Art and the Knowledge of Distant Lands

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Art and the Knowledge of Distant Lands

Satisfying the Thirst for Knowledge.

The Crusades to the Holy Land during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had whetted the European appetite for contact with foreign and distant lands and knowledge of strange peoples and customs. Despite the risks of travel, individuals set out on long-distance journeys and brought back tales that circulated throughout Europe and inspired the late medieval imagination. The travels of the young Venetian Marco Polo to the Mongol court of Khublai Khan and of the Englishman John Mandeville to both familiar and exotic regions became known through written accounts as well as through the programs of illustration developed to accompany these texts. During this period there also developed a new genre of world map, offering large circular depictions of the earth that included not only place names and topographical features, but images of unusual peoples and mythical animals believed to live in remote parts of the world. The largest example (destroyed in an air raid on Hanover, Germany, during World War II) was the Ebstorf Map (c. 1239), which was twelve feet in diameter and painted on thirty goatskins. In a typical symbolic representation of cosmology, the world is depicted as a disc in the hand of Christ, with his head at the top and feet below. Still to be seen today is the Hereford Map in Hereford Cathedral in England (65 by 53 inches, dated 1290), which shows an image of the crucifixion in Jerusalem, as well as a griffin fighting with men over emeralds, and numerous other exotic animals such as parrots, crocodiles, and camels. Visual images therefore assisted the growing late medieval thirst for empirical knowledge of the world.

The Book of Wonders.

"Empirical knowledge" is a relative term when applied to the Middle Ages. Most of the works of travel literature and accounts of journeys relied at least in part upon standard formulas, previous works, or even ancient accounts of the "monstrous races" of the earth. A good example is a manuscript of the Book of Wonders, produced in early fifteenth-century France. This work included the travel accounts of both Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville. Marco Polo (c. 1254–1324) was a Venetian who set out for China in 1271 with his father and uncle, both merchants. At that time China was ruled as one of four Mongol khanates under Khublai Khan, and the Polo family bore letters for the Mongol leader from Pope Gregory X. The journey took four years and was followed by a seventeen-year sojourn in the service of the great Khan, during which Marco traveled extensively throughout China. He returned to Italy in 1295 and dictated his book, A Description of the World, while a prisoner during the war between the rival city-states of Venice and Genoa. The Travels of John Mandeville was in fact a compilation of geographical texts from diverse sources (including medieval encyclopedic works), and, although attributed to an Englishman, was probably first written in mid-fourteenth century Flanders. It was divided into two parts: a sort of pilgrim's guide to the Holy Land and a description of travels in the Far East. Like Marco Polo's text, it circulated widely in the late Middle Ages and helped spur a popular fascination with outlying territories and exotic peoples (the circulation of such works would only increase with the invention of printing and the voyage of Columbus to the New World).

Illustrating the Monstrous Races.

One famous image from the Book of Wonders depicts three inhabitants of "Syberia," who were described by Marco Polo as "wildmen" and who were illustrated as representative of the marvelous races of the East. In fact, these figures—one a blemmyae with his head on his chest; the second a sciopode or shadow foot with only one leg ending in a huge foot that provided shade from the sun; and the third a naked wildman with club and shield—refer back to the descriptions of the monstrous races from antiquity (such as those encountered by Alexander the Great) that were compiled in the early Middle Ages by Isidore of Seville and passed along into later medieval compendia. Extreme climates were often thought to account for the deformities of these grotesque figures. Although opportunities for travel were increasing and readers were eager for factual information, the images in these books tended to reproduce mythical and imaginary legends, so that, ironically, real travelers, even as late asChristopher Columbus, continued to expect to find such peoples.

Topographical Maps.

Another perspective on the world, with attendant visual imagery, was provided by late medieval cartographers. Knowledge of classical cartography combined with newer and more accurate technology enabled the creation of topographical maps that bore little resemblance to the earlier maps that typically placed Jerusalem at the center of the world and imagined the earth as the very body of Christ, whose head, hands, and feet could often be seen projecting from the top, bottom, and sides. A splendid example of the newer variety is the famous "Catalan Atlas" of 1375, commissioned by King Pedro IV of Aragon and executed by a Jewish cartographer from Palma de Mallorca named Abraham Cresques (1325–1387). The completed Atlas was given as a gift to King Charles V of France, and was intended to assist in the navigation of the seas. Several different cosmographical, astronomical, and astrological texts were copied onto the parchment in order to provide practical information on how to gauge tides and reckon time at night. Other illustrations, calendars, and charts document the state of contemporary knowledge on the planets and constellations, the tides, and so on. The actual map itself shows an indebtedness to the literary traditions of Marco Polo, Mandeville, and their precursors. There are also many biblical and mythological references, such as Moses' crossing of the Red Sea with the Israelites, the Tower of Babel, the magi following the star, Alexander the Great, pygmies battling cranes, etc. Overall, this unique artifact provides a very compelling demonstration of the accumulated learning of the Middle Ages and the effectiveness of visual traditions when deployed for such a purpose. Of course, it also points toward the historic sea voyages of over a century later and their discoveries that would forever alter the European outlook on the world and that belong more properly to the period of the Renaissance.


John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge, Mass., 1981; rpt. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

G. Grosjean, ed., Der Katalanische Weltatlas (Dietikon-Zurich, Switzerland: Graff, 1977).

Iain Higgins, Writing East: The 'Travels' of Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

John Larner, Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999).

J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988).

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Art and the Knowledge of Distant Lands

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