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The Pilgrimage of the Eye through Medieval Maps

While formerly seen as pieces of work that showed the ignorance of the medieval ages, the medieval maps (mappamundi) have recently generated a strong scholarly interest. This interest has sparked an in-depth yet provocative re-evaluation of the medieval maps as a pictorial image genre. The mappamundi are no longer adjudged in reference to the modern or classical models of embodying the geographical space but are analyzed in the context of the cultures that created them. According to Edson, while seeking meaning out of medieval maps, it is impossible to assume that they served the same purpose as the modern maps. The differences in content and structure are sufficient pointers to how the medieval cartographers and readers perceived the world. In fact, the increased awareness of the diversity and complexity of specific artifacts has significantly altered the notion that the mappamundi are a homogeneous replication of authoritative geographical sources. A further cognizance of the rupture points and continuities with the received medieval traditions has further pointed to the multidimensional function played by mapping in the medieval ages. The maps often came in different shapes, contexts and forms – with some segmenting the world into cold and hot regions, others concentrating on the three known worlds (Asia, Europe, and Africa) while others are presenting the world through text and not images. While several scholars have studied the medieval maps, there is a consensus that the cartographers were influenced by the ongoing interpretation of antique material, Christian theology, empirical observation, and experiences. According to Gautier the medieval maps while being studied would take one through a pilgrimage of the eye showing symbolic images that had likely been used in “for devotional purposes in the monastic context.” In another study, researchers noted that the mappamundi were mostly based on history and Christian history and beliefs were particularly of central significance to the cartography. The centrality of Christianity was so huge in these maps that some showed Jerusalem as the center of the earth while others included Jesus on the cross, showed the throne of God and even included the cross. As such, the current essay analyzes the extent to which the medieval mappamundi took their readers through a devotional visual pilgrimage across the medieval world. It is also evident in literature that the medieval maps were significantly symbolic tools of learning meant to take the medieval readers through two journeys, the preceding cultural history; and the understanding of the salvation story and the intimacy between religious theology and the real world (a visual pilgrimage). The author of this paper thus seeks to explore the way through which the maps provided a visual pilgrimage of the medieval age and how the maps assisted the world not only to learn about geography but also to understand biblical theology and the centrality of religion in the medieval lives.

While there were myriad medieval maps, religious themes were conspicuous in the cartographical symbolism. Maps that avoided the Christian perspective presented the traditional fables of the preceding ages. From a factual viewpoint, medieval maps offered no reasonable scientific value for the contemporary geography, yet furnished the culture and religion scholars with a sharp glimpse of the hidden sacred world. According to Cattaneo these maps present world instituted by sacred proceedings, infused with sacred meanings, participating in a sacred time and situated in a sacred space by divine redemption. From these maps, map-readers would be taken through a sacred journey from the creation of the universe to the end of the world. The significance of the holy trinity, Jesus Christ would be greatly emphasized. The position of such high places in the Christian history such as Jerusalem, Calvary, and others was significantly focused. Keenly analyzing this mappamundi, one notes that location of the cities in religious history as well the other symbols were implicating the extent of significance. As such using these maps one would take a pilgrimage to see the significant religious cities, locations and understand their value in faith. In fact, the reading of these maps would also enable people who were on a devotional pilgrimage to explore the goodness and power of God without physically traveling. It is in lieu of this that this essay analyses the significant symbols of the maps focusing on the Hereford Mappamundi, Psalters Mappamundi, and the Ebsorf Mappamundi.
Hereford Mappamundi
The Mappamundi presented the history of the world in a unique way. While it showed the geographical locations of the known world (Europe, Africa, and Asia), the maps positioned particular aspects that symbolically represented the history of the world as viewed by the Christian religion. A Christian or any other map-reader would thus be able to explore the origins and the history from world creation through to the medieval times. The medieval maps would present this from a biblical perspective, emphasizing creation, sin, redemption and the significance of the all-powerful and omnipresent God. The supremacy of God was stressed and the consequences of sin outlined.
Nevertheless, what would be the best way to present the world history if not from the very beginning? Most medieval maps had an aspect of the earthly Paradise (the Garden of Eden). The garden is presented as a beautiful garden in most maps, a paradise within the earth where God intended men to live without any strain or troubles. According to Kline over 11 medieval maps, place the earthly paradise in the far east of the world. The Hereford mappamundi for instance, presents the Garden of Eden in the far east of the map, just below the face of Jesus Christ that appears above the map. In the garden, the faces of Adam and Eve are presented very closely in the circular garden, with the four paradise rivers (Tigris, Euphrates, Phison, and the Ganges) flowing through it. Scholars have argued that the positioning of Eden at the far east located in the top of the map depict that paradise was created close to God himself and that life moves from east to west . Thus, East represents the beginning of the world and west the end of it.
The upper Eastern part of the Hereford Mappamundi depicts the continent Asia. As much as this section was meant to indicate the location of Asia within the map, the writings of the letters A.S.I.A are not easy to locate affecting the effectiveness of the map to display this geographical location in the world. Nevertheless, this section of the map has proved to be beneficial to the pilgrims in their study of the creation and development of the world. It is observed that half of this section of the map also encompasses the center of the world where the holy city, Jerusalem is placed. The placement of the town of Jerusalem at the center of the world is to comply with the biblical statement as indicated in the book of Ezekiel(This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and the countries that are around her).
