Medieval Christianity interpreted the story of Eden through various mythologies and folk traditions. Some are represented in this monumental map of the world, which dates from around 1300 and still hangs in Hereford Cathedral.
The assumption that Eden was a geographical place meant that it was logical for it to appear on maps, but where do you locate paradise? Some suggested that Eden was lost in the flood (Genesis 6–9), others that it had been taken up into heaven. Here the lost paradise remains on earth, but any explorer endeavouring to find it would clearly be frustrated. The biblical text suggests that Eden was in the east (Genesis 2:8) and so it is here. East is at the top of the map, and so we see Eden in the uppermost inscribed circle, directly below the figure of Christ in majesty.
But medieval maps were more than geographical guides. They were symbolic representations of salvation history, of time represented through place, experience through picture.
In his commentary on Genesis, Claus Westermann notes that the Eden story has two endings. The exile happens twice: first in Genesis 3:23, ‘the Lord God sent him forth from the garden’; second in 3:24, ‘He drove out the man’. Westermann (2004: 27) attributes this to two oral traditions, patched together in the final written form.
But this double expulsion also gives the sense of a definitive ending. Its finality is echoed in this image of the lost Eden, triply blockaded: first by (a now slightly discoloured) sea; second by a ring of fire represented by curving red lines; and finally by a crenellated wall that transforms the garden into a fortified castle.
Eden after exile is utterly inaccessible, and yet its inclusion on the map makes it simultaneously tantalizingly present. The gap between earth and Eden is a narrow strait, whose closeness only strengthens humanity’s desire to reach the paradise that has been lost. Where there is desire there remains a hope of return. There is no exile without such yearning.
Scafi, Alessandro. 2006. Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
The Mappa Mundi, Hereford Cathedral: https://www.themappamundi.co.uk [accessed 1 August 2018]
Westermann, Claus. 2004. Genesis, trans. by David E. Green (London: T&T Clark)
22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever”— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.