Welcome to this article, where we will delve into the world of cartography and explore the fascinating history of a 14th century map known as the Fantastic Catalan Atlas. Created by Abraham Cresques, this map is not only an impressive feat of artistry and accuracy, but it also sheds light on the role of Jews in navigation and map-making during this time period. So, join us on this journey through history and discover the wonder of the Fantastic Catalan Atlas and the fascinating world of medieval cartography.

Montage of 8 pages (the third to sixth leaves) of the original 1375 Catalan Atlas
| (c) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalan_Atlas

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Biography of Abraham Cresques

It is worth noting that although many scholarly works refer to him as Abraham Cresquez, his given name was actually Cresques and Abraham was his father’s name. During the 14th century, it was common for Jews in this region to be identified with a double name based on a patronymic. Additionally, he had a distinct Hebrew name, Alicia, which he used in other settings. Cresques was born in Palma Majorca, which was a Spanish holding and part of the Kingdom of Aragon, and he lived from 1325 to 1387. He was also considered a world-class cartographer, which was actually not surprising at all since most Jews were actually involved in this field. Especially during the 14th – 16th century.

Jews and Cartography

It’s not surprising that Jews were heavily involved in this field given their historical involvement in fields related to the knowledge economy, such as science and mathematics. From the 14th to the 16th century, and even up to the present day in fields like nuclear physics and astrophysics, Jews have been at the forefront of scientific advancements. One reason for this is that Jews tended to be urban, literary, and numerate, making them well-suited for scientific pursuits. They also had a strong tradition of international travel, which allowed them to establish connections and stay up-to-date with scientific developments throughout Europe. Additionally, their long association with astronomy and mathematical skills made them a natural fit for cartography. So, it’s no surprise to see Jews heavily involved in this field throughout history.

Jews played a major role in creating maps and star charts in Spain and Portugal during the age of exploration since these countries were maritime powers and heavily invested in exploration. Jews were also involved in creating navigational instruments, like the stunning astrolabe held at the British Museum. Interestingly, many of these maps and charts were written in Hebrew, as Jews were the primary users of these instruments. It’s amazing to think about how much Jewish contributions helped shape our understanding of geography and astronomy during this period.

The Catalan Atlas

The Catalan Atlas is a stunningly beautiful map created in 1375 by the Majorcan cartographer Abraham Cresques. It was commissioned by John I of Aragon as a gift for his cousin Charles VI of France, and has been held in France ever since. The atlas is now available online from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and has been studied by scholars for centuries. The atlas is made up of six vellum leaves, each measuring approximately 65 x 50 cm. The first two leaves contain introductory materials on astronomical and zodiacal themes. The remaining leaves contain maps and other geographical and cultural information about the known world.

The map sets itself apart from other maps of its time by providing both a practical representation of the world, and a wealth of political, economic, and zoological information. The atlas was far more than just a reliable representation of the known world; it was an encyclopedia in map form. It included the first incorporation of a compass rose, showing which way was north, and provided information on who lived where, as well as geographic and political features. At the time, there were two ways of representing the world in a graphic format: theological maps and portolan charts. The former showed the relationship between religious figures and fanciful imagined aspects of the world, while the latter were more practical, but limited to names of places and rough distances between them. The Catalan Atlas surpassed both of these types of maps, providing a wealth of information in a beautiful and practical form.

Features and Its Importance

The Catalan Atlas includes representations of Jewish populations, political and economic information, and fanciful elements, such as the depiction of the Red Sea as a red swath. It even includes a depiction of the Land of Israel. The atlas is not meant to be read in one position, as some materials are presented sideways or upside down. Instead, it would have been laid out on a big table, and readers would walk around the table to read it from different positions.

The Catalan Atlas was a landmark achievement in the history of cartography. It represented a major advance in the way people understood and represented the world, and it was a beautiful work of art in its own right. The atlas was also an important tool for navigation and exploration, providing valuable information on the known world. Today, the Catalan Atlas is a fascinating artifact of medieval history and a testament to the achievements of one of the greatest cartographers of all time, Abraham Cresques.