regarded it as the metaphorical embodiment of the Philosopher's Stone."

- Quoting myself from the Trans-D Digital Art postEye of Newt.

"This is a zodiac illustration from a medical almanac, 1486. Ideas of astrology in medieval Europe were a long way from today's star sign horoscopes. Although some medieval astrologers were thought to be magicians, many were highly respected scholars. Astrologers believed that the movements of the stars influenced numerous things on Earth, from the weather and the growth of crops to the personalities of new born babies and the inner workings of the human body. Ancient studies of astrology were translated from Arabic to Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries and soon became a part of everyday medical practice in Europe. Doctors combined Galenic medicine (inherited from the Greek physiologist Galen - AD 129-216) with careful studies of the stars. By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding."

- Text and illumination (inset right) from this British Library page. The illumination is an example of the "zodiac man," illustrating the body parts the various zodiac signs ruled. Note the eight-legged, amphibious-looking Scorpion near the genital area.

"The first horoscopes written for Jadwiga's and Jogaila's child predicted a son in mid-September 1398. However, a girl was delivered on 22 June 1399 at Wawel Castle. Reports of the time stated that the child was born prematurely. According to the horoscope, however, she was actually born a bit late. More than a bit surely - a due date of 18 June would rule out the suspicion of pregnancy as early as mid-September."

- From the Wiki entry for Queen Jadwiga of Poland. I've used this quote to demonstrate how seriously astrology was considered throughout Europe at the time... especially for the royal houses who could well afford to keep court astrologers. Inset left is an example of medieval astrological chart.


Seriously, cats and kitties, when I first began this investigation, I neither intended to - nor expected to - come to any major conclusions regarding the mysterious maker(s) of the Voynich MS. Which is not to say that I've actually solved anything in the interim, but, as it turns out, I did ferret out another enigmatic personality to add to the Voynich mix... which will (no doubt) go against the grain of previous speculations, but, well, maybe it's time to shake up things a bit.

Now, obviously I'm not an expert in the medieval manuscript field, and virtually a neophyte when it comes to the Voynich MS, but, I love discovering new possibilities, and, when I do, well, in the spirit of Mac Tonnies, my impulse is to just throw the idea "out there." So, allow me to present (yet) another Voynich proposition to play around with... and you can blame it on the salamander.

As it happened (and as I mentioned in my last Voynich post), I had cause to research salamanders in 2016, at which time I discovered that, not only was the salamander an alchemical symbol, it was also the symbol of a certain French king: Francis I (12 September 1494 - 31 March 1547). Above inset right is one of Francis's wooden emblems of a salamander emerging from flames. Inset left is Francis I (as St. John the Baptist) from a painting by Jean Clouet). (Also, see: Francis the Salamander KIng.)

Anyway, for one crazy minute I wondered if the Voynich salamander was a reference to Francis I, but, as one can see by his birthdate, apart from the fact that he wasn't born with his sun in Scorpio (he was a Libra, as was his wife Claude), he was also born too late in the century to fit our time frame. So, that was one idea that wouldn't fly.*

Yet, In the end, I still had the feeling that some (if not all) of the figures wandering around on the zodiac pages represented actual people contemporary with the time and, possibly, born under the zodiac sign in which their caricatures are found. While this interpretation isn't without its flaws, there's seemingly no other recognizable purpose for the pages... nothing remotely "medical" nor particularly astrological beyond the central zodiac symbol. Moreover, a few of the zodiac pages (above: a page for Aries) seem to depict members of nobility - or even a royal house - in lieu of the marching nymphs.

Inset left is an another (actual) medieval astrological chart found here. Below is another 15th century "zodiac man."

In any case, if the drawings are caricatures of actual personalities and the (estimated) early 15th century time-frame is correct, identifying them - although seemingly an impossible task - might reveal (at the very least) the country of the manuscript's origin... and offer some clues regarding the author's true identity.

Ultimately (and essentially), it might only be necessary to identify a single one of them. My choice? The little Empress figure in the zodiac "chart" for Libra...

The Empress is at the top and near the center
of the chart (for the zodiacal sign of Libra).

... and there's no mistaking her (inset left). Maybe it's just me, but she somehow stands out from the other nymphs and not merely because of the crown; she's more clearly drawn, her features are even, and she alone (amongst the nymphs) seems to have her nether-bits covered up. Most importantly, she's wearing an imperial crown, so, while there are two other crowned women on the VMS zodiac pages, the Libran is the only Empress.

