Looking Beyond: Globalization in the Catalan Atlas of the Fourteenth Century

Looking Beyond: Globalization in the Catalan Atlas of the Fourteenth Century

Looking Beyond: Globalization in the Catalan Atlas of the Fourteenth Century

By Kathleen Holland

Paper given at the Fifth Annual Graduate Student Symposium: Language and Communication in the Middle Ages (2010)

Abstract: Historians have explored the Catalan Atlas as a liminal object, sharing qualities of both the allegorical thirteenth-century Mappae Mundi and the geographic accuracy of the portolan charts of the fourteenth-century. The question that drives my inquiry is whether this map, which is representative of the growing knowledge and connection medieval Europe cultivated with lands and cultures beyond the known boundaries of the Holy Land to the east and Northern Africa to the south, can be considered expressive of a form of late Medieval globalization. Through a critical examination of what is implied in this definition of globalization, and then linking the idea to my reading of the iconographic elements within the map, their literary source material and the identity of the map maker himself, my conclusions are multivalent. The analysis shows that the map has elements within it that come from non-European, or perhaps more specifically non-Christian cultures, namely the Muslim and Jewish cultures of Medieval Spain. Through these elements the mapmaker signifies the identity of the lands and peoples beyond the well known area of the Mediterranean Sea. In this process, the creator has made use of material from contemporary popular Alexander romances and legends, but has corrupted tales springing from Alexander the Great’s forays into India and beyond, turning then into Christian allegory. As such, it has been argued that the map was used for a nationalist intent. So while it can be said that there is within the visual program of the map a strong sense of the lands to the east and south of the Mediterranean being shown through a European perspective, it is my thesis that the Catalan Atlas is a product of globalization that was created from communication not just across land, but across cultures and ideologies, This can be traced through the specific use of European travel journals such as Marco Polo’s adventures. The difference between these written accounts and the visual program of the elaborately illustrated map is that travel is depicted in one direction only–outward from Europe.

The Catalan Atlas is a large scale map, dated 1375, that is made up of six leaves of vellum originally folded in half but later cut and mounted on wooden boards measuring approximately 65 by 50 centimeters each, the entirety of which folds up into a relatively transportable compressed book-like form. The first two leaves reveal various astrological and cosmological data of the period, highlighting the known qualities of the world and illustrated with various charts and diagrams, including that of a male figure written over with symbols of the zodiac. The last four vellum leaves contain the Atlas itself.

It has been argued that the Catalan Atlas was the product of the Majorcan Jewish mapmaker Abraham Cresques (d.1387) and his son Jefuda, who were patronized by the king of Aragon Pedro IV (1336-1387) in the latter half of the fourteenth century. As a royally commissioned piece, the Catalan Atlas is thought to have been a gift from the royal house of Aragon to the newly crowned king of France, Charles VI (1368-1422). Indeed, the atlas is known to have been in France after 1378 as it is mentioned in an inventory of the Louvre from that year.

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