Maps and views blog

20 August 2020

Human maps

This mountain bears a striking likeness to a sleeping female figure. Isn’t nature wonderful?

https://jmbihorel.myportfolio.com/winter-sleep
Jean-Michel Bihorel, Winter Sleep

It’s actually an artwork called ‘Winter Sleep’ by the digital artist Jean-Michel Bihorel. But so good is the artist’s rendering that this realistic and authentic image provides the suggestion in the viewer’s mind that the image may be an actual aerial view.

Maps_k_top_1_88 detail
Carte de la Lune. De J.D. Cassini, c. 1730. Maps K.Top 1.88.

Bihorel’s work sits in a long tradition of human figures in maps. Most obviously, there are parallels with the hidden female profile contained in the lunar map of the French astronomer Jean Dominique Cassini in 1680. The face is supposed to be Cassini’s wife.

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/caricature-map-of-scotland
Lilian Lancaster, Caricature map of Scotland, c. 1869. Maps CC5 a 227

There is a quirkiness to the practice, which we also see in ‘metamorphic’ maps (for which there is a long tradition) in which geographical shapes are metamorphosed into human figures – Lilian Lancaster’s stock-in-trade.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Montgomery_Flagg_The_World_As_Seen_By_Him_1905_Cornell_CUL_PJM_1148_01_(cropped).jpg
James Montgomery Flagg, A map of the world as seen by him, 1907.

A similar double-take to Bihorel's work is present in the romantic postcard by James Montgomery Flagg, reflecting upon how the ardent sees the face of their loved one everywhere, even in the map.

There's a deeper tradition behind Bihorel's work as well, which is what makes it such a robust piece of work. ‘Petrification’, or the turning of humans into stone, is a relatively common end to many mythological tales, and commonly used in medieval legends to explain away human-looking rocks and hills. 

Referencing human characteristics in maps was an entirely appropriate way of reflecting upon the intuitive, emotional and spiritual synergy between people and places.

Maps_k_top_16_24_11_tab_end detail
Christopher Packe, A new philosophico chorographical chart of East-Kent..., 1743.Maps K.Top 16.24.11.tab.end.

Christopher Packe’s geological and topographical map of eastern Kent of 1743 makes the analogy between streams, rivers and valleys, and the circulatory system of the human body.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebstorf_Map#/media/File:Ebstorfer_Weltkarte_2.jpg
The Ebstorf world map, c. 1300.

Finally, the lost Ebstorf world map presents the Christian doctrine that God is one with the world (with additional reference to the act of transubstantiation) by showing God/Christ's head, hands and feet as part of the map.