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Mappa Mundi in the 21st Century

Mappa Mundi: (n) medieval European maps of the world. [1350–1400; Medieval Latin. mappa (cloth) mundi (of the world)]

Composed of elaborate designs inscribed on thin sheets of cloth, the typical mappa mundi bears only the slightest resemblance to a contemporary geographic world map found today.  Clearly reflective of Christianity’s dominance in medieval Europe, most mappa mundis are heavy in religious imagery, with drawings of Jerusalem as the center of the world and Christ’s victorious return on Judgement Day.  However, mappa mundis are more than mere indications of the Church’s power at the time.  Featuring drawings of exotic plants, mythical beasts of Roman and Greek origins and imagined places of the unknown, these objects together not only form an encyclopedia of the medieval world but also attest to the curiosity that these societies had of their own history and the world beyond it.

A closer look at the magnificent drawings makes clear that these mapmakers were themselves artists – artists who, influenced by their knowledge of Roman and Greek mythology and encouraged by their instinct for creativity, imagined inhabitants of unknown territories such as the Phanesii (who had large ears to protect themselves from the cold) and the Sciapods (who had large feet to protect themselves from the sun).

People have long been fascinated with mappa mundis.  Some have scoffed at them for their inaccuracy and somewhat ridiculous portrayals of lands whose geographical boundaries are no longer mysteries.  I think, however, that these medieval European maps are more relevant than ever today, where this strange phenomena called the ‘Internet’ is continuously changing the way we interpret – and share – visual images of our history, our present and our future.  We are all active curators – reinterpreting the way connections are made throughout the world by our act of picking up pieces and bits from one part of the Web and putting them together in another.

Welcome to Mappa Mundi: The Earth Project in the 21st Century.  Interpret it as you wish.

This blog entry was originally posted as a part of the 100/10∆10: Mappa Mundi: The Earth Project. Coordinated by Jojo Black and Elisa Baek, this final iteration of the 100/10 curatorial project was open for participation on the Internet from June 28 – August 15, 2011.
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