What were 12th-century Maps of the Holy Land meant to express?

By Pnina Arad

Maps of the Holy Land were first produced in the Latin West only at the beginning of the twelfth century. It is generally accepted that the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (in 1099) led to the creation of these maps and that the purpose was to represent Jerusalem and the biblical land in its renewed Christian appearance, with an emphasis on the Crusader achievement.

I suggest that it was not simply political developments in the East, but rather developments in Western spirituality that gave rise to the creation of the earliest Western type of Holy Land map at that point in time. The developments I refer to are the new devotion to the humanity of Christ and the Virgin that emerged in the eleventh century, as well as to the emergence of new forms of affective imagery that invited viewers to participate in the suffering of Christ and in the sorrow of his compassionate mother.


This article shows that the earlier Western type of Holy Land map – sometimes referred to in research as ‘situs Jerusalem map’ – was conceived in relation to the increase in Western pilgrimage to Jerusalem and on the basis of a new genre of pilgrimage guides that appeared in the West in the first years of the century. It examines the strategy by which this type of map conceptualized the biblical topography as a physical reflection of Christ’s life (in relation to the devotion to the humanity of Christ) and explores the potential use of this map as an aid for conducting a virtual pilgrimage to Jerusalem (at a time when the concept and practice of embarking on a virtual pilgrimage through visual imagery had not yet been developed in the West).

My argument is that the earliest Western type of Holy Land map was formulated in a purely religious context — not in relation to the Crusader enterprise and ideology — and that this type of map was a pure devotional image.


The most characteristic feature of the innovative twelfth-century Holy Land map is the disproportionately large circular emblem of Jerusalem that occupies the center of the composition. This type of map appeared in two versions. The first one focuses on the area surrounding Jerusalem, including some sites in the Judean desert at the top. An example is the map that is attached to a pilgrimage guide within a chronicle narrating the First Crusade (Gesta Francorum Iherusalem expugnatium) in a manuscript dated to 1106-09 (Saint Omer, Bibl. d’Agglomeration de Saint Omer, MS 776, fol. 50v), Figs. 1a, 1b.

Fig. 1a: A map of the Holy Land attached to a pilgrimage guide within a chronicle narrating the first Crusade (Gesta Francorum Iherusalem expugnatium) in a manuscript dated to 1106-09; Saint Omer, Bibl. d’Agglomeration de Saint Omer, MS 776, fols. 50v-51r © BAPSO). This map is considered the earliest copy of its kind.
Fig. 1b: English translations of the Latin inscriptions inscribed on Saint Omer, MS 776, fol. 50v (illustration: Pnina Arad; © Pnina Arad)

The second version shows a greater part of the land. Here, at the top, the River Jordan flows from Mount Lebanon in the north into the Sea of Galilee (which is depicted like three different bodies of water) and from there it flows into the Dead Sea; Mount Tabor and Nazareth are seen next to the Sea of Galilee, and next to the Dead Sea we find Mount Sinai, Mount Seir, Arabia and Pentapolis (Fig. 2). Apart from these differences, both versions basically show the same selection of sites.

Fig. 2: English translations of the Latin inscriptions inscribed on a map within a twelfth century manuscript preserved at Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale (MS 9823–24, fol. 157r); (illustration: Pnina Arad; © Pnina Arad)

The first to identify the correlation between this type of map and pilgrimage guides was the nineteenth-century German historian of cartography, Konrad Miller. Miller identified the interconnection between the maps’ selection of sites and a specific pilgrimage guide that was inserted into the Gesta Francorum Ierusalem expugnatium, but missed the fact that it was a pilgrimage guide and understood the text as a description of Jerusalem within the Crusader Chronicle. Miller’s observation was confirmed by later studies, which continued to ignore the pilgrimage context of this text and to refer to the maps as reflecting a description of Jerusalem within the Gesta Francorum. Yet, the pilgrimage context is highly significant. It explicitly connects the new type of map with religious piety, and it also sheds light on the potential use of the map as a religious image.

