Fun with Maps, Cont’d

Published:March 29, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

In an earlier post, the folks at the David Rumsey Map Collection showed off a selection of maps as time lines. So let’s riff on that theme—maps as symbols of things besides just space.

Take the (gorgeous) topmost map, for instance. It shows the city of Tenochtitlán before it was conquered by Hernán Cortés and remade into Mexico City. Built on a lake, the city is surrounded by water and crisscrossed by causeways. Its central square, meanwhile, features four facing temples separated, on the map, by a headless man whose fingers drip curlicues of (possibly) blood. Created in 1524 and published widely throughout Europe, the map—according to the scholar Barbara E. Mundy—was probably created by an Indian artist who understood the symbolic importance of that square, those temples, and the headless sacrifices to Mexica gods.

The second map, known as the Lambeth Palace Map, was created in London around 1300. It’s an example of a T-O map, which means it consists of two concentric circles, with the space between the outer and the inner circles representing a great ocean. The inner circle is divided into three regions: the top half of the circle is Asia, below which are Europe (to the left, or north) and Africa. A T-shaped set of borders suggests the Mediterranean Sea (separating Europe from Africa) and the rivers Don (separating Europe from Asia) and Nile (separating Africa from Asia). East is at the top because, according to the Bible, the world began in the East and, the medievals believed, would end in the West. This religious symbolism is carried further here by incorporating (literally) Christ on the cross. Oh, and for those of you playing along at home, notice how the Tenochtitlán map plays off those concentric circles in a T-O map.

Finally, the third map, or Waldseemüller map, was published in 1507 and showed the entire world as it was known just a few years after Columbus. (Compare it with the second map in the earlier post.) It is the first map ever to use the word “America.” Created within the Habsburg empire, the map’s larger shape self-consciously resembles the Habsburg symbol: a great, double-headed eagle.

You can learn more about these last two maps in Toby Lester’s wonderful book, The Fourth Part of the World (2009).