Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Biblical Perspective - The Psalter I

A Psalter is a book containing psalms, and this tiny map, barely 6 inches (15 centimetres) high and 4 inches (10 centimetres) wide, was created in England to illustrate such a book some time between 1215 and 1250. It was never intended to be used for travel purposes and would have been of very limited value if anyone had tried to do so. Rather it is a symbolic map, which was designed to convey and reinforce certain messages, as, of course, were the words of the psalms that accompanied it. Even so, it does provide a wonderful insight into the way the geography of the world appeared when seen through the lens of Medieval Christianity. Despite its size it contains a wealth of detail, some geographically sound, some pure fantasy, and much in between.

The map is dominated by the figure of Christ omnipotently presiding over a world spread out before him, almost like a table. The stars of heaven provide the backdrop, while angels worship him at either side. The two dragons crouching in the dark at the bottom of the world represent another, darker kingdom.

The world itself is presented as a circle surrounded by sea and at its centre is Jerusalem. As with many maps the choice of what is placed in the central position is usually deliberate. Perhaps more significantly, and even subliminally, it also acts as the point from which other features are then viewed and related.

This map is orientated with East at the top. This ensures that the highly symbolic Garden of Eden appears in a prominent position just below the figure of Christ and with the sun directly in between. The somewhat pensive faces of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Temptation can be clearly seen in the Garden, which is enclosed by mountains. Five rivers flow out of Paradise and the familiar names of Ganges, Tigris and Euphrates can easily be read. While the latter two are reasonably accurate in location, the Ganges is clearly not.

The details on the map actually become more familiar to the modern eye if it is rotated clockwise by 90° so that North is at the top. It is then possible to recognize the fan of blue zigzags representing the Nile delta as it enters the Mediterranean Sea. The green of the Mediterranean can also be followed to the West where it flows into the sea that encompasses the whole world. North of the Mediterranean one can make out Greece and its islands in the Aegean Sea, and Italy, although France and Spain seem to have been rolled up together. In relation to its purpose this would have been of little importance to the map's creator. When we look to the south of the Nile, myth and legend rather than fact informs the features presented. The lack of knowledge of this region had led to the belief that the people who lived here were different in form. Those shown here, especially the ones with faces in their chests, would continue to feature on maps of Africa for several hundred years.

With its audience in mind the map gives over half of the world it represents to the Holy Land. It strives to make as many biblical references as possible and invites the viewer to make others. The Rivers of Jor and Dan can be seen flowing into the Sea of Galilee in which a large fish swims. Whether this is an indication of its role as a food source or an invitation to think about the story of Jesus and the loaves and fishes is not known. Perhaps it was both.

This map is almost certainly a copy of an earlier one but the identity of the person( s) who worked on it is lost forever. It is most likely that he undertook the work in a monastery or religious house setting. Representations of the world through Christian teachings are collectively known as Mappaemundi of which only a small number survive. The one shown here is among the smallest of these, which makes the amount of detail contained so remarkable. The fate of the largest one, known as the Ebstorf Mappaemundi (some 11 ½ feet/3.5 metres across), is a reminder of just how precarious their existence has been over the centuries. It was destroyed in an air raid in 1943.

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