Cartographic Curiosities: The Whimsical World of Early Mapmaking

The art of mapmaking, or cartography, has a storied history filled with as much imagination as precision. In the days before satellites and GPS, cartographers often relied on travelers’ tales and their own creativity to fill the gaps in their knowledge. This blend of fact and fancy is beautifully illustrated in the work of Heinrich Bunting, a 16th-century German Protestant pastor and theologian, whose 1561 map is among the most whimsical and intriguing representations of the continents ever conceived.

Heinrich Bunting’s Vision of the World

Bunting’s map, a work more allegorical than geographical, depicts the Middle East not as a mere landmass but as a grand white horse in profile, looking towards the West. This imaginative portrayal was part of Bunting’s “Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae” (Travel Through the Holy Scripture), which was less concerned with geographical accuracy and more with illustrating the biblical narrative.

Jerusalem at Heart

At the center of this theological and cartographic work is Jerusalem, placed prominently on the chest of the horse. This placement was no accident; it was intended to signify the city’s central role in Christian thought and as the spiritual heart of the world in Bunting’s time.

Armenia: The Mind of the Horse

Intriguingly, the map positions Armenia at the location of the horse’s brain. This choice reflects the historical and biblical significance attributed to Armenia as one of the oldest Christian nations. It was in Armenia where, according to tradition, Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, and the region was among the first to embrace Christianity as its official religion in the early 4th century. By placing Armenia at the mind of the horse, Bunting might be acknowledging this ancient land’s role in the genesis and spread of Christian thought.

The Symbolism of Cartography

Bunting’s map is more than a geographical document; it is a testament to the symbolic nature of early cartography. Maps of the period often served multiple purposes: navigational aids, works of art, political statements, and tools of education and indoctrination. They were a means of making sense of the world, not just in terms of physical space but also in terms of culture, religion, and ideology.

Heinrich Bunting’s 1561 map is a captivating example of how early cartographers interpreted the world through the lens of their beliefs and values. The white horse gazing westward, with Jerusalem at its heart and Armenia in its mind, offers a glimpse into how the Middle East was viewed during a time when maps were as much about conveying a worldview as they were about guiding travelers. Bunting’s work reminds us that maps are not just practical tools but also powerful cultural artifacts that reflect the knowledge, aspirations, and artistic flair of their creators.


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