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Understanding Comes from the Heart

I have been on a mini-pilgrimage to see the Mappa Mundi, one of the most famous medieval maps of the world. Handily for me it resides in the Cathedral in Hereford, not so very far from my home in Mid-Wales, so my trip wasn't long or arduous, however it did feel like a sacred journey and it turned out to be a surprisingly emotional experience for me.

Gangines of the Mappa Mundi by Lucy Baxendale

I've been noticing guidance to visit the map, although I wasn't sure why. I'd fleetingly had a thought about the Mappa Mundi and soon after I heard it being discussed on a BBC podcast about the cardinal directions, then I saw it referenced in a ceramic sculpture of an 'apple sniffer' displayed in an exhibition at Leominster's Croft Castle. The Gangines are one of the strange races that are featured on the Mappa Mundi and were believed to exist on the fragrance of apples. It's apple season now and time to go to Hereford!

I hadn't walked around Hereford city centre for years. I'd forgotten how atmospheric the older part of this city is. You step from the main shopping street which hosts the usual chain stores into an alley, charmingly called Capuchin Lane. Walking over ancient flagstones a sense of peace descends and you can feel the medieval Hereford around you. Following the narrow lane to its end brings you out into an open green space and there Hereford Cathedral stands splendidly before you.

I went inside and walked a complete circuit around this beautiful building, noting a side chapel that drew me, but first I wanted to see the map, I was on a mission! I couldn't remember where it was kept so I asked if I could view it. I was given directions by a man of the cloth wearing sky blue robes and a beaming smile. He said enthusiastically, "Yes you must see it; go now whilst it is quiet."

The Mappa Mundi is housed in a specially built exhibition centre accessed through the Cathedral gift shop and the cafe. His was good advice, there were not many visitors when I arrived. The Centre aims to educate with a range of explanatory displays, which I walked straight past. Something in me was determined to get straight to the map, no distractions. I walked through double doors into a subtly lit room where the thousand year old map is on display. I was blessed. Apart from the attendant no-one else was there.

I stood before the Mappa Mundi and was surprised to find I was weeping, my tears coming from nowhere. I felt so moved by this incredible artefact, although I couldn't tell you why, the emotion was welling up from a place deep within me. The map spoke to my heart in a language my mind couldn't decipher. I feel that I connected with it all the more for not being able to understand the words.

The Mappa Mundi was telling me of a precious world gone by. A world where belief in fantastical monsters and strange beings was as real as cathedrals, cities and seas. A world where a map was not so much a way to navigate, but an allegory of the soul's journey. I felt what it was to be one of the medieval scribes and could sense the careful pen strokes and painstaking care of the map makers.

I was left alone peacefully gazing at the map until my tears stopped and a sense of peace prevailed. I felt lighter, as though a subtle healing had occurred in me.

Mappa Mundi Medieval map
The Mappa Mundi

As I left the exhibition space the same clergyman was entering. He asked, "Did you enjoy it?" and I told him how moving I'd found it. He relayed that in his boyhood it was 'just an old map' and had been displayed casually in the Cathedral in an out of the way area. The choir boys would go along to goggle at the mythical creatures. It was only later that its true value was realised. Fortunately the Cathedral chose not to sell it and the Exhibition Centre was constructed.

I went for a thoughtful cup of tea and a pecan and maple slice in the cafe and took a quiet walk in the gardens. Suitably fortified and refreshed I thought I should go back into the exhibition and find out more about the artefact I'd been looking at.

I sat through an informative audio visual guide and peered carefully at the English translation of the map. Very interesting. In the centre of the world sits Jerusalem and the Crucifixion. At the top Christ presides over the judgement of souls as they are sent either to Heaven on his right hand or stripped, chained and sent to Hell on his left. The river Nile winds along the map like a great fat snake. Adam and Eve are escorted from Paradise by an angel with a sword whilst the Red Sea is coloured red and being parted. Nothing is to scale of course; the British Isles appears rather substantial and important.

Mappa Mundi reproduction detail in English translation
A detail of the English translation

Now I felt 'well informed' I went back to visit the real map. At first I couldn't get near it and once I did my feeling was one of academic interest rather than the emotional engagement I felt earlier. It had become an old artefact, a special one, but the mystical energy that had spoken direct to my heart seemed to have dissipated. I did find out a fun fact from the attendant that although the map is written in Latin the angels speak French. The nobility at that time would have been French speaking. This detail surely must have pleased a wealthy benefactor!

I wondered whether I would have experienced my emotional response if I had followed the prescribed route through the exhibition and found out about the Mappa Mundi first. I think not.

Passing through the Cathedral shop I bought a little angel carved of olive wood from the Holy Land to put on my altar at home. I walked around the Cathedral once more, lighting a candle for those young festival goers and the peaceniks who had been massacred so brutally in Israel. My tears began to flow quietly down my cheeks again.

Walking around the Cathedral once more my attention was again drawn to the side chapel. It was for those who had been bereaved. I went inside to sit before Mother Mary and contemplate my feelings of loss and sadness for people I had never known. I realised there was a tiny tree in a pot before the altar and when I looked I saw that it was a seedling of a Cedar of Lebanon. I had been drawn to the very place the Cathedral had dedicated for its prayers of peace and I realised that the timing of my pilgrimage to see the Mappa Mundi had a deeper meaning. Jerusalem sits at its centre with Christ suffering on the cross and the rest of the World is drawn around him. It may not be a piece of accurate cartography in the modern sense, but once again the Middle East has become the centre of attention for the World and our concern is for those suffering there.

I felt much calmer for saying a prayer of peace for the area. You don't need to go to a Cathedral or to any place of worship to do this and you don't need to adhere to any organised religion. At home on an altar I have placed the olive wood angel, a crystal and a candle. It is a simple arrangement, but sitting with it in meditation evokes a feeling of peace and opens the understanding and compassion that comes from the heart.


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