Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth
by Alessandro Scafi
The Way to Eden
A review by Anthony Grafton
In 1498, Columbus reached the coast of South America. As he entered the estuary of the Orinoco, wonders multiplied. He felt that he and his men were sailing upward, not horizontally, and wondered if the world might possibly be shaped like a pear rather than a sphere. The water itself changed as he sailed, from salt to fresh. The climate was mild, and the people he encountered struck him as handsome, intelligent, and brave. The discoverer of a new route to Asia -- Columbus still saw himself in this light, though he was coming to realize that he had actually struck a continent unknown to Europeans -- leaped to a characteristically bold conclusion: "There are great indications of the earthly paradise, for the situation agrees with the opinion of those holy and wise theologians, and also the signs are very much in accord with this idea, for I have never read or heard of so great a quantity of fresh water coming into and near the salt. And the very mild climate also supports this view." As Columbus's own situation became more difficult -- when he reached Hispaniola, he would find the population decimated and the settlement in ruins, and he would be shipped home in chains -- this bold, pragmatic, and sometimes violent adventurer began to use a new language, an apocalyptic language. Some historians have thought him insincere in this regard, others desperate. Even those who took Columbus at his word have found it hard to repress a smile at his naïveté.
Alessandro Scafi disagrees with many of his scholarly predecessors, on this as on many other counts. In a revisionist book that ranges the centuries, deploys vast learning to splendid effect, and makes as deft use of visual evidence as it does of textual evidence, Scafi shows that Columbus interpreted his startling experiences in a highly reasonable way. For centuries, Western thinkers had done their best to place the earthly paradise on maps of the world. Columbus was following them, both in imagining that Eden was elevated and in envisioning it as a great source of fresh water -- and in admitting, as modern scholars who saw his claim as foolish have not always noted, that he had no hope of actually entering paradise. Columbus, Scafi teaches us, still lived in a mental world that would have been recognizable to Dante -- who had portrayed Ulysses as persuading the members of his crew, with a magnificent speech, to sail to their own destruction in an attempt to reach the lofty mountain of paradise -- and to hundreds of European thinkers before and after him.
In Mapping Paradise, Scafi re-creates the mental cosmos inhabited by theologians and cartographers, scribes and scholars, priests and admirals. In his hands, their colorful and varied visions of the Garden of Eden become a lens through which we can view what used to be called "the medieval world picture" -- which was in fact something more like a vast and magnificent mechanism, as splendid as one had always thought, but intricately in motion as well, in ways that this remarkable book clarifies for the first time.
The book starts with a puzzle. In 1442, a Venetian cartographer named Giovanni Leardo finished and dated a strikingly complex round map of the world, about ten inches in diameter, which is now preserved in Verona. Embedded in a set of disks containing calendrical material, the map depicts the three continents then known to Europeans -- Asia, Africa, and Europe itself. The level of detail is striking: Leardo used a wide range of cartographic symbols to indicate everything from mountain ranges to cities. So is the accuracy with which he depicted the Mediterranean Sea and the coasts of Europe. Evidently this inhabitant of a maritime city took techniques and data from the charts that Western sailors had used for the last century and more -- practical maps, known as portolans, which embodied the sailor's vision of the universe, all coastline and no hinterland, and on which a system of lines that indicated bearings made it possible to plot courses from one port to another.
Yet Leardo's map was anything but realistic in the sense in which we use the term. While a modern map would be oriented toward the north, it was oriented toward the east, placing the far eastern coast of India at 11:30, just to the left of the top of the circle. On this coast Leardo put one of his normal city icons -- a small oblong image with towers at its corners and crenellations -- and labeled it "the earthly paradise." To make sure that no one mistook Eden for an ordinary place, he drew four rivers flowing from it, in a clear reference to Genesis 2:10 ("And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads"). More learned readers would also notice that Leardo correlated Eden with the zodiacal signs of Pisces and Aries -- the points on the zodiac where the sun would have been when the world was created, as tradition held, at the beginning of the spring. Space, in Leardo's vision, was tightly connected to time -- a point to which we will return.
