Maps as spiritual landscapes, by senior curator Elka Deitsch

Maps fascinate, in part, because they are as much reflections of ideas as they are representations of landmasses or oceans or galaxies. In diagramming geographic realities, cartographers simultaneously “map” the cultures that help shape those realities.

Perhaps no landscape is as fraught with significance as the “Holy Land,” the subject of this exhibition. In the ancient world and throughout the Middle Ages, little distinction was made between topographic and spiritual spaces. The nuclei of both spheres met — and melded — in the sacred geography of the Holy Land. The Midrash Tanhuma, a medieval Jewish source, puts it succinctly: “The Land of Israel is situated in the center of the world, and Jerusalem in the center of the Land of Israel . . . .” Even after the Age of Exploration discredited Ptolemaic cosmology, maps of the Holy Land continued to reflect a profound spiritual centrality for the Judeo-Christian world.

Detail, The Journey and Life of Abraham the Patriarch, Abraham Ortelius, 1590
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It is instructive to see how a cartographer chooses to represent reality in a given map from among the potential signifiers of place — natural details, political boundaries, religion, and history, to name a few. The maps in this exhibition employ all of the conventional geographic components in the cartographer’s tool kit — mountains, valleys, streams, and oceans — but they also run the gamut of symbolic and fantastic imagery. Mythic creatures and biblical scenarios are literally set within imagined geography, each map intending to bolster an intrinsic value judgment, vision, or message of the Holy Land.

Borders and Boundaries: Maps of the Holy Land, 15th – 19th Centuries is an attempt to explore not only the way in which people interpret physical space, but also the way in which maps “read” spiritual landscapes through a language of symbol, allegory, shape, and form. Maps have served as beacons to itinerant voyagers, blueprints for vicarious pilgrimages, and didactic tools. They have also represented specific worldviews within which were embodied the yearnings and historical memories of a Judeo-Christian sensibility. It is precisely this dual nature that endows these maps of the Holy Land with such substance and beauty.



From: Bernard Museum Catalog, Borders and Boundaries: Maps of the Holy Land, 15th-19th century

footnotes Elka Deitsch, Exhibition Curator and Director of the Herbert & Eileen Museum, Congregation Emanu-El, NYC
sources Maps in Judaica Art Gallery



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