Today, we often think of maps as exact representations of our world. Aided by GPS and satellite imagery, we can not only visualise the Earth’s surface in greater detail than ever before, but also know our position upon it with astonishing precision. Even with such advanced technology, however, hour ability to depict the world is subject to limitations–those of projecting a three dimensional shape onto the two dimensions of an average map (think of Greenland’s massive shape on Mercator maps).
These limitations have been in effect since cartographers first attempted to depict the whole Earth, and yet we have continued to retain our faith in the truth of maps, and their ability to communicate the essence of our world. In the case of the wonderful fourteenth-century survival, the Hereford Mappa Mundi, that essence is only partly communicated through physical geography, and its images speak as much to social and religious as to geographical truths.
Held, as its name suggests, in the Hereford Cathedral, the Mappa Mundi was produced around the year 1300 on a single piece of calf-skin vellum by one Richard of Haldingham. Shaped somewhat like an open envelope, this vellum sheet encloses a circle 52 inches in diameter, within which the world is depicted in all its strange and energetic detail.
It is not, however, a vision of the world we immediately recognise. At the centre of the circle sits Jerusalem, a position which reflects its central importance in Christian cosmic geography. Dominating the ‘top’ half of the map is the continent of Asia, next to Africa in the bottom right quadrant, and Europe in the bottom left. These latter continents are divided by one of the map’s most recognisable features–the Mediterranean sea–in which several islands (like the triangle of Sicily) can be distinguished. Importantly, the Mediterranean connects with an encircling sea, a waterway believed to enable sailing between both sides of a round Earth.
The Mappa Mundi provides guidance not only through space, though, but also through time. Locations such as the walled garden of paradise (circular, in the far east of Asia at top) allude to the Christian cosmos, whereas illustrations, including Jason’s Golden Fleece, demonstrate the influence of Classical literature. As one travels farther from the centre of the map, the number of marvels increases. This reflects the academic understanding of the globe at the time, which was split into zones: polar in the north, then temperate, equatorial, temperate again, and finally antarctic. Human life, though temperate, was often considered impossible in the equatorial zone, prompting mediaeval scholars to speculate about the fantastical forms of life waiting to be found there. At the same time, however, the occurrence of monsters on the fringes of the world was also a commentary on faith, alluding to their distance from Jerusalem and their ignorance of the word of God.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi, then, is a document of primary importance, reflecting not only mediaeval scholarly knowledge, but also a strongly Christian world-view. Striving to depict a world full of wonders, it also incorporated many details of physical geography (try to find, for example, the Red Sea or the British Isles), resulting in a beautiful expression of the relationship between faith, space, and time and capturing the essence of the mediaeval world.