Leardo wielded a wide range of cartographical signs to indicate the presence of communities, spices, and cannibals. But it seems that the location of Eden -- and of Jerusalem, which appears at the center of the map, and the world, at the junction of the three known continents -- formed his core concern, and governed the way in which he laid out his map. For Leardo, mapping involved, as it still does, devising a two-dimensional image of the three-dimensional world that embeds signs for real places in a grid of spatial relations. But evidently it involved something more as well: locating the places on the surface of the earth where the central events of sacred history had taken place, and establishing their relation to one another.
To explain Leardo's imaginary cartography, as well as Columbus's response to strange rivers, Scafi takes his cue from Dante, whom he clearly loves. The historian becomes a sort of erudite Virgil, leading the reader on an extraordinary journey through thousands of texts and maps -- a journey that ends up teaching many lessons not only about visions of the world, but also about tradition and how it operates. The story begins with Genesis itself, the strangely double story of the Creation, in the second chapter of which God creates man, and then provides him with a first home: a garden, planted with all sorts of trees, including two special ones, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and four rivers flowing from it.
Every word of the biblical story swarms with problems even now -- and confronted earlier readers, most of whom had access to only one version of it (the Hebrew, or one of the Greek or Latin or vernacular translations), with even more of them. The Hebrew text -- which itself took its final shape only in the sixth century and after, when the Masoretes of Tiberias redacted it -- says that God planted "gan-beEden miqedem." But what did this mean? Did he plant it "from the beginning," as in the Vulgate, the Latin version of Saint Jerome, or "eastward," as in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, and also in the King James Version? The second, more literal interpretation is supported by a symmetrical phrase that appears at the end of the Eden story. Here God, after expelling Adam and Eve from paradise, places cherubim with a flaming sword miqedem legan-Eden, "east of Eden." But the first seems clearer in context. Which is correct? And why?
Larger questions of interpretation also haunted everyone who tried to understand this story. Some Jewish and Christian readers -- Philo of Alexandria, for example, and Origen -- took the story as exactly the sort of biblical material, implausible on the face of it, that harbored deeper meanings. Schooled in the spiritual disciplines of Neo-Platonism, they refused to imagine God in material form, as a farmer planting trees or a magician making woman out of man's rib. Such apparently primitive and implausible sections of the text actually offered clues to its concealed higher meanings. In fact, they insisted, the story referred to man's decisions about the cultivation of his soul, and the ways in which the physical senses, symbolized by Eve, could lead to his downfall.
But the majority of Christian readers rejected this effort to smooth away the difficulties. The ancestors of the human race, Epiphanius and Chrysostom insisted, had not been some sort of ghosts, but an actual man and an actual woman who had really lived in a special part of the earth's surface, far to the east. Augustine agreed that Adam and Eve had lived in paradise, in the flesh -- a special kind of flesh, which was incorrupt and responded to their incorrupt will. Adam, he argued, could even have made his penis reach erection, and have generated children with Eve, without feeling lust or committing a sin. (Augustine buttressed this conclusion by describing, in a famous analogy, the gifted individuals he had seen who could fart musically.) But the actual location of Paradise, for Augustine, was impossible to fix. In any case, it mattered less to him than what had happened there: an existence in the flesh that was at once absolutely real and radically different from life in contemporary time and space.
Gradually, as Scafi shows in crisp, concrete detail, Christian imaginations equipped the garden that God created at the beginning of history with attributes of many kinds. It had not only trees and rivers, but also inhabitants -- Adam's son Seth, for example, and the prophets Enoch and Elijah, whom God had allowed not to die. It appeared, a flickering but irresistible beacon, outside the borders of Europe -- in the ocean that Saint Brendan, according to popular legend, managed to cross with a crew of holy men, or in the far East about which the Crusaders swapped stories as they passed through Egypt and the Holy Land. Eventually its physical situation took on a new and striking form. The "Ordinary Gloss," the Latin biblical commentary that took shape in the twelfth-century schools and that came to form a standard part of the Latin Bible, explained that Eden had escaped the Flood because it formed the summit of a mountain so high that it touched the sphere of the moon.