Relationship with the Pilgrimage Guides

The anonymous pilgrimage guide within the Crusader chronicle of the Gesta Francorum is one of several pilgrimage guides that appeared in the West in the early years of the twelfth century. The appearance of these guides is usually understood in connection with the increase in the number of Western pilgrims who visited Jerusalem at the time, and with their necessity for guidance in the holy places. Yet, these guides also served those who remained at home. They allowed the readers to experience the might of the holy places from afar; in fact, they were the instruments by which knowledge of the holy places was transmitted. All the surviving guides have much in common. The linkage between them is expressed by similar courses of travel, by the traditions they attribute to the various places, and sometimes even by phrasing.


To demonstrate the correlation between this genre and the new type of map, I shall use the guide of the Gesta Francorum. This is because this particular guide was accompanied by maps in three different manuscripts (as, for example, the manuscript preserved at Saint Omer).

In essence, the guide contains a list of sacred sites arranged in geographical order, with details on their biblical context and simple walking directions, and just as the map focuses attention on Jerusalem by allocating it the largest part of the page, so does the guide, in which the first and largest section is dedicated to a tour of the city. It opens with a description of the five gates of Jerusalem and then leads the reader to some sites. All these sites are marked on the map: the five gates, including the guide’s explanation of the Golden Gate, the Lord’s Tomb, ‘the slit rock’ (the rock that was rent at Christ’s death, Matt. 27: 51), Golgotha, Calvary, Church of Saint Mary the Latin, the Lord’s Temple, Church of Saint Anne, and a pool, which is the Pool of Bethesda.

Fig. 3: The travel route outlined by the Gesta Francorum pilgrimage guide superimposed on the map of Saint Omer, MS 776 (fig. 1). The journey commences at the Lord’s Tomb; (illustration: Pnina Arad; © Pnina Arad)

After the section on Jerusalem, the guide continues with a tour outside the city. It directs the readers through David’s Gate towards the road to Bethlehem and emphasizes that the city was called ‘Ephrata’ in ancient times. The map represents this information by marking the road itself with the city’s both toponyms.


Then the guide leads the readers to the manger — which appears in the version of the map that shows a greater part of the land (fig. 2) — and to a few other sites: the Tomb of Rachel, Mount Zion and the Cenacle, the Pool of Siloam, the Kidron Brook, Aceldama — which also appears in the second version of map (fig. 2) — the Valley of Jehoshaphat, the church and tomb of Saint Mary, Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, the site of the Ascension and Bethany.

The list ends with a number of places that are referred to as being far from the city: the River Jordan, Jericho, ‘The desert where the Lord fasted for forty days’, ‘The high mountain where he was tempted by the devil’, Nazareth, the Sea of Tiberias, and Mount Tabor.

Fig. 3 represents the manner in which this type of map reproduced the course of travel that was provided by the guide: the emblem of Jerusalem represents all the sacred sites that composed the tour within the city; and the tour outside the city — from Bethlehem to the Judean desert and beyond is embodied by the arrangement of the various sites around the city emblem, from bottom to top, counterclockwise. Yet, this illustration also shows that this type of map included some places that are not mentioned in the pilgrimage guide.

How can we explain this inconsistency?  I won’t enter into details, but just note that most of the additions outside Jerusalem, as well as Solomon’s Temple, are mentioned in other surviving pilgrimage guides. That is to say that the prototypic map, which is reflected in both copies that are discussed here, was created on the basis of a more detailed guide than the one of the Gesta Francorum. It is also possible, of course, that the author of the prototypic map did base himself on the Gesta Francorum guide, but enriched his selection of toponyms with several more places.


In any case, the large degree of overlap between the written guides and the two versions of maps suggests that this type of map was composed on the basis of the pilgrimage writings and testifies to its very context: pilgrimage and religious devotion. This context allows us to analyse this type of map as a devotional image, and to argue that no matter the contents of the texts to which the various copies of maps were attached (historical chronicles, encyclopedic compilations and various religious texts), they were inherently embedded with a devotional dimension.

