Marcia Kupfer

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2014/2015
discipline Art History
Independent Scholar

Research project

The Medieval Mappa Mundi: Rhetorical Vehicle, Cognitive Tool, Mental Image


The Latin term mappa mundi designates a world picture that adapted the cosmographical inheritance of Greco-Roman antiquity to Western medieval epistemology. It might encompass the entire terrestrial globe theorized in relation to the celestial sphere, extend only to the horizons of human habitation, the oikumene, or combine both schemas. These alternative frames of reference coexisted and interacted. Developed along multiple lines in diverse contexts between the seventh and fifteenth centuries, the mappa mundi might take the form of either textual description or graphic object, and, if the latter, range from simple geometric figure to dense pictorial composition. The mappa mundi in its various representational modes epitomized the Creation—sometimes emblematically by reducing physical, or human, geography to a compact, iconic sign, sometimes cartographically by integrating times and places within an elaborated matrix of word and image.
My project links to a book under contract with the London press Reaktion Books. The study ties the mappa mundi qua genre into several overlapping fields: (i) scientific learning (the liberal arts curriculum and calendrical computation in the early Middle Ages, natural philosophy in the Scholastic era); (ii) religious doctrine and devotion (scriptural exegesis, theology, evangelical mission, preaching, pilgrimage); (iii) political thought (ecclesial dominion, royal power, princely virtue, civic pride); (iv) the birth of the travel romance (a genre in which marvels combine with ethnographic description); (v) visual art (manuscript illumination, monumental pictorial ensembles).
In the first part of the book, I treat the mappa mundi as a laboratory for investigating the value-laden spatialization of knowledge in medieval societies. Here the mappa mundi is a formal engine that visually processes the order of things past, present and future. I turn in the second part of the book to the genre’s alliance with artistic programs, literary conceits, and ritual practices. Here I explore how the mappa mundi crystallizes a mental template that is further consolidated and propagated through cultural production. The arc from world into map and from map back into world allows me to draw out the ways in which the genre mediated between conceptualization and habitus. The broad scope, highly synthetic treatment and original methodology will distinguish this study from previous discussions of the material.



Marcia Kupfer is an Independent Scholar. She holds a Ph.D in the History of Art from Yale University.

Her principal research interests are History of medieval art centers on pictorial narrative, cartographic representation, medieval cartography, Art History, medieval studies, medieval History, Iconography, Christian-Jewish polemic, and Jewish - Christian relations.

Selected publications


'The Jerusalem Effect: Rethinking the Centre in Medieval World Maps", with G. Noga-Banai & H. Vorholt, in B. Kühnel (ed.), Visual Constructs of Jerusalem, Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, 2014, pp. 353-365.


'Reflections in the Ebstorf Map: Cartography, Theology and dilectio speculationis', in K. Lilley (ed.), Medieval Geographies. Cartography and Geographical Thought in the Latin West and beyond: 300-1600, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013, pp. 100-126.


'The Noachide Dispersion in English Mappae Mundi ca. 960-ca. 1130', Peregrinations: Journal of

Medieval Art and Architecture, vol. 4, no. 1, spring 2013, pp. 81-106.


'Abraham Circumcises Himself: A Scene at the Endgame of Jewish Utility to Christian Art', in D. Nirenberg & H. Kessler (eds), Judaism and Christian Art, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2011, pp. 143-82. 


The Passion Story: From Visual Representation to Social Drama, (ed.), Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2008.


The Art of Healing: Painting for the Sick and the Sinner in a Medieval Town, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2003.


Romanesque Wall Painting in Central France: The Politics of Narrative, Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 1993.



junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Art History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Philosophy
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Literature