Take a Close Look at the Catalan Atlas, One of the Most Lavish and Famous Medieval World Maps


The world as seen from Majorca in 1375 (click image to enlarge).

catalan atlas world map

Here is some excellent commentary on the map by u/Senexz at The Cresques Project:

“The Catalan Atlas, drawn in 1375 by Cresques Abraham in Majorca and currently in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, is a hybrid of the marine chart and the mappamundi. The map consists of 6 panels (each panel consists of 2 sheets that originally were connected to each other) that show Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea in the style of the marinecharts; in the south it shows Africa based on the knowledge of the Majorcan Jews; and the east is drawn in the style of mappamundi, rich with illustrations and descriptions of various characters. The first 2 panels (which are not included in the image) describe knowledge about the world and the universe based on Isidore of Seville and Honorius Augustodunensis. The Catalan Atlas is special because it is one of the first world maps that incorperates the places described by Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville and missionaries/diplomats who traveled to the far east.

The Classics and the christian world views were important parts of the medieval worldview. On this map we see references to the Classics, to the Old Testament and (relatively few) references to the New Testament. I’ll discuss some of the characters and locations present on this chart.

Panel III (Spain, France, Ireland, western north Africa, England, Sardinia and Corsica)

Iceland/Shetland (South is up)

North of Schotland and Ireland we can spot the addition of Iceland/Shetland. Not much was known about the Viking colony Iceland in central, western and southern Europe.

Translation: ‘Island of Stillanda [Shetland or Iceland], where they speak the language of Norway and are Christians.’

Canary Islands/Fortunate Islands

The Fortunate Islands were part of the many legendary Atlantic islands. The Fortunate Islands were based on Greek legends who believed that the gods would send mortal heroes to the Fortunate Islands for an afterlife of gentle weather and eternal bliss. Pliny the Elder placed the islands a few hundred miles off the coast of North Africa. The Islands were rediscovered by Lanzarotto Malocello in 1312 during his search for traces of the Vivaldi brother’s expedition. The Vivaldi Brothers were two Genoese merchants who left Genoa in 1291, after the fall of Akko in the Middle East, in search of a new route to India. The Fortunate Islands were the western most point of the oikoumene, the habital/known/civilised world according to the Greeks.

Translation (South is up): ‘The Fortunate Islands [Canary Islands] are found in the great sea, towards the left and near the end of Occident, but out at sea. Isidore says in his XV book that these islands are called fortunate because there are replete with all sorts of goods: cereals, fruits, herbs, and trees. Pagans believe this is the Paradise due to the mild sun and the plentifulness of the land. Isidore also says that the trees reach 140 feet of height and are full of fruits and birds. Here there is honey and milk, in particular in the island of Capraria, thus named due to the multitude of goats. There is also the island of Canaria, thus named due to the multitude of dogs, big and strong. Plius [Pliny] Master of Mappaemundi says that among the Fortunate Islands there is one with all the goods of the world because fruits grow at the top of the mountains without planting or seeding. Trees are never bare of leafs or without their aromatic fruits. They eat all these things during part of the year for they reap the grass the other part. This is why the pagans from the Indies believe that their souls go to these islands when they die where they live in eternity off the scent of those fruits; they believe it to be their paradise, but the truth is that is a fable.’

Jaume Ferrer

Almost all information about this Majorcan explorer comes from this map. He set out in a galley in search of the legendary “River of Gold”, one of the many legends that would motivate explorers in the 15th century to explore the African coast. His position on the map might suggest that he sailed past Cape Bojador, a legendarily treacherous cape. If he did indeed return from his journey Ferrer would preceed Gil Eanes by almost a whole century in this feat.

Translation: ‘The ship of Jaume Ferrer departed for the River of Gold on the 10th of August of 1350, the feast of St. Lawrence.’

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa was the king of the Malian Empire from 1312 till 1337. He is depicted here with a lump of gold in his right hand and a staff with a fleur-de-lis in his left hand. He became famous in Europe for his wealth after his pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj). The story goes that he brought so much gold to Alexandria during his journey that the gold market collapsed.

Most of the gold in Europe came from Africa below the Sahara. Gold caravans would travel through the Sahara to reach northern Africa and from there the Italian city states like Pisa and Genua or merchants from Aragon would get it across the Mediterranean Sea. The enormous wealth of Mansa Musa increased European interest to explore unknown regions in Africa.