Devotional Image

In fact, this type of map represents a very small selection of sites, very much oriented to the Scriptures. This narrow selection impels the viewer to observe the topography through the biblical narrative and to consider each sign and all the signs together in relation to the sites’ biblical background. The selective nature of the map turns every sign into a module of stratified biblical memories (sometimes derived from both the Old and the New Testaments, as in the case of Jericho). And since these signs are usually not associated with specific biblical episodes, they provoke an associative contemplation on the biblical narrative, stimulating the viewer to compose and recompose this narrative in various ways. The complexity of such beholding is, of course, dependent upon the viewer’s previous knowledge.

Yet, if we carefully examine the selection of sites we find that it constructs three specific narratives: the narrative of Christ’s life, the narrative of the Virgin’s life, and the narrative of Jerusalem as the city of Passion and of the Old Testament kings. While the third narrative is clearly evident in the selection of sites within the emblem of Jerusalem, the first two narratives are more latent. But, in point of fact, most of the sites marked on the map are closely associated with Christ, and actually evoke the four phases that compose his life cycle: Infancy (Bethlehem and the Lord’s Temple), Ministry (Bethany, Spring of Siloam, the pool of Bethesda [the ‘pool’] ‘the place of 40’, ‘the high mountain’, and the Cenacle), Passion (Golgotha, Calvary, the ‘slit rock’ and the tomb), and Ascension (the Mount of Olives). The very few sites that recall the Virgin operate similarly, by concisely embodying her entire cycle of life: birth and childhood (Church of Saint Anne), giving birth to Jesus (Bethlehem), attendance at the Crucifixion (Church of Saint Mary the Latin, marked as ‘Church Latin’), Dormition (Mount Zion), burial and Assumption (Saint Mary’s tomb).

With such a composition, the map could function as any other affective imagery that emerged at the time with the increasing devotion to the humanity of Christ and the Virgin, and which invited the faithful to participate in the suffering of Christ and in the sorrow of the Virgin (a prominent example of this new imagery is the depiction of the crucified Christ, who had been changed from a triumphant Saviour to a wounded and pitiful dead man). Yet, with its topographical language, the map provided the viewer with different keys to the drama and invited other types of participation.

By showing, for example, the places of the Crucifixion and Entombment, it summoned a participation in the event of the Passion through its physical evidence in situ. And by showing a set of places that represents the entire life of Christ, it constructed a Christological space that allowed the viewer to retrace the footsteps of Christ on earth and to grasp the narrative of the Gospels in topographical terms (‘Christological space’ means the geographical locations where Christ lived and carried out his activities). It is also important to note that through its concise selection of sites that embodied the entire life of Christ, the map effectively conceptualized the topography of the Holy Land as a physical reflection of Christ’s life.

An Aid for a Virtual Pilgrimage

Looking at the map together with a pilgrimage guide, necessarily generated another kind of meditative work. In offering a course of travel, composed of the sites presented on the map — including details of their biblical context — the guide engendered a contemplative movement in the pictorial space, and also constructed the very experience that pilgrims underwent in situ. That is: an engagement in a physical imitatio Christi through their presence in the holy places.

The reading of a section from the Gesta Francorum guide together with the map reveals the potentiality of the combination of map and guide to generate such a spiritual experience.

To this day, there is a fifth gate as well. It is called the Golden Gate, and is situated between the east and south gates below the Temple of the Lord. Through it, the King of Heaven entered his city before his Passion  […] If one enters the city by this gate the Sepulchre of the Lord is to the left  […]  Near to it, and off slightly to one side, is a slit rock, for as we read, it was ‘rent’ at Christ’s death, and beneath is Golgotha, a place most richly deserving respect […]  to its south is the Church of the Mother of God known as ‘Latin’ […]  The Virgin is said to have wept there, and torn her hair when she saw her only Son being nailed to the gibbet. ~ (English translation from Latin: John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrimage 1099–1185 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1988), pp. 172–73; my emphases).

