Atlas Catalan, limited and numbered facsimile
14th century world map
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Cresques and the Atlas Catalan
Abraham Cresques was a map maker from Majorca who lived during the middle of the 14th century. During the 1370s, he produced the Catalan Atlas, the most detailed representation of the known world at that time. The atlas was commissioned by the king of France, Charles V, and still resides in the Bibliotèque national de France. Its design conforms to the conventions of the Mappamundi, representing the known regions of the earth as well as the people who inhabit them. The map originally consisted of six folio vellum leaves folded vertically. Later, the leaves were mounted on six wooden panels, which wearing over time, led the map to be folded into twelve half-sheets and mounted on boards to fold like a screen. The orientation of the map is that of a portolano, which was a medieval nautical chart used by mariners to navigate their way on the high seas. Meant to be laid flat, the map is oriented with North at the bottom rather than top. It was drawn so that, like a portolano, it could be turned in various directions depending on which feature of the map was important to the viewer. Accordingly, many of the places and people depicted on the map appear upside down when the map is viewed strictly vertically. Although the Catalan Atlas predates Columbus’s voyage to the New World over a century later, the map does not contest the already accepted assumptions of its time that the Earth is spherical, not flat.
The first six pictures are the six panels of the atlas
The circular diagram depicts the days of the month, indicating days of good and bad luck. There is also a diagram showing how to identify the so-called “Golden Number,” important for determining the annual date of Easter. The human figure depicted is that of a “zodiac man,” showing which parts of the body are governed by the moon according to different signs of the zodiac. The diagram next to it is for calculating good and bad times for bloodletting, a common medical procedure of the time. On the right side is a geographical text which describes the regions of the world and the various peoples living in it.
Leaf II is a detailed calendar wheel. The circles drawn include the planets and the signs of the zodiac in a golden ring along with the phases of the moon. The outermost ring includes a text describing how to find the Golden Number. The figures in the four corners represent the seasons.
The detailed information is taken from https://www.earthlymission.com/catalan-atlas-medieval-world-map/.
Panel III (Spain, France, Ireland, western north Africa, England, Sardinia and Corsica)
Leaf III shows the then legendary Insula de Brazil first west of Ireland and then again further south. At the bottom left is Jaime Ferrer’s ship, which in 1346 set sail from Majorca for the mythical “River of Gold” in Africa. Other map features include the Sahara Desert, shown with the common medieval mistake of a lake in its center. The map text beside the turbaned Touareg, riding a camel, states that this land is inhabited by people who live in tents and ride camels. To the east of the Touareg figure is Mansa Musa, King of Mali between 1312 and 1337, who encouraged the development of Islamic learning and whose kingdom was known for its substantial gold reserves. The map shows the relative predominance of Christianity vs. Islam by location, picturing crosses and onion domes, respectively.
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.’
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.”
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 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))
Leaf IV depicts the King of Organa in the lower left, wearing a turban and blue dress with a sword and shield in his hands. Further east is the King of Nubia, who ruled a Muslim population of the area as depicted by the green dress he wears. The nude black man, camel, and elephant symbolize Africa as a whole. On the right side of the panel sits the Sultan of Babylon (Egypt), with a long-tailed green parrot on his left arm. The Red Sea is colored red with a land bridge at its top depicting the Biblical Exodus across it.
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 trade route 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.”
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)
At the bottom left is the Queen of Sheba, who holds a golden disc symbolizing her wealth. The body of water stretching across the bottom of both sides of the panel is the Persian Gulf, with the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina drawn closer to the coast than they actually are. The King of Tauris sits above the Queen of Sheba and above him, Janï-Beg, ruler of the Golden Horde, who died in 1357. At the bottom right are pearl fishers, who fish for pearls “which are supplied to the town of Baghdad” as indicated in the accompanying map text. The fishers “recite magic spells with which they frighten away the fish.” The boats depicted on the leaf are called nichi, with sails made of bamboo and palm leaves. They are drawn in a way reminiscent of the depiction of Chinese junks in Marco Polo’s memoir of his travels. Polo’s entourage appears, upside down, at the top of the right side as it makes its way across Central Asia to China. Immediately below Marco Polo are the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. The two figures below them represent powers in India, the Sultan of Delhi and the Hindu King of Vijayanagar.
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.”
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.”
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.
Tranlastion 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.”
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)
King Stephen sits at the bottom left, a symbol of the Christian minorities residing in India. At the top left is a deceased man whose body is about to be cremated, accompanied by music. A group of diamond hunters is pictured in the center, preparing to cast meat to retrieve their treasure. The diamonds would adhere to the meat and then be carried away by birds, from which the hunters would retrieve them. Above and to the right is depicted the Tatar Khan of Gog and Magog. Below, in the middle, is Alexander the Great enlisting Satan’s help to imprison Gog and Magog, the two personifying Alexander’s conquest of Central Asia. To the right of Alexander, it has been argued, is the Antichrist, as the groups flanking the crowned figure are ecclesiastics for whom he is proof of the Second Coming by his making fruit appear on dry branches. Below Satan, upside down, is Kublai Khan, whom Marco Polo encountered on his visit to China. The island at the lower right is Sumatra. The map text says the island is inhabited by people “of great size…with very dark skins and without intelligence. They eat white men and strangers, if they can catch them.”
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 an we can see Alexander the Great in 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 statutes 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 IV: “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.
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].”
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.”