Moreover, the place where history began in sin developed an eschatological dimension -- one foreshadowed in Jewish thought of the last centuries before the Common Era. The earthly paradise, many believed, was or would become heaven -- the place where the saints would find rest and repose at the end of history, after the return of the Messiah and the time of tribulation. Find out where paradise was -- so any informed Christian might well think -- and you would know where time itself had had its start and would find its consummation.
This was the larger context in which, for centuries, mapmakers such as Leardo did their work. Their enterprise -- which Scafi analyses with a striking mixture of lucid analysis and intellectual empathy -- was difficult: "The challenge for the compilers of the maps in question was to render visible a place that was geographically inaccessible -- yet linked to the inhabited earth by the four rivers -- and remote in time -- yet still relevant as the scene of an essential episode of salvation history." The exegetes encouraged mapmakers to carry out this challenging task. But they could not explain -- or, in Augustine's influential case, had refused to explain -- how to do it, in anything like the detail that a cartographer needed.
The toolbox of the medieval mapmakers looks primitive now, but it would have looked primitive also to their professional ancestors in Hellenistic Alexandria. They lacked the formal systems of projection that Greek geographers had developed for reproducing in two dimensions the actual geometrical relations between places on the three-dimensional surface of the Earth -- to say nothing of satellite surveys, global positioning systems, and Google Maps. But two vital sets of implements, both largely forgotten now, enabled them to set to work.
Medieval mapmakers inherited from the historians and the encyclopedists of late antiquity -- writers driven by the need to preserve as much knowledge as they could in capsule form and to make it available to new, less educated elites in state and church -- a powerful schematic image of the known world: the so-called T-O map, which represented the three known continents, Asia, Europe, and Africa, as inscribed within a great circle. Asia, the largest of the three, filled the top half of the circle, above the bar of the T (which represented the Don and the Nile). Europe and Africa, the smaller continents, filled the left and right bottom quadrants, separated by the vertical line of the T (which represented the Mediterranean). Oriented to the east -- which took the place of the north in a modern map -- these figures offered not a representation of the world but an icon, a general scheme that defined the parts of the world, for readers of texts that mentioned rivers or continents. (This is the sort of explanation that Wikipedia classifies as a "stub article.")
Before the end of the first millennium, mapmakers began to fill in the outlines of the T-O map with attractive details. They inserted paradise -- sometimes marked only with a legend, sometimes represented as a spring, the source of four rivers -- at the very top of the map, on the far eastern border of Asia. And they placed Jerusalem on many of the maps as well -- not on the border but at the center, where continents, rivers, and oceans met, as a kind of cosmic omphalos. Across Europe, the illuminators of bibles, encyclopedias, and histories used these graphic means to show that space -- the space of the world -- had a spiritual meaning as well as a physical form. It included not only the known place where Christ had sacrificed himself, but also the unknown but equally real place where Adam had fallen, sin had entered the cosmos, and the ultimate sacrifice of God's son had been made necessary.
Late antiquity also bequeathed a second vital tool to the medieval cartographers. Every society, the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel has shown, devises what Zerubavel calls "time maps": imaginary patterns of movement upward or downward, forward or backward, with which we impose sense on the past and the future. Most of the metaphors that carry out this work are spatial; many of them are strikingly material. If we doubt that progress is possible, we may envision time as a cycle; but if we believe in it, we may represent it as an arrow moving rapidly forward.