With the aid of this passage, the map’s user could join the King of Heaven at the Golden Gate and enter with him into his city, to participate in the event of the Crucifixion through the signs of the Golgotha and the slit rock, and even to share the sight and sorrow experienced by the Virgin through the sign of the Church of Saint Mary the Latin.

Moreover, the guide’s references to the physical character of some natural features turn the depiction on the map more perceptible. One example is the description of Mount Zion – “The southern is the Zion Gate, because Mount Zion is on that side; it is steep and makes this approach to the city difficult and exhausting.” Descriptions of this kind endow the pictorial setting with a topographical realism and amplify the potential of the map to arouse a contemplative movement.

All in all, the combination of guide and map offered the viewer a way to conduct a virtual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But we should remember that the custom of conducting virtual journeys to the Holy Land with the aid of images and pilgrimage writings had developed only in the late Middle Ages. Therefore, it is quite possible that the twelfth-century combination of map and guide was among the first media used for conducting a virtual pilgrimage, and perhaps even the actual impetus for the development of this practice.

One can argue that the combination of map and guide was simply meant to serve as a practical tool for pilgrims in situ. But as Catherin Delano-Smith has shown, maps did not serve as aids for travel until the early modern period. That means that this type of map was not meant to serve as an aid for real travel and that the combination of map and guide served spiritual needs alone.

To sum it up, the earliest type of Holy Land map that appeared in the West was conceived in relation to pilgrimage. It presented a concise selection of toponyms that supported Western spirituality in two aspects: it reflected the actual itinerary of pilgrims in the Holy Land and by that it enabled one to have a substitute experience of pilgrimage, and it constructed a Christological space that supported the devotion to the humanity of Christ and the Virgin and conceptualized the Holy Land as a physical reflection of their lives. That is to say that this type of map did not simply convey a geographical knowledge, but rather utilized this kind of knowledge for conveying religious notions and fulfill religious notions.

Pnina Arad earned her PhD in visual studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2012). Her work focuses on visual representations of the Holy Land and the cultural role they have played in different societies from the Middle Ages to the present. She is the author of Christian Maps of the Holy Land: Images and Meanings (Brepols, 2020); “Another Reconsideration of the Madaba Map,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 47.2 (2023): 1–19; “Post-Secular Art for a Post-Secular Age: Stational Installations of the Via Dolorosa in Western Cities,” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief 18.2 (2022): 203–227; “Landscape and Iconicity: Proskynetaria of the Holy Land from the Ottoman Period,” The Art Bulletin 100.4 (2018): 62–80. Learn more about Prina’s research on her page.

Further Reading:

Pnina Arad, Christian Maps of the Holy Land: Images and Meanings (Turnhout: Brepols: 2020), 33–46.

Catherine Delano-Smith, “Milieus of Mobility: Itineraries, Route Maps, and Road Maps,” in J. R. Akerman (ed.), Cartographies of Travel and Navigation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 16–68.

Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Milca Levy-Rubin, “From Eusebius to the Crusader Maps: The Origin of the Holy Land Maps,” in: Visual Constructs of Jerusalem, ed. B. Kühnel, G. Noga‐Banai, H. Vorholt (Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 18; Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 253–63.

Konrad Miller, Mappaemundi: Die ältesten Weltkarten, 3 vols., Stuttgart 1895–1898, vol. 3: Die kleineren Weltkarten, pp. 61–68.

Jay Rubenstein, “Heavenly and Earthly Jerusalem,” in: Visual Constructs of Jerusalem, ed. B. Kühnel, G. Noga‐Banai, H. Vorholt (Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 18; Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 265–75.

Kathryn M. Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent: Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Turnout: Brepols, 2011).