Translation: ‘This black Lord is called Musse Melly and is the sovereign of the land of the black people of Gineva [Ghana]. This king is the richest and noblest of all these lands due to the abundance of gold that is extracted from his lands.’

Panel IV (Italy, Turkey, Greece, Black Sea and Egypt)

The Red Sea

The Red Sea is depicted red, not because of the color of the water but because of the color of the seabed. Translations (1) and (2) talk about the trade between Egypt and the Far East. The trade through Egypt (Mediterranean Sea <-> Alexandria <-> Red Sea <-> Indian Ocean <-> China/India) was the most important traderoute throughout the Middle Ages for the European-Asian trade.

Translation (1): ‘This sea is called the Red Sea which was crossed by the Twelve Tribes of Egypt. Let it be known that the water is not red, but the bottom is that color. Through this sea pass most of the spices arriving at Alexandria from India.’

Translation (2): ‘The spices coming from India are brought to this city of Chos [Al-Qusayr, Egypt]. Then, they are taken to Babylon [Al-Fustat, Egypt] and Alexandria.’

Prester John

We find a small reference to Prester John in the lower left corner of sheet 2, panel IV. Prester John was a mythical figure who gained popularity during the twelfth century after a supposed letter from him arrived in Europe. According to the legends, he was a strong Christian king from a far away land. He was originally placed somewhere in the East and was for a while identified with the Great Khan. The christians soon realized that there was no Christian king to be found in the East, after they had sent multiple missionaries and diplomats to the Far East in search of Prester John but only found small communities of Nestorians (in fact, after the Great Khan plundered East-Europe some Europeans began to identify the Great Khan and his tribes with Gog and Magog). They relocated him in Africa as the king of the Ethiopians because there were stories about a Christian community living in Ethiopia (the Monophysites). This mythe about Prester John provoked a lot of interest towards the Far East and Africa for Europeans who would keep sending exploration parties to find this ally who could maybe help them take Jeruzalem back from the Muslims.

Translation: ‘(…) city of Nubia. The king of Nubia is always at war with the Christians of Nubia who are under the dominion of the emperor of Ethiopia and the land of Prester John.’

Panel V (Persia, India and the Caspian Sea)

Three Wise Men

The Three Wise Men appear somewhere in Persia on the map, making their way to Bethlehem.

Tanslation: ‘This province is called Tarsia, and it is from which the three very wise kings departed and came to Bethlehem in Judea with their presents and worshiped Jesus Christ. They are buried in the city of Cologne, that is at two-day travel from Bruges.’

Caravan

This caravan might represent Maffeo Polo and Nicolo Polo with Mongol envoys. The Pax Mongolica, a period of time from 1250 till 1350 during which Europeans were able to travel to China due to the stability and safety within the Mongol Empire, meant that European traders were able to trade directly with China without any intermediaries from the Islamic world.

Translation: ‘This caravan has departed from the Empire of Sarra to go to Alcatayo.’

Silk Road

A reference to one of the silk roads that passes through Baghdad to Syrian lands (1). Translation (2) gives some fascinating information about the silk road based on Marco Polo.

Translation (1): ‘Here there was the Great Babylonia, where Nabuconodosor resided, and that is called Baldaca today. Let it be known that many spices, as well as other noble products, come to this city from the Indies and the are distributed by Siria, in particular at the city of Damascus.’

Translation (2): ‘Let it be known that those that wish to cross this desert stop and rest during a week in a city named Lop. Here, expeditions and their animals relax/enjoy themselves. After that, they procure what is needed for the next seven months of the journey, because in the desert one travels an entire day and night before reaching potable water; however, every day and a half, they can find plenty of it, enough for fifty or a hundred people or even more. And if it happens that a rider, tired by the journey, falls sleep or for any other reason he separates from his companions, he will often hear the voices of devils, similar to the voices of his companions, often calling him by his own name. In this way, the devils take him through the desert to a fro such that the traveler cannot find his companions. A thousand stories are known about this desert.’

Ptolemy

We find a reference to Ptolemy in Persia where, according to this map, he was born. The reintroduction of ‘the Geography’ in 1410 caused new innovations in geography within Europe.

Translation: ‘This city is named Siras, and in antiquity, it was named the City of Grace because it was there where astronomy was invented by the great wise man Ptolemy.’

