Every week or so I’ll be sharing an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. It’s releasing this spring from Cascade Books! The book shows how walking the medieval world can help us walk our world with God.
This excerpt sets the stage for what the book unpacks . . .
I always find it fascinating when a work of art reveals something about the way it was made. In a Rembrandt painting, for example, globs of paint ride the surface of the canvas, revealing each dab and stroke of the master’s brush. Paintings in medieval manuscript books, by contrast, can be so transparent that the artist’s preliminary sketch peeps out from under the surface. In both cases, we see a bit of the creative process at work.
Medieval maps sometimes reveal their making, too. In the center of the Hereford Map, there is a small pinprick or hole that is clearly visible to the naked eye (as long as you are close enough to the map to see it). Scholars believe that this rupture in the parchment marks the spot on which the mapmaker anchored his compass as he drew the circumference of the earth. Given the map’s four-foot diameter, that must have been some compass!
This small record of the map’s making has a great deal of meaning. The little pinprick lies in the exact center of the world. And there, in that spot, an artist drew the city of Jerusalem. Above the city, another artist sketched in a small picture of the Crucifixion. We can almost compare the hole in the parchment to the holes in Christ’s hands, feet, and sides as he is nailed to the cross. The map’s makers may not have thought of the pinprick in this way, but they certainly knew the significance of Jerusalem. With their pinprick and picture, they were following a time-honored tradition that placed this most sacred of cities in the center of the inhabited world.
What a beautiful way to make a map! Begin with the cross. Let Jerusalem shape the contours of the earth. The map’s making contains an echo of what God did in the beginning, creating the world and ordering it around his son.
It also leads to questions about our world. Each day, we give shape to our world through our beliefs and our way of life. What does our world look like? Does it begin with the cross? Is it given form and coherence by Jesus Christ? Or has it begun to lose the perfect shape the creator gave it? These are challenging questions, even for Christians. So many things clutter our world—so many distractions, competing beliefs, and false promises—that Jesus sometimes gets crowded out. We forget the place that he once occupied in our life, the passion that we once had for him. Our world may no longer be recognizable to us.
Maybe it’s time to reshape our world. Time to order it, chart it, plot its contours anew. To do so, we need to think like cartographers of old. We need to think medieval. That is the task of the present chapter. As we become familiar with medieval maps, we will discover how mapmakers saw their world, especially its sacred center. In the process, we may get the urge to become cartographers, too. By chapter’s end, we may find ourselves pulling out our own compass and redrawing our little world.
Watch my website for the release date and news about the book’s launch!