Abraham Cresques was a map maker from Majorca who lived during the middle of the 14th century. During the 1370s, he produced the Catalan Atlas, the most detailed representation of the known world at that time. The atlas was commissioned by the king of France, Charles V, and still resides in the Bibliotèque national de France. Its design conforms to the conventions of the Mappamundi, representing the known regions of the earth as well as the people who inhabit them. The map originally consisted of six folio vellum leaves folded vertically. Later, the leaves were mounted on six wooden panels, which wearing over time, led the map to be folded into twelve half-sheets and mounted on boards to fold like a screen. The orientation of the map is that of a portolano, which was a medieval nautical chart used by mariners to navigate their way on the high seas. Meant to be laid flat, the map is oriented with North at the bottom rather than top. It was drawn so that, like a portolano, it could be turned in various directions depending on which feature of the map was important to the viewer. Accordingly, many of the places and people depicted on the map appear upside down when the map is viewed strictly vertically. Although the Catalan Atlas predates Columbus’s voyage to the New World over a century later, the map does not contest the already accepted assumptions of its time that the Earth is spherical, not flat.
The circular diagram depicts the days of the month, indicating days of good and bad luck. There is also a diagram showing how to identify the so-called “Golden Number,” important for determining the annual date of Easter. The human figure depicted is that of a “zodiac man,” showing which parts of the body are governed by the moon according to different signs of the zodiac. The diagram next to it is for calculating good and bad times for bloodletting, a common medical procedure of the time. On the right side is a geographical text which describes the regions of the world and the various peoples living in it.
Leaf II is a detailed calendar wheel. The circles drawn include the planets and the signs of the zodiac in a golden ring along with the phases of the moon. The outermost ring includes a text describing how to find the Golden Number. The figures in the four corners represent the seasons.
Leaf III shows the then legendary Insula de Brazil first west of Ireland and then again further south. At the bottom left is Jaime Ferrer’s ship, which in 1346 set sail from Majorca for the mythical “River of Gold” in Africa. Other map features include the Sahara Desert, shown with the common medieval mistake of a lake in its center. The map text beside the turbaned Touareg, riding a camel, states that this land is inhabited by people who live in tents and ride camels. To the east of the Touareg figure is Mansa Musa, King of Mali between 1312 and 1337, who encouraged the development of Islamic learning and whose kingdom was known for its substantial gold reserves. The map shows the relative predominance of Christianity vs. Islam by location, picturing crosses and onion domes, respectively.
Leaf IV depicts the King of Organa in the lower left, wearing a turban and blue dress with a sword and shield in his hands. Further east is the King of Nubia, who ruled a Muslim population of the area as depicted by the green dress he wears. The nude black man, camel, and elephant symbolize Africa as a whole. On the right side of the panel sits the Sultan of Babylon (Egypt), with a long-tailed green parrot on his left arm. The Red Sea is colored red with a land bridge at its top depicting the Biblical Exodus across it.
At the bottom left is the Queen of Sheba, who holds a golden disc symbolizing her wealth. The body of water stretching across the bottom of both sides of the panel is the Persian Gulf, with the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina drawn closer to the coast than they actually are. The King of Tauris sits above the Queen of Sheba and above him, Janï-Beg, ruler of the Golden Horde, who died in 1357. At the bottom right are pearl fishers, who fish for pearls “which are supplied to the town of Baghdad” as indicated in the accompanying map text. The fishers “recite magic spells with which they frighten away the fish.” The boats depicted on the leaf are called nichi, with sails made of bamboo and palm leaves. They are drawn in a way reminiscent of the depiction of Chinese junks in Marco Polo’s memoir of his travels. Polo’s entourage appears, upside down, at the top of the right side as it makes its way across Central Asia to China. Immediately below Marco Polo are the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. The two figures below them represent powers in India, the Sultan of Delhi and the Hindu King of Vijayanagar.
King Stephen sits at the bottom left, a symbol of the Christian minorities residing in India. At the top left is a deceased man whose body is about to be cremated, accompanied by music. A group of diamond hunters is pictured in the center, preparing to cast meat to retrieve their treasure. The diamonds would adhere to the meat and then be carried away by birds, from which the hunters would retrieve them. Above and to the right is depicted the Tatar Khan of Gog and Magog. Below, in the middle, is Alexander the Great enlisting Satan’s help to imprison Gog and Magog, the two personifying Alexander’s conquest of Central Asia. To the right of Alexander, it has been argued, is the Antichrist, as the groups flanking the crowned figure are ecclesiastics for whom he is proof of the Second Coming by his making fruit appear on dry branches. Below Satan, upside down, is Kublai Khan, whom Marco Polo encountered on his visit to China. The island at the lower right is Sumatra. The map text says the island is inhabited by people “of great size…with very dark skins and without intelligence. They eat white men and strangers, if they can catch them.”