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The Catalan Atlas

 Cosmographic Chart from the Catalan Atlas

Our next early map was created c. 1375 by Abraham Cresques, a member of the Jewish community on the island of Majorca. At the time there thrived on the island an active Catalan chart-making school, of which he was its best known member, having the title of 'Master of Maps and Compasses' to the royal family of Aragon in Spain. Abraham was not only a master map maker, but also an expert maker of a wide variety of nautical instruments, compasses and fine clocks, and he was fluent in a number of languages.

It is widely thought that he and his son Jehuda prepared the magnificent  illuminated Catalan Atlas as a gift from the crown prince of Aragon to King Charles V of France, who was thirteen years old at the time. The Atlas is a masterpiece depicting a detailed late fourteenth century view of the known world, a visual encyclopedia containing extensive commentary in captions and images designed to encompass all known geographical, and historical human knowledge, a well-documented representation of the whole inhabited world as it was known in fourteenth-century Europe, all the way from England to China.

Western Europe from the Catalan Atlas

Of the extant medieval maps and portolans, the Catalan Atlas is one of the finest known examples. Similar in many ways to an illuminated manuscript, this map was drawn on fine vellum panels mounted on wood, with each sheet measuring 65 x 50 cm per panel, with the panels folding out like a screen. It was designed to be placed on a table or platform, and walked around rather than to be affixed to a wall.    

It is embellished with vistas and close-up views, a wide variety of flora and fauna, ships and caravans. Portraits and heraldry further embellish the work with tales from Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, and the accounts of medieval travelers, obviously including Marco Polo. Information from other thirteenth century explorers such as Friar Odoric, a Franciscan traveler who journeyed in China for a number of years, was also used.

Countless vignettes are used to depict historical events, such as the visit of Marco Polo’s father and uncle to Kublai Khan in Chanbalik (Beijing). The first known representation of the Empire of the Golden Horde which dominated Russia for centuries is depicted on the Volga River. To the east a caravan thought to include Marco Polo and his family, shows camels laden with goods and merchants on horseback headed toward China via the Silk Road. The vignette details the camel drivers holding onto the camels’ tails, with one rider obviously asleep on his horse. It is the first known depiction of the Silk Road.   

The Silk Road from the Catalan Atlas

Myriad other events are depicted including the biblical Three Wise Men on horseback journeying across northern India toward Bethlehem. Alexander the Great is portrayed and named, pointing at the devil (shown as a bat with wings unfurled) just above Kublai Khan. A mounted monarch sheltered by a parasol is the ruler over Gog and Magog, the agents of the devil, who has set out from exile with his hosts at the end of the world.

Anthropophogi, the cannibals often depicted in early maps, are depicted in panel seven, and farther to the south are the Queen of Sheba and the Sultan of Delhi.  African wealth is represented on the map by a Tourag nomad travelling by camel on the trans-Saharan trade route and, nearby in NW Africa, by a portrait of Mansa Musa of Mali, often referred to as the wealthiest person to have ever lived. It is said that when he made a pilgrimage to Mecca he took 60,000 people and an inestimable amount of gold of which he gave away so much that it lost its value in some regions for than a decade.  

Mansa Musa from the Catalan Atlas

The Catalan Atlas is crisscrossed with rhumb lines taken from portolans, and features one of the first known compass roses to be featured on a map. The knowledge exhibited by the Atlas demonstrates not only the use of previously mentioned sources, but also the content of merchants’ archives, and the position of Majorca as a centre of international cultural exchanges during the fourteenth century. The Atlas provided a comprehensive image of the known world including Asia, a work whose contributions to the Age of Exploration cannot be overstated. 

Northwest Africa from the Catalan Atlas


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