Now, The Empress is also a tarot trump... and the Queen is also an important alchemical symbol... but, what is it about the Voynich Empress that indicates she might be more than merely a symbol?

Well, it's like this: if she were an alchemical symbol (only) it'd be unlikely for her to appear without a King or Emperor accompanying her or appearing somewhere nearby. Representing the Sun and Moon, they are both essential ingredients in the chemical wedding. And, most certainly, the Empress wouldn't be lost in a crowd of nude females.**

As for her potential connection to The Empress of the tarot, well, although I haven't noticed the appearance of any other tarot trumps in the VMS apart from The Empress and The Star, she may have had a very significant connection. That is, if she represents an actual 15th century Empress then the earliest tarot cards depicting an Empress may have actually been a tribute to her!

(inset right is L'impératrice by Oswald Wirth, circa 1899).

So, the operative question then becomes: did an actual, historical Empress exist in our time frame, born under the sign of Libra, "The Scales" (September 23rd – October 22nd)?

Well... sort of yes and sort of no... and/or maybe. As luck would have it, there was, in actuality, only one Holy Roman Empress in the first half of the 15th century -Barbara von Celje - but, unfortunately we don't have the month or day of her birth. While there were a few Libran queens in our time-frame, there was only one Queen of the Romans, however, and that was Elizabeth of Luxembourg (and/or Bohemia) (7 October 1409 - 19 December 1442), who was the daughter of Barbara von Celje, and next in line to become Empress; alas, it never came to pass.***

Inset left is Elizabeth shown with her husband, King Albrecht II (10 August 1397 - 27 October 1439), of the House of Habsburg.  Although he is wearing an imperial crown in this picture, most sources claim he never became Emperor.****

However, in spite of that, Elizabeth had a very interesting lineage. That is, she was, in fact, the only child of Sigismund of Luxembourg and Barbara von Celje (or Cilli), King and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia... and, eventually, Holy Roman Emperor and Empress for a period of 4 years, from 1433 until Sigismund's death in 1437.

This is a very curious illumination depicting both Barbara von Celje (right)
and her daughter Elizabeth (left) wearing imperial crowns in procession to
Constance Cathedral, as illustrated in the 1440 Chronicle of the Council
of Constance (1414-1418). Neither woman was Empress during the council,
and, by 1440, Sigismund was dead and Barbara was in exile.
From what is known, Elizabeth never wore the Imperial Crown.

Regarding Barbara von Celje (1392(-1395) - 11 July 1451), once again, we do not know the exact date of her birth. But, we know something far more intriguing.

You see, Barbara von Celje was an alchemist.


* I have since discovered that, according to a comment on the "... Salamander King" page, the salamander symbol was passed down from Francis's grandfather, Jean d'Orléans (John of Orléans), Comte d'Angoulême (1399-1467), but I've found no evidence online. Interestingly enough, Jean would have been a contemporary of Barbara von Celje.

** Which is not to say there is no potential alchemical symbolism present with the Voynich Empress. She is, for example, carrying a seven-fold star. Now, it's true that there are many nymphs with 7-fold stars on the Libra page, and the stars throughout the manuscript vary from 6 to 8 to 9-fold which may or may not have significance. But, the 7-fold star has a specific symbolism in alchemy and describes something called Azoth, or "the supreme secret of transformation that contains all things within itself (the "alpha-omega" or "A-Z"). Known in alchemy as the Mercury of the Wise or the Universal Cure, the Azoth is also the Universal Life Force."

Inset right is my colorized version of the Azoth symbol drawn by 15th century alchemist Basil Valentine (found here). The words inscribed around the star wheel read Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem (Visit the interior of the earth and rectifying (i.e. purifying), you will find the hidden/secret stone) The first letter of each word, in turn, spells V.I.T.R.I.O.L. - the name of a sulfate, but also an ancient term for the formula of the Great Alchemical Work.

*** Eleanor of Portugal (18 September 1434 – 3 September 1467), was the next Libra Empress in line (19 March 1452 – 3 September 1467) after Barbara von Celje. Like Elizabeth, she, too, married a Habsburg: Frederick the III.

