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Sawley Map

A small but fantastical drawing known today as the Sawley Map was used by a 12th century theologian to illustrate his historical chronicle known as The Picture of the World. Based on intertwining classical and biblical views of the world, it is one of the earliest known English mappa mundi to have survived to this day. Drawn on vellum and oval in shape, it shows the known world of Asia, Europe and Africa surrounded by water. The map measures about 11.8 x 7.9 inches (30 x 20 cm) and is embellished with four winged angels in the corners of the vellum page.  It was penned by Honorius Augustodunensis, also known as Henry of Mainz. 

Beautifully illustrated and coloured, it depicts seas in green and its numerous rivers in pale violet, while using red ridges to represent surface relief. Its illustrations, along with over two hundred annotations, reflect both classical and Christian sources, but its primary influence and emphasis is obviously biblical in nature even though the Greek island of Delos and the Mediterranean Sea itself, rather than Jerusalem, are at the map’s centre.

The complex relationship between the two world views strongly influenced the evolving Christian world of western Europe in the early centuries following conversion. The Sawley Map evinces this complexity in sharp detail, featuring information from myriad historical sources including the Bible, Greek mythology, adventure tales and ancient cosmographies from various parts of the world, with contemporary cities often depicted alongside Biblical ones, resulting in a curious and interesting amalgam of world views.  

The map is organized according to ideas of centrality and remoteness, thus Britain and monasteries of Egypt are placed at the edges of the map, denoting their relative lack of importance to the general theme of developing Christian civilizations at the time. The map is oriented east with the Garden of Eden at the top. The Tower of Babel is depicted, as are the Cyclades of mythological fame. The city of Corinth can be seen to represent both world views, one reminiscent of its great importance in (pagan) antiquity, and the other of its importance in New Testament times when it was a focal point of the missionary efforts of Paul the Apostle. Scylla and Charybdis of Greek mythology are denoted, as are the territories of some of the Tribes of Israel such as Ephraim, Simeon and Asher, counterpoints to each other.

The Ebro River on whose banks the historical city of Zaragoza sits in northern Spain is referenced, suggesting the map’s author was knowledgeable regarding the activities and policies of its well-known Christian potentate, Alfonso I. In 1118 the king and his troops marched upon and seized the city known as the ‘Capital of the Ebro’, effectively ending the its four centuries of Muslim rule.  Other rivers such as the Ganges, Nile, Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are all denoted, and the Jordan is depicted flowing into the Sea of Galilee. The Oxus (Amu Darya) is shown flowing into the Caspian sea.

Major rivers of Europe are included in the map with the Danube system shown in detail as the river makes its way to the Black Sea. The Po, Tiber, Rhone and Loire are featured and named but the Rhine though denoted is not. Topography includes the Alps and Pyrenees, the Atlas Mountains along with many which are featured but not named.

Architectural edifices are found throughout the map including fortifications, castles and a large basilica in Jerusalem. Countless toponyms are easily identifiable including Rome, Constantinople, the Hellespont and Thrace to name a few. The great wall surrounding the toponym Gog and Magog is easily distinguishable, and even the territory of the Amazons in Asia Minor is labeled. Roman provinces are denoted throughout the map from Constantinople throughout Europe to the tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

While classical and antique influences are evident throughout the map, the sum of its parts is seriously Christian in character. The Holy Land itself is organized in accordance with Old Testament and other Hebrew history. The rise and spread of Christianity is clearly demonstrated, with depictions of monasteries in Egypt, and of a Benedictine monastery in Hungary known as the birthplace of St. Martin of Tours. One of the largest structures shown in Europe is featured in an unnamed city in Galicia which is undoubtedly Santiago de Compostela.

The map has been interpreted as denoting the history of Christianity, its current status at the time of its creation, and the future with the map’s four angels interpreted as referencing St. John’s Book of Revelations. The upper left angel points directly at Gog and Magog, while the others announce the rewards of the righteous, the fall of Babylon, and the judgement of sinners who have chosen to follow the beast. 

As with many medieval mappae mundi, the Sawley map is located at the beginning of the manuscript, not only as an introduction to the text, but also as encyclopedic imagery designed to independently inform and remind its readers of the historicity of the world views contained in it. Its content reveals much concerning the knowledge, acumen, beliefs and philosophies of its maker and of its predecessors. And as with other early maps, the Sawley provides another fascinating glimpse of the mentality of early medieval thinkers and writers, and the role of such maps and manuscripts in society and in the development of Christian culture in Europe.


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