British Library curator Claire Breay seated with the medieval book containing the Psalter World Map.

Maps for display and persuasion

Nowadays maps tend to be regarded as utilitarian geographical aids for finding places and routes or for planning and administrative purposes. Most people generally seem to assume that the more geographically accurate they are, the better, and that they are objective and truthful representations of the world around us.

But maps have always been more than just practical aids. How can they give objective and true pictures of the world when their makers – unable to show reality on a 1 to 1 basis – have to choose what to put into them?

Maps and the world

Throughout history the scope of many maps has extended beyond geography to embrace culture in its widest sense and even in this electronic age they continue to do so. Maps enable us to grasp, at a glance, the spatial spread of a disease, the varying levels of wealth and poverty or the diversity of peoples and religions.

Tourist maps continue to show towns in the best possible light, pictorially flaunting their star architectural or cultural features, while sweeping under the carpet the elements that are considered less aesthetically pleasing or politically and socially embarrassing (how often do you see a run-down council estate on a tourist map?).

In order to achieve clarity, such maps almost always distort the spatial realities, giving more space to the features that they want to emphasise – and form the principal purpose of the map – while reducing in size or even omitting other features.

The mapmaker and the map

A good cartographer will simplify the image – widening streets, perhaps, and artificially separating out the individual elements that he or she wants to record. But the maker will also be attentive to the overall impression given by the map. Careful consideration will have to be given to the selection of colours so that they neither jar, nor blur. The overall image, whether digital or on paper, has to be clear but also attractive.

Depending on the map’s purpose, decisions will also have to be taken as to how individual elements are shown – pictorially or as symbols (if so, which?); should motion be expressed – if so, how? Is the map meant for a restricted number of administrators or to impress an intended audience or the general public? Will the company or individual commissioning the map want any particular features to be inserted such as their logo or coat-of-arms, and if so, how are these elements to be inserted without unbalancing the overall composition?

Challenges such as these have appealed to many artists through time – ranging from Renaissance painters such as Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Leonardo da Vinci to Grayson Perry or Stephen Walter today. It has also led many individuals and corporations to pay considerable sums to commission leading artists to create maps that they wanted to display for their greater glory.

Display maps

Maps intended for display – with artificially created depictions of space, such as bird’s-eye views of towns – have been created since pre-historic times. Fragments of town plans engraved on marble survive from the time of the Romans. Such maps have been created in a variety of media, including as frescoes, on cloth and canvas, as tapestries and on silver such as goblets or coins. They have ranged in size from the gigantic to the minute, but what has unified them all has been the artistry involved in their creation.

Their purposes have varied. In most cases, historically, propaganda has played a large part, though this has rarely been crass. Their creators have been aware of the dictum of the 16th-century English educational theorist Sir Thomas Elyot, that ‘Where … that which is called the grace of the thing is perfectly expressed [ie, through a drawing], that thing more persuadeth and stirreth the beholder … than doth the declaration in writing’.

Many maps, therefore, blend their ostensible ‘objective' purpose with persuasion facilitated through artistry, some of which can be of the highest order. Over the past few decades maps have also become the medium through which individual artists have expressed their views on modern society and its values – but, again, there have been examples of this in the past too.

Display maps in the British Library

The British Library has rich holdings of such maps. We give four examples here, but many other examples can be found among the collections – and many, doubtless, remain to be discovered.

Map Psalter

Psalter World Map, full-page illustration showing Christ holding the orb of the world, flanked by two angels. Jerusalem is marked in the centre, with Rome appearing slightly below it, and the rivers Ganges and the Danube drawn in blue

The world map as seen in 1265

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Usage terms Public Domain
Held by© British Library

Watch British Library curators discuss the Psalter World Map.

The earliest mentions of large medieval world maps date from about 1100, but a century later they became something of an English speciality. Factual information about the world, based on classical writers and including their descriptions of its flora and fauna, were illustrated and structured within a larger framework depicting a spiritual, Bible-based interpretation of the relationship of Man to God, of the human to the divine, of the mortal to the immortal. Many of these maps were monumental in size.

The Psalter World map (named after its appearance in a prayer book or ‘Psalter’) was probably copied from a large map commissioned for Henry III. Despite its minute size, it gives a better impression of the great medieval world maps than larger surviving examples that are faded or survive only as fragments.

The Psalter Map sends out various messages, such as the centrality of Jerusalem in the age of the Crusades, and warnings about dangers, expressed though the depiction of legendary peoples at the margins of the known world.

Perhaps most important for Henry III however, was a political message. Implicit in the map are the similarities between the King and God, and specifically the role of the King as God’s representative on Earth and thus the relationship between the subject and his ruler.

One has to imagine entering the King’s audience chamber and seeing the map showing God in the close vicinity of the King; one controlling the world, and the other his kingdom, yet both unchallengeable.

The Frau Mauro World Map

The so called ‘Fra Mauro’ world map, named after its monk who drew it, was created in Venice in the 1450s. The magnificent hand-drawn British Library copy, commissioned in the early 19th-century – when many British leaders saw parallels between their maritime empire and the earlier sea-borne empire of the Venetians – is the same size as the original.

Watch British Library curators discuss the Fra Mauro World Map.

The original map seems not to have initially met the requirements of the Doge of Venice who commissioned it, however. The Doge had wanted a map, resembling one to be found in Siena, which had distorted geography so as to place Siena at the centre of a circular world. The Doge was dismayed on seeing Fra Mauro’s map and reportedly asked him why Venice could hardly be seen.

He was answered by a scholarly discourse to the effect that he, Fra Mauro, had spent time and enormous effort in order to represent the reality of the world as it was and no more could be done. ‘No’, replied the Doge, ‘You should make the world smaller and Venice larger!’

Posterity has blessed Fra Mauro for sticking to his guns, but his obstinacy was an exception. If you visit the Tolbiac site of the French National Library for example, you will see an enormous and magnificent pair of globes commissioned in 1683 from the very best globe maker of the age. Louis XIV is depicted at the centre of the world while the depiction of the heavens is frozen at the day of his birth!

The map of the Americas by Diego Gutierrez

Gutierrez’s magnificent 1562 map of the Americas is in a similar strain. This – the first-known separate wall map showing the New World – contains an impressive display of geographical information surrounded by exquisitely depicted fish and sea monsters, real and imagined, and some ethnographical information.

Diego Gutiérrez's map from 1562 of the Americas shows the Spanish Empire in all its glory.

The justification for spending so much on the map – a combination of Spanish cartographical expertise and superb Flemish printing – is political. The arms of Philip II of Spain dominate the map to emphasise his claim to mastery over the Americas and he is compared to classical gods and the heroes of antiquity.

For hard-headed political and commercial reasons, too, the geographical information is not totally up-to-date, so that examples of the map could safely be displayed on walls, and be seen by potential opinion-makers throughout the world.

Stephen Walter’s map of London

Stephen Walter’s map of London is also intended for display on a wall and enables one, quite exceptionally to see the whole of London in a glance. Unlike the previous maps however, it is about as far from being an officially-sponsored piece of political propaganda as one can get. Instead, it reflects popular perceptions of the different parts of London and the artist’s own often-very-personal associations with London. And, tellingly, London is depicted as an island separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. What a way to turn the traditional aesthetically pleasing tourist map on its head!

The Island by Stephen Walter satirises the London-centric view of the English capital.

The map serves as a reminder that maps are as much about their makers and their perceptions, and the perceptions of the world in which they were created, as about the external world. With objective representation in second place.