**** One chronicle written during the time, however - Das Buch von Kaiser Sigmund (The Life and Times of the Emperor Sigismund- claims that Albrecht was Emperor for one year (1438-39) after Sigismund's death. If this was the case, then he was never crowned.

(Note: As generally seems to be the case with Barbara von Celje - and, as we'll see again in the next section - while there are well over a hundred illuminations of Sigismund in this MS, the Queen (and Empress) never make a single appearance...

Oh, yeah, that is unless she happened to appear on one of the - just mentioned - MS's "missing" pages.)

Coronation crown of Emperor Napoleon I.


Barbara von Celje

Barbara von Celje (Cilli) from the early 15th century manuscript Bellifortis.
Note the 7-fold star on her banner.

"Starting with Croatian historiography, it has to be noted that very few works on particularly Barbara of Cilli exist among the Croatian scholarship. She is rather mentioned in historical overviews, usually in a negative light, and mostly, if at all, shadowed by the histories of her male relatives. What is also important is that the Cilli family altogether is not as researched by Croatian scholars as it should be, which might explain the underrepresentation of Barbara in Croatian history. From the works pertaining to the second half of the nineteenth century, Barbara is mentioned sporadically and in a negative light in the work of Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski. This work is particularly important as the main literature concerning the legends which linked Barbara to a figure from the Croatian folklore, the “Black Queen”, a character that would be worth revisiting in future scholarship."

- Excerpt from Sara Katanec's 2014 online thesis: The Perquisite of a Medieval Wedding: Barbara of Cilli’s Acquisition of Wealth, Power, and LandsInset right is (presumably) a family portrait of King Sigismund, Queen Barbara and their daughter by Czech painter Antonín Machek from the early 19th century (i.e., 400 years after the fact). Sigismund is portrayed in his royal regalia while the Queen and Princess stand passively off to the side like mere servants or subjects. There appears to be, however, another portrait of a queen or empress above their heads, which effectively divides the canvas in two parts: Sigismund on one side, and 3 generations of women on the other... as if each half was somehow equivalent to the other.

"Black Queen is the most infamous mythical resident of Zagreb. She is a diabolic lady in long black robes, hence the name. But her name also perfectly suits her vicious personality, knowledge of evil magic, ability to shapeshift, not to mention she even made pact with the devil on at least one occasion. She was a cruel ruler, a witch, a snake and a fearsome dark apparition on the forest pathways.

Black Queen once ruled the Medvedgrad castle, a medieval city that rises above Zagreb on the slopes of the Medvednica mountain. Historians tend to find the source of folktales about Her Viciousness in actual female rulers of the castle. Their leading choice is Barbara of Cilli, a countess and queen that was obviously quite unpopular in the northwestern Croatia. She was also the one who supposedly walled a peasant girl Veronika up in another Croatian castle Veliki Tabor, and seemed to be a mysterious vampire who sucked blood of young people in Kneginec village. But, even if the latter stories are not likely to be believable, Barbara of Cilli could have easily deserved her black queen reputation for many historical reasons. The fact that she was a foreigner who gained power over many Croatian towns aside, the woman was quite an intriguing, daring and mystical figure. She was a bold and deceitful politician and a brave woman who was not afraid to stand up to her husband (we're talking 15th century). She was also widowed at the age of 46, and afterwards she couldn’t have been found wearing anything but black dresses. And most interesting of all, she practiced alchemy." 

- Excerpt from the 2011 article: Black Queen by Iva Silla. Inset left (above) is a small portrait of Barbara, but - like most all images of her - it was not executed during her lifetime.

In regards to the "peasant girl" named Veronika, the truth is somewhat different. Wiki had this to say: "Frederick (note: Barbara's brother) was married to Elizabeth of Krk until she was murdered in 1422; Frederick himself was likely the culprit. He quickly remarried to Veronika of Desenice, but Hermann (note: Barbara's father) refused to accept a minor noblewoman as his daughter-in-law. He accused her of witchcraft and had her drowned."

"Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini (Pope Pius II), who detested the Cilli family, characterized Barbara’s brother Count Friedrich as “shameless,” “materialistic,” and “a blood thirsty wildman” as well as an enemy of the church and state. He declared Ulrich, the head of the Cilli family, as a “hardened sinner” and “demon.” As for Barbara herself, Piccolomini claimed that Barbara did not even believe in an after-life. Aeneas also accused Barbara of associating with “heretics” and “abominable Hussites.” He claimed that after the death of Albrecht, Barbara and her daughter Elizabeth used to profane Holy Communion by drinking actual human blood during the liturgy... Barbara was also accused of maintaining a female harem during her exile at Melnik and staging huge sexual orgies with young girls. However, even Aeneas had to admit that Barbara had a “very elegant body” (“eligantissimi corporis’). This view is confirmed by the Czech Annals of 1437, which describe Barbara as a “beautiful woman” (“krásne panj”). On that point there appears to have been agreement."

"She knew how to measure her replies with a woman’s subtilty. Before my eyes she took quicksilver, arsenic, and other things which she did not name. Out of these she made a powder, with which copper was dyed white. It stood the test of notching, but not the hammer. With this she has deceived many people.

Similarly I saw her strew heated copper with a powder, which penetrated it. The copper became as refined silver. But when it was melted it was copper once more as before. And she showed me many such deceitful tricks.

Another time she took Iron Saffron and Copper Calx and other Powders, mixed them, and cemented with them equal parts of Gold and Silver. Then the Metal had within and without the appearance of fine Gold. But when it was melted it lost the colour again. Therewith were many merchants duped by her."

- An 1437 account of Barbara's alchemy - and alleged deception - via Johann von Laaz (and found in this article). Purportedly, von Laaz was Barbara's court-alchemist known for his Tractatus aureus de lapide philosophorum (The Golden Treatise on the Philosopher's Stone).

Other alchemists who allegedly offered Barbara their services include the mysterious authors of two alchemical manuscripts: The Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (Book of the Holy Trinity) (and here, where the illumination above, inset left - was found), and a manuscript which we began to explore in the last post, Aurora consurgens. (Source: Visualization in Medieval Alchemy by Barbara Obrist).


According to her enemies, Barbara of Celje (variations: Cilli, Cellská, Cellja, Celjska, Celeiense, etc.) was an adulteress, a heretic, an agnostic, a vampire, lesbian, pedophile, witch, Melusine (serpent-woman), Messalina (devious sex maniac) and a swindler. Oh, and possibly a murderess (musn't forget that... and then there's the zombie speculation!). In any case, her alleged story would make a great film... even if the screen-writer merely focused on the diabolical Vampire/Lesbian/Queen angle. It's too bad most of us in the West have never heard of her before!

The moral to that (very short) story being: if you're a powerful woman, expect a lot of really bad press... not to mention dedicated attempts to wipe out all traces of your existence from historical records. Remember the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Hatshetsup? Despite having a long and prosperous reign, she was so effectively "erased" that anyone born before the 20th century wouldn't have known her name or title.

In reality, we know very little about Barbara of Celje (inset right). Apparently there were no legal or family records, so, even the year of her birth is an approximation. Moreover, although she was purportedly a beautiful woman, there are no true portraits of her in existence... and few images executed during her lifetime, so we can't say for certain how she appeared.

Queen Mary of Hungary, Sigismund's first wife (& cousin).
From: Chronica Hungarorum by Thuróczi János, 1488.
(Note: While the above illumination of Mary appears in this historical record,
Sigismond's second and last wife - Barbara - is nowhere present.)

What we do know is that Barbara was a noblewoman born in Slovenia to a family consisting of 3 boys and 3 girls, including a 7th child, an adopted female cousin. She was well-educated and multi-lingual; knowing German, Hungarian, Czech, Latin, and some Polish. She was the child-bride of her husband Sigismund, a widower (his first wife - above - was actually a cousin: Mary, daughter of Louis the Great, the last Angevin king) 24 years her senior whom she wed in (approximately) 1405. Shortly thereafter she became Queen of Hungary, and eventually Queen of Bohemia.

Sigismund by
Antonio Pisanello, 1432
Apparently, Sigismund (inset left) was an "uncommonly" handsome man in his youth, and a warrior. He lead one of the last Crusades - that catastrophe known as the Battle of Nicopolis - in which his life was saved by Barbara's father.

