Event—Scholarly Seminars

Elina Gertsman, Case Western Reserve University, and Christina Normore, Northwestern University


Nothing is the Matter: Locating God in the Cosmic Void, Elina Gertsman
Nature, medieval philosophers exclaimed in an unsteady chorus, abhors a vacuum. Guided by Aristotelian theories, scholars from Avicenna to Grosseteste rejected the possibility of the void: a locus sine corpore locato was a contradictory notion, and God, even in his omnipotence, surely could not create anything contradictory. My paper discusses a series of late medieval conceptions of nothingness, teasing out the complex interconnections among formal, empirical, and natural sciences, and the material culture of the ensuing centuries. The focus is on the thirteenth century, and on the fertility of the many cross-pollinations between observation and faith, between sciences and theology, and between the visual and the intellectual.

“Un Quarte de mere en tableau”: Revisiting the Catalan Atlas, Christina Elizabeth Normore

The late-fourteenth-century compendium known as the Catalan Atlas (BnF MS espagnol 30) has become a canonical example in discussions of the global medieval world. Both generalist and specialist studies often repeat a similar origin story. Created by the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques around 1375, the Catalan Atlas was given by an Aragonese ruler to the French king Charles V. Originally a flat map, its contents drew together multiple knowledge networks to offer a summation of late medieval geographical knowledge. Yet when one digs deeper, it becomes apparent that little is actually known about the Catalan Atlas, either concerning its program or the conditions of its original facture. The seeming familiarity of the Catalan Atlas’s pictorial form and the purported accuracy of its details have obscured the many questions that still surround its original purpose, maker and audience. Equally importantly, modern scholars have focused on isolated portions of the Catalan Atlas’s contents and regularly depict it as a reflection of a wider context of geographical knowledge rather than an idiosyncratic agent in the creation of a geographical imagination. The present paper surveys the internal evidence and early reception history of the Catalan Atlas to problematize the myths concerning its origin and original form. Rather than attending to only to the map on its final folios, I argue that the contents as a whole reflect a period-specific concept of imaging the world with close parallels to the use of maps in the computus tradition. In the final portion of the paper, I look at the confluence of temporal and geographical concerns in the use of the Catalan Atlas as the introductory object for the 1991-1992 exhibition Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. The display apparatus of Circa 1492 assimilates the Catalan Atlas to modern norms and needs in ways that reveal as much perhaps about the modern geographical and historical imagination as the previous discussion does about the late medieval moment.