Secular and Divine Geography

The following text appears on banner no. 6 in the exhibition space.

The manipulation of geography to claim power originated during Roman times in an imperial arena and continued during the Middle Ages when the Church utilized cartography to assert divine control over the known world. The Notitia Dignitatum (Register of Dignitaries), on view here in its first printed edition of 1522, is an example of a secular geography, while the tenth- and thirteenth- century manuscripts of the In Apocalypsin (Commentary on the Apocalypse of Saint John) reflect the religious tradition.

The Notitia, a text originally of the fifth century ce, provides comprehensive lists of civil and military officials who governed the eastern and western empire according to a pyramidal structure of prefectures, dioceses, and provinces. Images of the insignia (emblems) of the various officials and symbols for the main military groups stationed in the provinces are inserted in the text, while maps underscore the influence of Roman bureaucratic apparatus over the empire’s lands.

The engravings for the Notitia’s 1552 edition were drawn by the Swiss artist Conrad Schnitt, who adapted tenth-century vignettes to follow contemporary aesthetic canons. The three maps show the extent of the Eastern Roman Empire and the provinces of Egypt and Britain. In all three, topographic features are almost completely eliminated, and prominent geographic landmarks, such as the river Nile, are distorted to accommodate symbols, mostly oversize images of cities or monuments, which signal the presence and influence of the emperor and his officials. This is secular geography at its height.

The Commentary was written in 776 by the Spanish Benedictine monk Beatus of Liebana. The maps illustrating this work did not provide actual geographic information but were instead built around the concept of divine intervention in the Creation. Both maps from the Commentary exhibited here disregard regional or administrative demarcations in favor of the divisions found in biblical descriptions. Additionally, the cities represented (such as Jerusalem) were chosen for their relevance in the Christian landscape. Finally, both maps are rotated with the east toward the top, where prominent representations of the Garden of Eden further emphasize the presence of Heaven on Earth. Here we see the high point of the visual depiction of divine geography.