Richard Gough, the 18th-century antiquarian, was describing what would later become one of the most famous maps in the world: the Hereford World Map. When it was first created it was housed in a wooden triptych some 10 feet wide, and would probably have been displayed in a prominent place in the cathedral, an aid to devotion and instruction.
Initially regarded with reverence, in the centuries that followed its creation the Hereford World Map fell into disuse. At one point – perhaps during the Civil War – it was stored under the floor of the cathedral’s Audley Chapel. Worse was to follow. In the 1780s the wings of the triptych were destroyed or lost, and in the early 19th century the map was found under a pile of lumber. In 1855 it was taken to the British Museum, where the back panel of the original triptych was removed and mislaid; it was only rediscovered in the 1980s. Although various repairs were undertaken, including patches added in the 19th century and parchment strip edge repair in 1948, many of these actually caused further distortions.
The Hereford World Map was created by a group of gifted craftsmen and artists. Detailed analysis of the techniques used reveal the hand of a professional scribe (writing both in Anglo-Norman and Latin), at least one artist who drew outlines, another to outline in ink and add colour, and possibly others who drew rivers, mountain ranges and the decorative foliage border. Finally, a professional limner added display lettering in gold in a beautiful Lombardic script. The map was created from a single calf skin of exceptional size and quality, specially treated to preserve its luminous finish. From this splendid base to the carved oak triptych in which the map was displayed, everything about its production suggests an exacting, expensive process that took a year or more to conclude.
All of God's creation revealed
The map was originally displayed in a large wooden triptych painted with the Virgin Mary on one wing and the Angel Gabriel on the other. It may have been intended as an altarpiece, an aid to preaching or teaching, or both. Certainly the map was not intended to be used as we use maps today. Despite a remarkable wealth of geographical detail, this was not an aid to navigating Europe, or even the Holy Land. At the top of the map’s border, Christ sits in judgement over all of God’s creation, while the damned and the saved are divided beneath him and Mary prays for those who have sought her intercession. Eden sits just below, while Jerusalem is at the very centre. The legendary cities of Troy and Carthage are marked, as well as the more familiar Venice and Durham. The Minotaur’s labyrinth in Crete is shown along with geographical and biblical details like the Nile Delta and the route taken by the Israelites in the desert. Curious human tribes and mythical beasts roam the earth, particularly around its fringes.
This, then, is a spiritual and historical map, which conveys the teachings of the Bible and depicts the wonders of history and legend. Cosmological, ethnographical, geographical, historical, theological and zoological information all come together in a single composition, crowned by a religious scene intended to lead the viewer’s thoughts to God. This reveals a heroic ambition on the part of the map-makers – to create an encyclopaedia and meditative aid in one beautiful object. For the observer today, it is a fascinating visual narrative in which every detail tells a story.
The Hereford World Map is the largest mappa mundi still in existence and it is fortunate that such a fine example has even survived the vicissitudes of the centuries. The map has risen in prominence once more; it is listed by UNESCO, has featured in several major television programmes, including the acclaimed BBC series Seven Ages of Britain, and attracts large numbers of visitors to Hereford Cathedral. Over 700 years since the map’s creation, this new reproduction restores the beauty and detail of the original. It allows us to see the map in as close a state as possible to its former glory. A restored reproduction that remains scrupulously faithful to the original Scholars estimate that the original creation of the map took a team of artists a year or more to complete. The process of creating this reproduction has taken almost as long. Its success is testament to the skill, not only of the panel of academic experts, but of the digital experts involved. The result is a thoroughly authentic and sensitive restoration, that allows us to glimpse the original vibrancy of this medieval work of art.