Biblical traditions indicate that King David conquered the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it the capital city of Israel. Later on, his son Solomon commissioned the development of the first temple in the city. The events that occurred in the city in the historical times have contributed to the high symbolic significance of Jerusalem to the Jewish. Some pilgrims have made trips to this city owing to its importance and significance based on their religion. Some of the trips have been made physically; nevertheless, the physical pilgrimage can also be achieved through the viewing of the Hereford mappamundi. As mentioned above, the city of Jerusalem is clearly depicted at the center of the map. Moreover, the viewer is also able to see the crucifix where Jesus was crucified. To Christians, the crucifix site is what makes Jerusalem a holy city and forms the major reason most people travel to the city. The Hereford mappamundi provides an opportunity for the same physical pilgrimage to be achieved by just viewing the map.
Jerusalem is also considered a focal point for the prayers of the Muslim. The Muslim believes that Muhammad made his journey in the city, before ascending to heaven ten years later where he spoke with God. The Muslim community also considers the city of Jerusalem sacred. As much as Muhammad movements are not clearly observable in the Hereford mappamundi, imagined pilgrimage is still possible to any viewer. Any viewer is likely to experience the holiness and sacred nature of the city since both Muhammad and Jesus ascended to heaven from the town. The clear representation of the religious sites of seminal significance such as the Temple Mount, Garden Tomb, Dome of the Rock, Western Wall and al-Aqsa Mosque makes the map capable of accomplishing the pilgrimage of the eye. By just viewing the buildings that have been well presented in the Hereford mappamundi, the viewer can perform the pilgrimage to these sacred places. As much as there is no physical travel to Jerusalem, the physical pilgrimage to these locations is still accomplished by just viewing the Hereford mappamundi. Jerusalem city is, therefore, a home to many sites that are of religious significance to different kinds of religion. The fact that the city has been clearly indicated on the map and the fact that the features of the city that are considered sacred and of religious significance have also been shown in the Hereford mappamundi justifies the suitability of this medieval map in supporting an imagined and physical pilgrimage to the holy city.
Other events of biblical significance such as the Tower of Babel, Exodus, the picture of Lot’s wife and Sodom and Gomorrah have been depicted in the upper Eastern part of the Hereford map. These details were mainly included in the Hereford map for the use of pilgrims. These sites are considered sacred due to the events that they hosted. Babylon for instance, marks the place of the origin of different languages when God confused the language of the people and scattered them into different sections across the world following their attempt to compete with God. The exodus presents a vivid picture on how the Israelites were liberated from Egypt by Moses. The map also indicates the sections when Moses was on Mount Sinai and the point where he saw people sin and broke the Ten Commandments. The story of Lot and the occurrences in the City of Sodom and Gomorrah all clearly indicates how human sinned against God and the repercussions that followed that. From all indications, the Hereford mappamundi have clearly represented the events that marked the beginning of sin in the world. Apart from the instances discussed above, when human sinned, the map had also indicated the instance when Eve offered the fruit to Adam marking the first instance of sin as was observed in the world. Any viewer of the map can visualize the places and instances when man sinned against God. The Hereford map is, therefore, suitable for pilgrims in informing them of the significant religious events when human sinned against God without necessarily having to travel to the respective regions indicated on the map. The detailed nature of the Hereford mappamundi in the presentation of the religious sacred places and events makes it a suitable tool for any form of visualized pilgrimage.
At the head of the frame of the Hereford, mappamundi is a representation of the figure of Jesus Christ showing his crucifixion scars in the center. An angel is shown standing on the right side of Jesus holding a cross and three nails in his hands. At the feet of Jesus is a group of four figures including the Virgin Mary, two angels who are presented to be on their knees and a woman putting a crown on the Virgin Mary. The angel on the right-hand side of Jesus calls on the blessed dead using a trumpet “arise and come to the everlasting bliss”. The Hereford map represents some figures on the left of this angel. The writings on the left side of the angel indicate that the figures account for the group of individuals who have arisen from their graves. These figures include the leading angel, a crowned king, the bishop, three nuns, a monk and two persons coming out of the graves. The angel on the left hand of Jesus however, pronounces doom on the lost people also using a trumpet “Arise and go into hell-fire prepared for you”. The figures representing the group of the lost individuals as indicated in the Hereford mappamundi includes six figures that are being dragged to the devil. The devil is depicted as a figure having horns, hooves, and wings. Hell is portrayed as a monster having glaring eyes and menacing teeth. The six souls are dragged to the devil that passes them on to the monster (hell).
The figures and images at the head of the frame part of the map clearly represent the Day of Judgment. Any viewer who looked at this part of the map can visualize the events that will occur during the judgment. The images that have been used by the cartographers have provided a clear representation of the presence of Jesus, the angels and the Devil during the judgment day. This is the belief held by Christians. Viewing of the map will not just give an individual the picture of the events that will occur during the judgment day but will also build one’s spirituality about the issue of judgment. The spiritual pilgrimage to the end of times is likely to be accomplished by viewing of this section of the map. Pilgrims are likely to look into their lives and make necessary changes to avoid being among the lost souls. The Hereford mappamundi have managed to represent clearly the events at the Day of Judgment that can be easily visualized by the pilgrims and that can support their spiritual pilgrimage to the end of times.
The images and figures represented in the Hereford mappamundi enable the viewer to have an imagined pilgrimage as well as a feeling of having accomplished physical pilgrimage to the various sacred places across the world. The viewers are capable of identifying the various sacred and holy places such as Jerusalem from the map to support their imagined pilgrimage to the city. The figures of sites such as the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah also offer an opportunity to experience the pilgrimage of the eyes to these places. The viewers are also capable of experiencing a spiritual pilgrimage by understanding the images and figures presented from the context of the information documented in the bible of the Koran. One does not have to travel to the physical sacred places as perceived by one’s religion; a view of the Hereford mappamundi is capable of offering both spiritual and imagined pilgrimage to the holy places.