Casa Laura Issue 1 July 2020

If All the World Were Rivers

by Phil Wood

Some years ago I worked for the Churches National Housing Coalition. Our logo consisted of a rather stylized cityscape. Our witty architect criticized it on the basis that if it were actually built it would fall down. I’ve always had a liking for maps and charts.  They set my imagination racing over the contours. Peter Hampson, my former geography teacher, would be glad he taught me at least something. There is no such thing as a literal cartography. Every map has a story to tell. If AW Wainwright were reading this, he would have a smile on his face. 

Eduardo Hoornaert’s fascinating ‘The Memory of the Christian People’ has quite a few geographical gems. I’m grateful to Hoornaert (pp.25-27) for my first introduction to ‘Beatus’, an 8th Century cartographer working in Spain. In contrast to later maps, Beatus chooses not to centre his map on Rome or even Jerusalem. Later maps, as Hoornaert points out, served the needs of Pilgrims or Crusaders. Moreover, those maps have been ‘northified’. They accomplish the not-inconsiderable feat of squeezing a globe into a mental grid with a top, bottom and an in-between. That ‘grid’ – the centralization of those later maps – is ideological. Who benefits from a world where north is ‘top’ and Rome is ‘central’?  Beatus’ world, on the other hand, is ‘collegial’ (pp.25,26). No city predominates. No region looms over the rest.  Beatus’ map depicts a network of connections. Rivers represent not only geographical features but conduits of shared faith and trade. The world is divided between the twelve apostles and is journeying eastwards towards the rising sun, which represents Christ.   

Beatus’ map is many things, but it is certainly part of a struggle for Christian memory and hope. I almost said that Beatus has turned the world upside down, but that would tell only part of the story.  His is a map without any true ‘up’ or ‘down’. It is not even a map of fixed boundaries and borders. In Beatus’ mind, every place and every identity is becoming something and somewhere else. It’s only meridians are the tutelage of the apostles. 

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