Mundi — the
diversity of the medieval mindset
Visual Arts Christopher Wortley
Medieval world maps: an exhibition at Hereford Cathedral. June 29 October 1 IN THE MIDDLE ages, geography was about a great deal more than maps. The Hereford Mappa Mundi itself was clearly seen as a sacred object, both by its creator, and by the ecclesiastical authorities for centuries thereafter. In contrast to most medieval works, the map was inscribed by its author, Richard of Holdingham, who ask for the prayers of all those who see it, and for the centuries before the Reformation the map was placed in a tryptych with panels depicting the Annunciation, though whether it was used as an altarpiece we may never know.
The present exhibition is the largest collection of medieval maps ever assembled in one place; by doing so the curator has aimed to place the Hereford Mappa Mundi in its historical and intellectual context. This exhibition includes the Duchy of Cornwall map, which can be seen here by the public for the first time, due to the personal interest of the Prince of Wales. The map was recently found in the archives of the Duchy and gives us hope that our knowledge will be made yet more complete as concern of the care of historic objects brings more of them to light.
The exhibition does, however, not only fully demonstrate the riches that we already possess, but also the diversity of the medieval mindset. This is a welcome development, for historians have only recently begun to concentrate on the contribution of medieval man to the story of human development, and this helps us to stop seeing the period as one of ignorance and ritual whose errors were swept away by the Renaissance. Indeed it is clear that the Renaissance was only possible as a result of centuries of medieval, and largely clerical, scholarship.
What the exhibition demonstrates is that the Mappae Mundi do not represent an orthodox scheme, simply replicated through the decades, but more properly a series of maps of the intellect of medieval scholars. Richard of Holdingham centred his map upon Jerusalem, but others followed a more classical tradition, and placed the centre of their known world at the island of Delos. In many ways the maps become more fascinating as the geography of their authors becomes more speculative: Biblical places, and figures are placed alongside those of classical mythology and the strange animals and demons that haunted the medieval mind. It would be interesting to see what contemporary replacements would be drawn for basilisks, cyno cephales or the blemmyae if modem men were to draw maps of their own minds.
We can perhaps relate much better to the medieval mind as we make ever increasing use of the Internet, which, like medieval Christendom, has little use for the political geography of states and nations. In one respect, however, the Internet is at a disadvantage in comparison to medieval scholarship: while both have a transitional consciousness, and an universal language (techno-English for Vulgate Latin), the Internet has as yet no Jerusalem, and therefore no means of organising the wealth of information that it contains. Medieval man knew where he was : most modem men do not. Not only do we no longer have the grounds to reject the Mappae Mundi for their literal inaccuracy, but they can teach us something we badly need to know. Whether there is such a state as post-modernism, we certainly live in a post-rational age.
This exhibition is a joy to visit and shows to full advantage the architectural mastery of Sir William Whitfield's prize-winning museum. Londoners can look forward to an equally inspiring exercise in architectural context when Sir William brings to reality his scheme for Paternoster Square by St Paul's. This exhibition is the achievement of Dominic Harbour, and shows just what an imaginative curator can do. The visits are made all the more delightful by the commitment and knowledge of the voluntary guides and your correspondent would like to express his particular thanks to Jennifer Holmes for her great kindness and helpfulness on this visit. The bookshop is well stocked, and the museum provides excellent tea.