He was also a notorious womanizer. Despite this, and his frequent absences, he and Barbara had one female child together, Elizabeth. Later on, he would question the true paternity of his daughter, and, subsequently, he and Barbara were estranged for some time. In any event, he married off his daughter to the man he had chosen as his successor: Albrecht II of the House of Habsburg. Strangely enough, while Sigismund was friendly to the House of Habsburg, the latter were enemies to the House of Celje and most especially to Barbara.

That being said, in spite of the fact that theirs was not an ideal marriage, they supposedly collaborated on the formation of one fabulously clandestine organization: Ordo Draconum (Order of the Dragon, or Order of the Defeated Dragon).

Order of the Dragon

Now, Ordo Draconum should be familiar to some of you. Famous members include the father of Vlad the Impaler - the original Dracula - and members of the Bathory family. The Bathory name might ring a bell, too, as it produced the most notorious 16th century psychopathic mass-murderer, Elizabeth Bathory. She's especially known for (allegedly) bathing in the blood of murdered virgins to retain her youthful appearance.

Might these little tidbits have contributed to a few of Barbara's darker legends; guilt by association? Who knows?

Beyond that, while Sigismund and Barbara finally become Emperor and Empress towards the end of Sigismund's life, things went south for Barbara shortly thereafter. As a matter of fact, while her husband lay dying, in December of 1437, she was accused by her son-in-law, Albrecht, of plotting against her husband, at which point, her lands were confiscated and she, herself, was imprisoned in Bratislava Castle.

Following that train-wreck, she apparently went into exile, seeking refuge in the Polish royal court, and, later moving to Mělník in Bohemia just outside Prague. Although she reconciled with Elizabeth and her grandchildren two years after Albrecht's death (in 1439), she seems to have retreated from political life, devoting her time to her esoteric interests. Daughter Elizabeth, on the other hand, gave birth to her third child shortly after her husband's death, and tried (in vain) to save her position in the monarchy. The crown went to Vladislaus of Poland, instead. In the end, her own death predated Barbara's; she died in 1442, possibly from having been poisoned. Barbara died in 1451 (allegedly) from the plague and was buried in a chapel of St. Vitus Cathedral (inset right) in Prague.*

And, so we come to the end of Barbara's story. Or, do we? Well, maybe.

Meanwhile, I suppose you've realized by now that I had a bit of a motive for presenting this tale, and, likewise, you've probably guessed that I'm proposing that Barbara von Celje had some connection to the Voynich MS. And, yes, I think she may have... for a number of reasons that will - sorry to say - have to be saved for yet another Voynich post; one which I had no intention of having to write, but, well...

Anyway, The Voynich Manuscript (Part 3c) - The (Un)usual Suspects is next in line. Incidentally, although I have spent some time at the various Voynich sites (listed here), I have not found anything about Barbara... that is, until yesterday, while making a last ditch effort to dig up a little more info about Barbara, I did find some mention of her on Ellie Velinska's blog. In a 2016 post addressing the alchemical symbolism in the VMS, Ellie brings up the topic of Barbara von Celje, and, in a later comment, specifically brings up the Prague issue. That is, the first known owner of the manuscript was from Prague. (Note: actually, the second and third known owners were from Prague as well... and so was the alleged owner, Rudolph II, whom I believe had a very good reason for desiring that MS, but, we'll get into that later.)  Moreover, Voynich, himself was Polish. So, isn't it somehow elementary that the MS may have originated from that general region, namely, Eastern Europe?


* Barbara's death from the plague in Prague was a bit of an anomaly for the time period. It seems only certain places in Italy were effected by the plague in the mid-15th century. Prague, had plague outbreaks in the 1600s and 1700s but I've seen no relevant data citing the 15th century. Another mystery?


Links to the full series of Voynich MS posts:


  1. Hi,there, I have discovered your blog with the help of Koen G. after I matched the picture of Barbara of Celje to VM Virgo and the female twin in Gemini sign. I do not believe that Barbara wrote the VM, but I do believe the VM was written in Slovenian language (Barbara spoke) and in the Carthusian house founded by the Counts of Celje, Slovenia. Please go to my web page to get more information on my theory

  2. Thanks for stopping by! But, while I find it quite possible that the manuscript was written in Slovenian,I find it very difficult to accept that it was written by a Christian monk. My actual thoughts about who did create it are not precise (see the last post in this series) but, whatever the origin, it was not a conventionally religious one. Have fun sleuthing!