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I’ve finally been to see the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library. (Note: British Library not British Museum). It runs until 19th September, so there are still a few days for you to catch it. And it’s free.

They are absolutely beautiful objects, beautiful works of art in themselves. What came across to me very strongly was a philosophical idea that I pondered a lot when I was writing my Aquinas and Sartre book: As human beings, we don’t just see the world, we see our own seeing, and then we are able to look back at the world and compare this new mental/physical representation with what stands before us.

This feedback process doesn’t just affect the representation itself (which is obvious), it also affects the way we see this ‘objective’ reality we are facing. There is no such thing, in other words, as a neutral vision of what the world is like. It is always affected by our thoughts, our preconceptions, our culture – and in this case by our maps. It doesn’t mean there is no such thing as truth or objectivity. It means that we will only ever reach that truth through the medium of our own understanding and language.

Every map in this exhibition was created for a purpose – that’s what comes across so clearly. It shows your power (the boundaries of your land are clearly marked), your patriotism (other countries are seen in relation to your own), your military intention (you want to see what the hedges and ditches really look like, so you will recognise them on the battlefield), your faith (Jerusalem is placed at the very centre of the world in many of the medieval maps).

I took particular personal delight in examining a map of Rome by Leonardo Bufalini, a woodcut from 1551. It’s the first large-scale map of the city to have been been created since 200AD. Peering around the bottom half of the map, almost mid-way between the Vatican and Circus Maximus, just above the ‘VIA IVLIA’, I found the plan of a building marked ‘S. TOMAS’, which is the seminary where I trained to be a priest from 1992-97 – the Venerable English College. Fantastic to think that all those centuries ago this particular building, one of thousands in Rome, was caught in the gaze of Bufalini, and sits there now in the British Library. But this was just a few years before it became a seminary for English priests.

Here are some thoughts by Rachel Campbell Johnston about the exhibition:

The art of map-making is an ancient one. It’s hardly surprising: over the centuries, as cartographers crept their slow way across the surface of the planet, the pictures that they created helped people to fit the myriad scattered fragments of a sprawling geographical puzzle into place. But, as the face of the world has grown ever more familiar, have we come to think of the map merely as a literal translation? Accurate, objective and useful it may be but where, many may wonder as they anticipate the British Library’s latest exhibition, is the creative flare that can turn a dry topographical record into a fertile territory for imaginative exploration?

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art is a show to overturn such expectations. It leads the visitor — a bit like some erstwhile explorer — on a creative adventure around the back of that flat piece of paper we think of as the world. Drawing on the finest collection of maps on this planet — the British Library has more than four million to choose from, the vast majority of which are only very rarely, if ever, put on public display — the exhibition sets out to make clear that these pictures are about far more than mere physical description. They are a series of subjective images, each shaped by the beliefs and desires, the ambitions and prejudices, the passions and anxieties of its period.

The spectator looks at the world from myriad perspectives. “Which is more important — the Last Judgment or the correct placement of Birmingham?” asks the curator Peter Barber who, even in the 30 years that he has worked at the library, has probably managed to examine barely a third of its collection. What tells you more about a country: a picture of a dog-headed cannibal or a description of its coastline? The visitor is invited to wander through a world before it was charted, into lands where the unknown is as vivid as the observable fact. […]

Their artistry serves a purpose. Far from objective, scientifically created records, these images have an imaginative agenda. Together they tell a story of power, plunder and possession. They are made to keep watch over spreading dominions, to assert forceful ownership or project a sense of civic pride. Maps — from the medieval visions of a king as a godlike power to the blatant posters of the Bolsheviks — serve as propaganda. The more ornate, the more striking, the more pleasing they look, the more persuasive and easily swallowed their message becomes.

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