Panel VI (China, Sea of the Indies)

Gog and Magog and Christ the King

We see the peoples of Gog and Magog in the northeast corner of Asia (sheet 2) where they are imprisoned behind the Caspian Mountains. Gog and Magog refer to barbaric and monstrous individuals who will stand behind the Antichrist during the End of Time (4). After the Mongols plundered Eastern Europe some Europeans started to identify the Tartarians, a medieval European term for the Mongols eventhough their actual name is Tatars, with Gog and Magog and we see this identification in translation (1) and (3) (it is worth mentioning that the majority of European christians still identified Gog and Magog with the iudei inclusi [enclosed Jews]). The myth goes that Alexander the Great, often seen as a protochristian within Christianity, locked Gog and Magog up behind the Caspian Mountains. This was not just a symbolic location of Gog and Magog. Most Europeans believed that this location really did exist somewhere in the east and it was a common believe in the Middle Ages that Biblical locations could be located on Earth. We see this even with Columbus, who was still very medieval in his worldviews, when he believed that he found the Paradise in the Gulf of Paria.

Cresques adds that Alexander got help from Satan and we can see Alexander the Great in the company of Satan on the map. It seems like Cresques tries to identify Alexander here with a pagan instead of a Christian.

The two trumpet blowing statues were also made by Alexander the Great to ward off the Tatars from getting to close to the Caspian Mountains (2).

Translation (1): ‘The Caspian Mountains where Alexander saw trees so tall that their canopies touch the clouds. This is where he almost died had it not been for Satan who took him out of there using his arts. And with his stratagem he locked here the Tartarians God and Magog; and for them, he ordered made two metal images above described. Item he locked here many diverse races who don’t hesitate to eat all kinds of raw meat, and from this group will come the Antichrist and their end will be caused by the fire that will fall from the sky and will confound them.’

Translation (2): ‘These are made of metal and were ordered made by Alexander, a great and powerful king.’

Translation (3): ‘The Great Lord Prince of Gog and Magog. He will appear with many people in the times of the Antichrist.’

Translation (4): ‘Antichrist. He will be raised in Goraym of Galilea, and at the age of thirty he will start to preach in Jerusalem; contrary to the truth, he will proclaim that he is Christ, the living son of God. It is said that he will rebuild the Temple.’

Next to Gog and Magog we find Christ the King in a similar confinement as Gog and Magog distributing the immortal palms to his followers. That confinement could be the Paradise as it was usually depicted in the most eastern part of Asia but we can’t be sure since it isn’t accompanied by a legend/description on the map.

King Stephen

We see here the christian king Stephen who reigns over the Saint Thomas Christians. Stories about Saint Thomas the Apostle and his Catholic missions in the far east formed the foundation for the stories about Prester John.

Translation: ‘Here reigns the Christian king Stephen. Here lies the body of the apostle St. Thomas. He faces the city of Butifilis [Motupalle].’

Kublai Khan

The ruler of the Mongol Empire is identified as Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and the founder of the Yuan dynasty.

Translation: ‘The most powerful prince of the Tartars is named Holubeim, that means Great Khan [Kubilay Khan]. This emperor is richer than any other emperor in the world. This emperor is protected by twelve thousand horsemen with their four captains that stay at the court three months of the year.’

Islands of the Indies

In the south east corner of the map we see the islands of the Indies. These islands, full with gold and spices, represent the riches that the Europeans hoped to find when they would reach the Chinese sea.

Translation: ‘In the Sea of the Indies [China Sea] there are seven thousand five hundred and forty-eight islands whose wonders of gold, silver, spices and precious stones we cannot discuss here.'”

For more translations of the legends into English, see this webpage: http://www.cresquesproject.net/catalan-atlas-legends

Source of map: Wikimedia Commons

2 COMMENTS

  1. Your ‘close look’ certainly isn’t a full observation of the map. Someone please explain to me why Rome isn’t a big city on this map, in fact it is named ‘x’ome, as if it was insignificant. Why Rossia (Russia) isn’t Christian nor has it been invaded by “”Mongolian””khans who also depicted to have a fleet. Tartarians are white and have nothing to do with Tatars. Northern Africa is populated and full of cities. Queen is in Middle East? Please investigate the religious spectrum and significance of kings. Certainly contradicts our official history.

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