A precious work of art that opens our eyes to the medieval world
he Hereford World Map was created by a group of gifted craftsmen and artists. Detailed analysis of the techniques used reveal the hand of a professional scribe (writing both in Anglo-Norman and Latin), at least one artist who drew outlines, another to outline in ink and add colour, and possibly others who drew rivers, mountain ranges and the decorative foliage border. Finally, a professional limner added display lettering in gold in a beautiful Lombardic script. The map was created from a single calf skin of exceptional size and quality, specially treated to preserve its luminous finish. From this splendid base to the carved oak triptych in which the map was displayed, everything about its production suggests an exacting, expensive process that took a year or more to conclude.
Other medieval mappae mundi have survived – but none is so large, detailed or elaborately decorated as this. It is quite simply the finest and largest in existence.
The map was originally displayed in a large wooden triptych painted with the Virgin Mary on one wing and the Angel Gabriel on the other. It may have been intended as an altarpiece, an aid to preaching or teaching, or both. Certainly the map was not intended to be used as we use maps today. Despite a remarkable wealth of geographical detail, this was not an aid to navigating Europe, or even the Holy Land. At the top of the map’s border, Christ sits in judgement over all of God’s creation, while the damned and the saved are divided beneath him and Mary prays for those who have sought her intercession. Eden sits just below, while Jerusalem is at the very centre. The legendary cities of Troy and Carthage are marked, as well as the more familiar Venice and Durham. The Minotaur’s labyrinth in Crete is shown along with geographical and biblical details like the Nile Delta and the route taken by the Israelites in the desert. Curious human tribes and mythical beasts roam the earth, particularly around its fringes.
This, then, is a spiritual and historical map, which conveys the teachings of the Bible and depicts the wonders of history and legend. Cosmological, ethnographical, geographical, historical, theological and zoological information all come together in a single composition, crowned by a religious scene intended to lead the viewer’s thoughts to God. This reveals a heroic ambition on the part of the map-makers – to create an encyclopaedia and meditative aid in one beautiful object. For the observer today, it is a fascinating visual narrative in which every detail tells a story.