The world historians and encyclopedists of late antiquity, men who lived through the transformation of the Roman world, worked hard to map the times that were changing around them. They explicated the biblical books -- above all Daniel and Revelations -- that offered vivid charts of the future. They divided the past into six ages to match the six days of Creation; or into four or seven ages, which corresponded to the ages of human life. Most ambitiously of all, they mapped time. They mapped it literally and vividly. Around 300 C.E., Eusebius of Caesarea drew up a Christian chronicle in which he laid out all of history from the time of Abraham to his own day. In nineteen columns, meticulously coordinated to show which rulers and events had existed or taken place at the same time, using two colors and multiple hierarchies of names and numbers, Eusebius recorded the history of the nations: Assyrians, Egyptians, Jews, Athenians, Romans. Over time the columns disappeared as one nation was conquered by another, until only the Jews and the Romans remained. The history of the world, captured in this new graphic form, showed a clear progress from multiplicity to unity -- a state achieved by the Roman conquest of Israel just in time to allow the new Christian religion to reach all of mankind. Eusebian world history, which became the model world history of the Christian Middle Ages, revealed the work of Providence through time by its very form.
Medieval mappaemundi -- as Scafi shows, displaying them by the dozens, in all the profusion and the splendor of their multiple graphic codes and unforgettably vivid colors -- superimposed these two visions of the universe, one spatial and one temporal, to produce something new: a stunning Christian vision of time and space. At their most ambitious and elaborate -- as in the enormous, magnificent Ebstorf and Hereford world maps, created in the thirteenth century -- they plotted the salvation history of the world in as much detail as the contours of its surface. These maps provided not only the locations of Creation and Incarnation, but also the full long trail of biblical history that stretched between the two: the Ark, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Joseph's storehouses all figured on them.
Above all, these maps made clear to the informed reader that sacred time imparted meaning to sacred space. And that, in turn, explains why Giovanni Leardo and many other cartographers embedded maps in the instruments and the tables of the Christian calendar. Scafi's patient and scrupulous exegeses tease out the meanings of icons and symbols, and record the immensely varied visual and verbal conventions that the mapmakers devised, and make clear the extraordinary conceptual richness and density of the maps of paradise. Mapping Paradise is itself a masterly map of concepts and images whose logic has been lost with time.
Equally fascinating is Scafi's account of how this elaborate picture of the world, which functioned so well for hundreds of years, finally collapsed. As he shows, the thirteenth-century synthesis represented by majestic and apparently coherent creations such as the Hereford map bore within it some of the seeds of its own dissolution. The late antique heritage included more ways than one to lay out the surface of the earth. The zonal maps that divided the world into frigid, temperate, and torrid regions were hard to reconcile formally with the T-O map, and some of them seemed to represent land masses outside the three known continents. Time raised further problems. As Western Europeans learned, from the Arabs and from experience, that the equatorial zone was not so hot as to be lethal, imaginations began to move in new ways. Was a re-formed map of the zones, rather than a sketch of the continents, the proper way to chart sacred space and time? Could paradise be not at the far east, but in the temperate middle of the world? And if so, what did the new vision have to do with the traditional one that hewed more closely to the biblical narrative?
New ways of mapping, which spread through the Mediterranean from the thirteenth century on, also challenged the older ways of representing space. Late medieval cartographers did their best to reconcile the new pragmatic maps with older systems of representation. But their work showed evident strain: the maps that now came into being seemed to offer not only an account of the sacred and distant past, but a practical way to navigate to the unreachable paradise at the world's end. Did paradise really exist in a special, separate place? No wonder that some influential thinkers, such as Duns Scotus, began to question whether one could locate the earthly paradise at all.
The final blows to the old system came when the great Alexandrian atlas of Ptolemy, the Geography, came back to light in fifteenth-century Italy, and when the Portuguese rounded Africa. Ptolemy's magnificent work showed readers how to map the world in accordance with a range of projection systems. Each had its advantages -- and none had space for paradise, in which Ptolemy, a pagan, had no interest. At the same time, the discoveries of the Portuguese (and, later, of Columbus and others) began to bring all traditional maps into discredit. Even printed editions of Ptolemy began to include sections of "new maps" that showed, as his did not, the open bottom of the Indian Ocean. Like his ancient maps, these included no place for Eden.
