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Cities of God? Medieval urban forms and their Christian symbolism

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Situated in the context of recent geographical engagements with ‘landscape’, this paper combines ‘morphological’ and ‘iconographic’ landscape interpretations to examine how urban forms were perceived in late medieval Europe. To date, morphological studies have mapped the medieval city either by classifying urban layouts according to particular types, or by analysing plan forms of particular towns and cities to reveal their spatial evolution. This paper outlines a third way, an ‘iconographic’ approach, which shows how urban forms in the Middle Ages conveyed Christian symbolism. Three such ‘mappings’ explore this thesis: the first uses textual and visual representations which show that the city was understood as a scaled-down world – a microcosm – linking city and cosmos in the medieval mind; the second ‘mapping’ develops this theme further and suggests that urban landscapes were inscribed with symbolic form through their layout on the ground; while the third looks at how Christian symbolism of urban forms was performed through the urban landscape in perennial religious processions. Each of these ‘mappings’ points to the symbolic, mystical significance urban form had in the Middle Ages, based on religious faith, and they thus offer a deepened appreciation of how urban landscapes were represented, constructed and experienced at the time.

Keywords: landscape iconography; medieval Europe; urban morphology

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: School of Geography, Queen's University, Belfast BT7 1NN, Email:

Publication date: September 1, 2004


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