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Mappa mundilocked

  • Michael Curschmann

The medieval term mappa mundi (also forma mundi, historia/istoire) covers a broad array of maps of the world of which roughly 1100 survive. These have resisted systematic classification, but the clearly dominant type is one that aims at comprehensively symbolistic representation. Its early, schematic form is a disc composed of three continents surrounded and separated from one another by water (“T-O Map”) and associated with the three sons of Noah: Asia (Shem) occupies all of the upper half, Europe (Japhet) to the left and Africa (Ham) to the right share the lower half. Quadripartite cartographic schemes included the antipodes as a fourth continent, but the tripartite model was adopted by the large majority of the more developed world maps in use from the 11th century on and—with important variations—well into the Renaissance. While details were added as available space permitted, the Mediterranean continued to serve as the vertical axis and, with diminishing clarity, the rivers Don and Nile as the horizontal one. The map also continues to be ‘oriented’ towards Asia, where paradise sits at the very top. A circular ocean forms the perimeter and not infrequently the city of Jerusalem constitutes its centre.

Such maps occur mostly on parchment or (later) paper and predominantly as manuscript illustrations, but occasionally in other media as well (stained glass; wall painting; floor mosaic). They may range in size from less than 10 cm in diameter to monumental wall hangings like the one still on display at Hereford Cathedral. The largest known example, from Epstorf in Lower Saxony (digital reconstruction from 19th-century copies), dates from around the same time (1300), measures about 3.5×3.5 m and includes c. 2000 drawings and texts. That the earth was a sphere was known well enough, but since the southern half was considered uninhabitable, visual representation concentrated on the surface of the inhabitable half, the oecumene. Coloured drawings and explanatory inscriptions (in Latin) next to them as well as outside the frame together create a multi-faceted iconotext that, in its most elaborate manifestations, shows the medieval imagination at its most active and versatile. Geographic and topographical information combines with data culled from history (mostly biblical), natural history, ethnography, mythology and legend as a demonstration of the Christian worldview. Unlike many local and itinerary maps or the portolan charts used in navigation this type was not primarily locational. The journey envisaged here is the journey of redemption through a visual, symbolic encyclopedia of God’s creation that sometimes even includes Christ holding this creation in his arms. The outlook tends to be Eurocentric, resulting in a more detailed and ‘accurate’ picture of that continent, and consequently locates one of the most striking and durable features of the map at the outer edge of this world. Pictured frequently in other media as well, the ‘monstrous races’ (or ‘wonders) of the East are actually concentrated mostly in the south of the African continent—the offspring of Cain and epitome of otherness.


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