by Levi Barringer
At one time, human anatomy comprised the map of the world. Early Renaissance mappings evolved from fourth-century geographical practices, primary among them, the orbis terrarum (“orb” or “circle of the lands”) represented by the letter T inside a letter O, or T-O diagram (fig. 1). Occurring as early as the eighth century, T-O diagrams divided human bodies and territories into discrete parts as represented by Roman graphemes, T and O. The Latin writing system excluded much of the unlettered population, remaining accessible only to religious scholars and theologians. T-O maps orient the world with East at the top and Jerusalem at the center, unlike earlier polytheistic maps in which Delphi was the center, signaling the shift from classical polytheism to modern monotheism. This sacred center―or “navel” of the circle, called the axis mundi, symbolizes a place, as Walter Mignolo writes, “where space and time meet.”2 Christian cosmology mapped by axis mundi in T-O diagrams divided Earth into three parts, representing three continents. Their names coincided with those of Noah’s three sons: Shem for Asia, Japeth for Europe, and Ham for Africa (Lybia).3The use of T-O diagrams conflated Christian bodies and territories and reduced their qualities to an ideal graphic representation, which the common population could then interpret as divine truth of a Christian cosmological self.