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Wednesday 30 June 2010

Maps of the spiritual mind

I visited the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library.
The exhibition exhibits the power and propaganda that maps have exercised since around the 1500s.  However, the medieval maps interested me most.
They give us a way in to the medieval mind.  Their maps merge seamlessly the geographical world, of which their knowledge is limited, and the spiritual world.  Anything beyond their physical knowledge they populate with mythical beasts and imagery of fear and desire.  I am reminded of the saying about Gods:  before Man climbed the mountains he thought the Gods lived on the mountains;  once Man had climbed the mountains, he believed that the Gods lived in the clouds;  once Man had flown above the clouds, he believed that the Gods must live beyond the earth's atmosphere... now that Man has reached into Space, the Gods exist in another dimension from ours...
The medieval mind does not see a distinction between the spiritual and the geographical located.  Their maps are spiritual maps, maps of belief.  Their maps attempt to record the history of the world (their world, as they see it) by locating things within it:  the centre of the map is Jerusalem, so the whole world revolves around a religious and spiritual core.  The world is mapped out as if it is made up of the body of Christ, his head appearing at the top, his hands outstretched at the left and right extremities of the map, as if crucified, his feet at the bottom.  It reminds me of the old Norse legends, how the mountains and forests are actually the muscles and hair of a giant, which gives you a strong feeling of the Earth as a living organism beneath our feet.  The medieval maps suggest that the world is the embodiment of their spiritual beliefs and as we walk upon it and move from one location to the next we are exploring and making contact with those beliefs.
It makes me think of the power of the journey of a pilgrim to a holy place.  How these maps could have influenced the idea of a journey of devotion.  How inextricably linked physical journeys are to the journeys that are our lives.

Click this link to see details of one of the medieval maps at the British Library: Psalter World Map, c.1265

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