The Voynich Circular Animations

A Good Question – Almost

Recently I thought to have made an observation on The Voynich (actually an impulse to start this blog), which lead me to formulate a good question – so I thought.

About 8 minutes into the 2009 ORF documentary on The Voynich there is a short part showing 3 animated clips derived from some of the circularly arranged illustrations. Clip 1 and 2 simply rotate circular illustrations, or figures in The Voynich, where clip 1 seems to be made up from page 67. The rotation is directed counter-clockwise. Clip 3 is slightly more advanced, in that a frame mask is applied. Adding intermittent dark frames would almost qualify it as a real animation.1 I can’t determine the source pages for clips 2 & 3 (yet).

The sparse commentary simply states that optic phenomena are hidden in the illustrations that come to life when rotated. There’s not much more to be found out about the matter as it seemingly failed to attract any attention. Optics, animations & the like belong to my interests so it stuck with me.

Phenakistoscope Disc designed by Edward Sang, Beinecke's Library

Phenakistoscope Disc designed by Edward Sang, Beinecke’s Library

A while ago I visited an exhibition called “Eyes, Lies and Illusions“, featuring some simple animation devices, antecessor of cinematography like a Praxinoscope, some making use of round cards with circularly arranged drawings in a way quite similar to The Voynichs’ “round tables”. Hence my connection: If these illustrations are  ment to be animated then there must exist a viewing apparatus for it, an animation device.

I did some research and found a first pitfall: All designs I looked at had rotating cards, unsuitable for the subject at hand, a book. I thought up a possible way to circumvent this problem (inside mirrors rotating in a planet gear) and even considered the possibility that an actual device never existed, yet in “ideal” form. To be found, like an easter egg in software, only by “users” (researchers) clever enough to uncover & reconstruct the necessary mechanism.

Nevertheless I felt I had something and formulated my question as:

If they are genuine, what is the purpose of the circular illustrations encoding animations?

You will notice that the “if” already disqualifies it as a good question according to my own terms.. and more ifs to come.

I asked Rich SantaColoma, who is into optics and was featured in the documentary. He kindly took the time to answer:

(…) it was not intended to be animated in the first place. There have been those who, even before the documentary artists pulled this off, thought that this could be the intent of these images. So to some people, they are somewhat “evocative” of these type of moving images.

He also pointed out the wealth of possible influences involved in creating The Voynich, especially those contemporary of the late 19th century.

So I retreated to my “if”, the necessity to find out if all or some the illustrations are actually ment to be animated, a task not devoid of quite some effort. I had a similar suspicion towards the film production crew as the source of the clips and a certain reason why the examples were short & few in number.

voynich photo

Photo by lamont_cranston

In the meantime, looking at the illustrations it turns out not a lot of them lend themselves easily to the animation idea, while a few really do seem to be ment to move. And I have overlooked another thing: I have fallen to the common error to misjudge the rather modest physical dimensions of The Voynich book, which are about that of a paperback (not as small as The Micro-Voynich in the picture) . Hence the animations would turn out rather tiny. I guess this size restriction rules out an actually existing viewing apparatus.

My partner remarked that this circumstance would be negligible if The Voynich was created with the idea of spreading photographic enlargements of it already in mind. Interesting point there, Wilfrid Voynich took the book to the darkroom first thing. This is probably another implication of The Voynich 1910 dating.

Another way to save my question would be to reformulate it towards the reason for circular illustrations (charts, tables, figures..) to begin with, if not time-related, which the majority of them does not seem to be. It complicates reading (have to turn book around) and creation (needs gauge screen and to rotate sheets) and points to another question, that of The Voynich Rebinding. It is an observation that some of the illustrations are slightly to large to fit on a page so a certain overlap is left as not to simply cut them off. Hence hey must have been created before the rebinding / rearrangement of the vellum sheets.

Another path would be to try tracking different, older sources of inspiration for the circular drawings. After all, The Voynich was supposed to look ancient. Encyclopedia Britannica says Michael Faraday looked into the phenomenon, and so did Mr. Isaac Newton (unsourced). Traces of the concept are even to be found in Leonardo’s work.

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Show 1 footnote

  1. A dark frame (or shutter) in between the actual drawings is necessary to make use of the psi phenomenon, an after image we see in the intermittency and thus the motion appears to be seamless. Source