This outstanding world map, made in c. 1291, is one of the most impressive masterpieces of medieval cartography. It is named after the English village where it is located. This superb piece of art, the largest medieval world map that has survived, is a fundamental reflection of how the world was understood and represented in the Middle Ages. Thus, it is one of the most interesting examples of medieval cartography, and its rich decoration and program of descriptive texts make it very engaging for students.
The Hereford world map does not only represent geographical features; it contains a complex message that deals with the coexistence of space and time in a cartographical frame, and uses a great number of classical and medieval sources to show an enigmatic and cryptic view of the world.
A Reflection of Space and Time
This world map is made on parchment, and measures 158 x 133 cm. It represents the known world at the end of the thirteenth century with great attention to detail, portraying a very complex depiction of the world.
As is common in medieval cartography, the map is oriented to the east. Thus, Asia is located at the top, while Europe and Africa share the lower part of the map, with the Mediterranean separating those two continents; but, interestingly, the names of Europe and Africa were interchanged, so that we can see the name “Africa” in Europe and “Europa” in Africa.
The map depicts a huge amount of information, both textual and graphic. This information is derived from many ancient and medieval sources, such as Isidore of Seville, Orosius, Pliny, Strabo, and the Bible, among others. Place names and iconographic references are present all over the map, which not only portrays geographical features, but also historical events.
Mythical and strange creatures share space with real references, as well as with elements from biblical history, such as the Ark of Noah on Ararat Mount and the Crucifixion, located near the center of the map.
Nevertheless, everything that happens in this mappamundi is controlled by Christ, who is represented at the very top of the frame, outside the physical world, surrounded by angels and dispensing justice in the Final Judgement.
Thus, the message of the map is based on the coming of the Final Judgement, as well as in the absolute control of God. If we begin at the east and proceed westward, the first place represented at the top of the Hereford map is the Terrestrial Paradise, the spot that was the beginning of human history.
As we look down at the map, i.e. to the west, the historical events and geographical references are transferred to the present, until we reach the Pillars of Hercules at the very bottom, which represent the end of time.
Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that the map, i.e. the whole world, is situated in a large frame that contains the letters M-O-R-S, that is, the Latin word for “death”.
In the Hereford world map, the coexistence between space and time is a fundamental feature, which shows us a key example of how the world was understood in the medieval context.
This map is still preserved in Hereford Cathedral, and is one of the most important artifacts in the history of cartography.
An Enigmatic Authorship and a Turbulent History
Although it has been argued that the author of this world map was Richard of Haldingham (also known as Richard de Bello), since his name is written on the map, this attribution has not been widely accepted.
The world map has been always located in Hereford cathedral, though it has suffered damage, as is easily visible, for example, in the cuts and scratches over the drawing of Paris, perhaps intentional damage stemming from anti-French sentiment.
The map has been repeatedly moved inside the Cathedral, and it is not easy to determine where it was originally located. In any case, it is believed that it was once the center piece of a triptych, according to a note written in the 1680s.
In 1988, the world map was going to be auctioned off to fund the operation of the Cathedral, but, after a strong controversy and public protest, the project was canceled and the map is still on display at the Cathedral.