Maps, Myths, and Monsters

Decorative Imagery on Maps

The map is a sensitive indicator of the changing thought of man, and few of his works seem to be such an excellent mirror of culture and civilization.
Norman J. W. Thrower, Maps and Man, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1972
Maps are graphic representations of the earth or the heavens, or portions thereof. In a broader sense, they are a form of visual communication in which the geographic content is frequently supplemented by additional information ~ historical, political, cultural, religious, and scientific ~ sometimes in symbolic form. Maps are subjective depictions incorporating the concepts and biases of their makers, much as landscape paintings reflect the creativity and perspectives of artists. It has been said that maps tell as much about their makers and the cultures that produced them as they do about the regions portrayed.
Since the drawing of a map is an intrinsically artistic process, it is not surprising that many mapmakers were artists and that they used their skills to embellish their productions. Some of the decorations were purely ornamental, such as the geometric patterns or floral designs forming map borders or surrounding title panels (cartouches) or mileage scales. Decorative elements were used to fill blank areas on some early maps due to gaps in geographic information. In many instances, however, imagery served the dual purposes of adorning and informing, beautifying the maps while at the same time enhancing their content. A wide range of subject matter was portrayed, spanning virtually all of the arts and sciences and creating multifaceted cultural documents.
This exhibition is made up of early maps and atlas title pages displaying imagery drawn from classical, medieval, and Renaissance sources. They are works of art rich in symbolism, sometimes hidden; their origins, history, and meanings are explored herein.