Yet even as paradise fell off the world map, new maps of Eden sprouted like mushrooms in the illustrated bibles that Martin Luther and the other warring theologians of the Reformation brought out to underpin their religious ideas. They are not the heroes of Scafi's tale. His deepest sympathies seem reserved for the constructive cartographers of the Middle Ages, and he shows a pronounced sense of irony as he charts the minutely detailed efforts of Luther, Calvin, Steucho, and a host of less famous polymaths to work out, from close scrutiny of the biblical text, which rivers had watered paradise and whether its site still existed or had been -- as Luther thought -- expunged by the universal Flood. Scafi and his reader know in advance, thanks to his excellent introductory section on Genesis, that these efforts were doomed to failure.
Yet here, too, Scafi's exposition rests on deep research, and he explicates the new sacred geography and antiquarianism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries -- and even the new archaeological geography and biblical tourism of more recent times -- with impeccable erudition and patience. Above all, he makes clear that the new methods of early modern scholars -- who insisted on finding Eden somewhere in the larger Near East, as the biblical text seemed to require, and no longer necessarily believed that they could map providential time on ordered space -- are what stand between us and the mappaemundi. The medieval map of paradise came to seem funny not in the age of Bouvard and Pecuchet, the positivist world that produced the first studies of the history of geography, but in the Renaissance; and it can be understood only by abandoning the condescension of the humanists.
Scafi's immensely learned and minutely accurate book -- which began life as a dissertation at the Warburg Institute, that great center for the study of forgotten traditions -- opens a treasury of lost learning. Historians and art historians, students of literature and religion, and specialists in exegesis and its crooked histories will all have much to learn from him. Historians of cartography may be just a little less impressed. Throughout his work, Scafi takes pains to insist on the rationality of the medieval maps. Again and again, he assures the reader that modern maps are just as conventional in their divisions and visual language as medieval ones: that no map, as readers of Borges and Jonathan Smith know, can ever be identical to the territory it portrays. And here, in the end, he seems to be knocking on an open door.
It is true that earlier students of the mappaemundi often treated the effort to locate paradise as silly and futile, a characteristic medieval error. Scafi himself came to the subject as a student when he bought, by chance, a cheap copy of one of the classic nineteenth-century accounts, Arturo Graf's The Myth of the Earthly Paradise, and his desire to set the larger record straight perhaps derives, like his passion for the subject, from that first encounter. But in recent decades we have witnessed a revolution in the history of maps. The great collaborative history of cartography organized by J.B. Harley and the late David Woodward, and studies by Harley, Woodward, Matthew Edney, D. Graham Burnett, and many others, have taught us over and over again to see that maps are inevitably conventional. We know that the maps that replaced the mappaemundi -- for example, the great, weird world maps of the early sixteenth century, which Christian Jacob brilliantly explicated in The Sovereign Map, just translated into English but first published in French in 1992 -- employed as wildly varied visual languages and emplotted as widely varied information as their medieval predecessors. True, they depicted wild flora, fauna, and human societies on the new, western edge of the known world in place of man, woman, and tree -- or four rivers -- to the east; but they were every bit as selective, and as imaginative, as the mappaemundi. Scafi's polemics against anachronism, though perfectly justified, are the one part of this splendid book that could have been abridged.
But Mapping Paradise is a truly superb work. Scafi's precision, clarity, and range of reference compel admiration. So does his mastery of a vast range of technical systems. A classic Warburgian in his ability to find paths through the labyrinth of tradition, his love and understanding of commentary, and his sympathy for alien systems of belief, Scafi also brings to his work an impressive mastery of pre-modern cartography and its sources, and a deep understanding of the late antique crisis in understanding time and space. Again and again he demonstrates his command of these newer traditions of scholarship and their potential to preserve and to enrich older ones. Mapping Paradise does honor to its author and his teachers, as well as to the generations of scribes and miniaturists, exegetes and theologians, whose colorful world it charts with such lucidity and insight.
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.