Mappa Mundi at St. Bartholomew's

St. Bartholomew's church has its own copy of the Mappa Mundi. The following explanation of the map is taken from the National Geographic website and was first published in Sydenham Life, June 2002

Drawn in England in about 1290, the Mappa Mundi (map of the world) is the only complete wall map of Earth to have survived from the Middle Ages. It's stunningly beautiful and big and complex. But to us today, it's weird and wildly fanciful.

The world is depicted as round and flat and labelled around its circumference with the word MORS (death), indicating that all within the circle must die. It's populated with such diverse creatures as Adam and Eve, Noah and his beasts, Emperor Caesar Augustus, a man riding a very unreallistic crocodile, and an imaginary being called a Sciapod who shelters himself from the burning sun with one huge foot. The 12 winds are named and represented by dragons and grotesque squatting figures.

East, not north, is at the map's top. Jerusalem is the centre of the world. Countries and oceans are squeezed and stretched to fit into the map's circle. Short descriptions offer such wisdom as, "Here are strong and fierce camels."

At the parchment's very top, above the map. Christ sits in judgment. Below him, inside the gates of Heaven, is the Virgin Mary with three attending angels. There's also a winged devil, gleefully dragging sinners toward the gates of hell, and an angel blowing a trumpet to welcome the righteous to Paradise.

The Mappa Mundi is a work of history, zoology, anthropology and especially theology. It reveals how the 13th century scholars, interpreted the world in spiritual terms, and covers all time, from creation to doomsday. Tourists are told to think of it as a kind of picture encyclopedia.

The longer you look, the more pops out. There's a harvest scene with horse, wagon and a farmer with pitchfork. 

There's also a legendary Norwegian, Gansmir, with his skis and ski pole. On his right are two lifelike animals: a bear, and an ape.

Some of the information came from travellers and written accounts. Some apparently came purely from imagination, eg in a frigid climate, people are depicted as having huge ears to wrap themselves against the cold.

The map was drawn on a single sheet of parchment (probably calf skin), bigger than 4 by 5 feet (1.2 by 1.5 metres). It has yellowed with age, and the colours mostly have faded or flaked off. Rivers and sea, once bright blue and green, are brown. Oddly, the Red Sea is still bright red.

Errors in the Mappa Mundi

During the Dark Ages, much previously revealed knowledge was lost. Only through the work of monks who copied old drawings and scripts did some survive. Even many monks couldn't read, so when they copied information they had a high chance of error. A perfect example is that the words for Africa and Europe are transposed.

The map maker probably used itineraries of the time, listing towns along commercial and pilgrim routes, although it's doubtful that the map was intended as a guide for travellers. That's just as well, because geographical errors abound. Scotland, for example, is shown as an island, instead of being firmly attached to England.

The map's purpose is uncertain. A note requests the prayers of "all who possess this history, or shall hear or read or see it," which suggests an educational purpose. Its more than 500 pictures could have provided endless subjects for lectures or sermons.

The original Mappa Mundi is on prominent display at the gorgeous cathedral in Hereford, England.

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