Monday, June 6, 2011

Hereford Mappa Mundi on show again

The Mappa Mundi was drawn on a sheet of vellum 64 x 54 inches, supported by an oak frame, with the actual map contained within a circle 52 inches in diameter. Most of the writing was with black ink, with red and gold leaf used for emphasis, and blue or green for rivers and seas . The Red Sea however, was depicted in red. Mountain ranges were indicated by scalloped designs and towns by walls and towers.

The Mappa Mundi from Hereford Cathedral, Herefordshire
Maps like the Mappa Mundi were produced in considerable numbers throughout the medieval period in "studios" dedicated to that purpose. A number of monks would have worked under a master such as Richard of Haldingham, making numerous copies of this and other manuscripts used by the Church for tuition.
The map bears the name of its author 'Richard of Haldingham or Lafford' (Holdingham and Sleaford in Lincolnshire). Recent research suggests a date of about 1300 for the creation of the map.

Superimposed on to the continents are drawings of the history of humankind and the marvels of the natural world. These 500 or so drawings include of around 420 cities and towns, 15 Biblical events, 33 plants, animals, birds and strange creatures, 32 images of the peoples of the world and 8 pictures from classical mythology. 
Hereford cathedral Chained Library
It shows the source of the River Oxus, an important landmark since classical times, situated correctly near Samarkand. However, it is shown flowing into the Caspian rather than the Aral Sea.. India is described lavishly as having "5000 cities", providing images of a land of fabulous wealth and diversity. Here, a multitude of mythological races, beasts and amazing phenomena jostle for space and we are indebted to the cartographer for finding enough room for his drawing of the Sciapod, an extraordinary being who sheltered himself from the heat of the sun with his single enormous foot. Hereford appears in the map alongside the River Wye, its location marked by a drawing of the Cathedral. 

At the top of the map is depicted Christ in Majesty sitting at the Day of Judgement. To His Right and Left angels summon the blessed and turn away the unrepentant. At His Feet the Blessed Virgin intercedes for those who have shown devotion to her. Among the chosen is shown a king wearing a crown and a bishop with his mitre. Behind them come supplicants on their knees in prayer. 

Christopher de Hamel, a leading authority on medieval manuscripts, has said of the Mappa Mundi, '... it is without parallel the most important and most celebrated medieval map in any form, the most remarkable illustrated English manuscript of any kind, and certainly the greatest extant thirteenth-century pictorial manuscript.'

To the modern mind much of the content seems so wildly fanciful that it is difficult to believe that the same people who created the vast stone cathedrals, abbeys and castles of the medieval period, should have been persuaded so easily by the map's incredible claims. We may be wrong in imagining that the users of such maps were so impressionable. The map's limited value as a geographical tool was more than compensated for by its worth as a means of instructing the largely illiterate laity. Above all the confusion, doubt and bewildering complexity of the world as shown in the map was the dependable figure of Christ. Here was shown something worth believing in, the remedy for doubt and despair, and the path to salvation.

The medieval Mappa Mundi is going on show again at Hereford Cathedral

The new display features an audio visual presentation and allows people to get closer to the map, which is also now better lit.
The exhibition also features a "turning the pages" interactive screen for people to explore some of the cathedral's ancient books.
Cathedral staff have spent the past three weeks removing the old exhibition and installing the new one.
The Mappa Mundi exhibition first opened in 1996 following the completion of the New Library Building.

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