Humans have been mapping their world for centuries. Maps are not just tools for way-finding but are a medium for conceptualizing the world. Though they may purport to represent the world as it is, maps are highly subjective artifacts, and a map’s creation is always situated within the social, cultural, and ideological context of the maker. One of the first major works in cartography was the five-book Geographia by Ptolemy (circa 90-168), which mapped the world as it was known to the Roman Empire in the second century CE. It is notable for its application of a grid and coordinate system and for the inclusion of a discussion of Ptolemy’s cartographic methods. It is the first work to offer a systematic explanation of latitude and longitude.
After the classical period, sources of knowledge and authority were relocated within a Christian framework. Theology held more influence in cartography than empirical data, and scientific works like Ptolemy’s were largely forgotten. Medieval maps served primarily to illustrate religious or literary texts until the thirteenth century, when large, freestanding maps were created for public display (Whitfield 1994: 12).
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, two influences served to secularize map-making. The first was the empirical sea charts created in maritime centers of northern Italy and eastern Spain beginning around 1300. The second (and greater) challenge to religious cartography was the early-fifteenth-century rediscovery of Ptolemy’s geographical works. They appeared first in Latin manuscripts in 1406 and reintroduced concepts such as measuring the earth, precisely locating places through a system of coordinates, and calculating the projection of the spherical earth onto a two-dimensional plane (Whitfield 1994: 36).
The advent of map printing around 1475 reinforced the Ptolemaic model, and it once again became the dominant model for maps (Whitfield 1994: 48). Maps became more accessible and took on new political and commercial dimensions. Printing was important to cartography because of its ability to produce essentially identical copies (Thrower 2007:59). With this came the standardization of a cartographic language. Previously, individual mapmakers used different styles of lettering and had unique ways of representing elements such as relief and wind direction.
|Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration of Jesus|
|Note that this map is oriented with the West at the top|
In the seventeenth century, the atlas, a systematic and comprehensive collection of maps of uniform size, became the dominant cartographic form. The same plates for atlas maps were sold or bequeathed from one publisher to another and were used, often unaltered, for decades (Bagrow 1964: 180). This trend can be seen in the Josse collection, where maps from different atlases look relatively the same.
The first half of the nineteenth century was also a period of great progress for mapping. Commercial and government map publishing grew, and the thematic map, a type of map that illustrates a particular theme within a geographic area, increased in popularity. Atlases and wall maps made the new material more accessible to the public (Thrower 2007:125) Throughout the 1800s, mapmaking continued to standardize. The beginning of the modern period of cartography dates to 1891 and the formal proposal for an International Map of the World (Thrower 2007: 163)
While the maps are not specifically labeled as historical, it is clear how inextricable the biblical history was from the physical reality. Alongside the typical geographic elements, there are insets and glosses of the biblical, often Christian, world. This implies that the mapmaker not only personally thought this information important to include, but that the viewers of the map would deem it important as well, even on an otherwise secular map. This junction of empirical ideal and religious imagination makes these maps all the more fascinating.
Description by Katherine Morley, Archives & Special Collections Assistant and M.A. candidate in Anthropology
Bagrow, Leo. History of Cartography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Goren, Haim. “Sacred, but Not Surveyed: Nineteenth-Century Surveys of Palestine” Imago Mundi. Vol. 54 2002, pp. 87-110.
Long, Burke O. Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models, and Fantasy Travels. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2003.
McLean, Matthew. The Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster: Describing the World in the Reformation. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.
Thrower, Norman J.W. Maps & Civilization: Cartography in Culture and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2007. 3rd Edition.
Whitfield, Peter. The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 1994.