The Image of Europe: Visualizing Europe in Cartography and Iconography

TitleThe Image of Europe: Visualizing Europe in Cartography and Iconography
Publication TypeBook review
AuthorsKotenko, Anton
Book reviewed (all data)Wintle, Michael J. The Image of Europe: Visualizing Europe in Cartography and Iconography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 526 pp.
Yearin press/forthcoming
ISSN NumberISBN: 978-0-5218-8634-5
Full Text

The Image of Europe: Visualizing Europe in Cartography and Iconography, a new study by historian Michael Wintle, Chair of Modern European History at the University of Amsterdam, is a coherent continuation of his previously edited volumes Imagining Europe (2008) and Image into Identity (2006). In this book Wintle challenges the divide not only between history and geography, which seems one of the larger aims of the book series in which it was published, Cambridge Studies in Historical Geography, but even more importantly he disputes the existing abyss between text and image. Until recently historians have not paid much attention to visual sources, preferring textual sources instead. In contrast to this trend, and citing art historians Erwin Panofsky (1957 [1939]) and Francis Haskell (1993) as his inspirations, Wintle attempts to follow in the footsteps of Peter Burke (2001) and write a contextualized “cultural history of images” (19), paying utmost attention to the history of an image at all stages of the artist/patron/viewer production/consumption process. Combining the study of images with his other important source—maps—Wintle follows the pathbreaking essays of Brian Harley (2001) and stresses the political uses of cartography. From “scientific” geographical to obviously propagandist depictions of territory, Wintle, like Harley, highlights that Europe, as constructed through imagery and cartography, is not an objective reality, but a state of mind and/or a cultural construct. However, his study also overturns Harley’s argument that “maps are preeminently a language of power, not protest,” by pointing out that maps indeed have the potential to change and even undermine the status quo (27).

            Wintle’s new and richly illustrated visual analysis of the “European idea” and European identity (with 180 images) should be regarded as an important and provocative outcome of the theoretical approaches mentioned above. In this study the author’s focus is on the way in which maps and other imagery amplified or altered people’s ideas of what Europe was, and the effects that these images had on the minds of Europeans. It seems that the book is more oriented to non-experts or undergraduate students, which may account for Wintle’s numerous reservations concerning the possible “Eurocentric assumptions” of his study. It even seems that he is overcautious, especially when he constantly reminds the readers that the EU and Europe are not the same, and that the book “is in no way an apologia for the European Union,” and its author “doesn’t equate and draw a straight line from the ancient Greeks to the Erasmus program,” or “from Plato to NATO” (7).

            The Image of Europe consists of eight sections: two introductory chapters—one that reviews theoretical literature on identity, Europe, and images, and another on the history of the idea of Europe from antiquity to the twentieth century—followed by six substantive chapters that trace the topic chronologically from the analysis of the female heads on first century BC Roman denarii to the 1930s carvings on the Cornavin railway station in Geneva, Switzerland.

            The first two research chapters are devoted to the view of Europe before the Renaissance, which Wintle uses as his study’s dividing line. He claims that although the concept of “Europe” had a strong visual and spatial dimension from the start, in general the early Greek civilization tended to see Europe as simply one rather vague part of the world, without any inherent superiority. Their colonizing activities alone clearly indicated that Asia was as important to the early Greeks as was Europe, and that their world was centered on the eastern Mediterranean region. Still, as Wintle points out, clear ideas about civilization and barbarity, liberty and despotism, associated with the continents of Europe and Asia, already existed in the early Greek mind.

            The subsequent chapter is dedicated to the Middle Ages, when a trinity of equal continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) existed and, according to the author, “a transition between the Euro-uninterested Ancients and the Eurocentric Moderns was accomplished” (153). During this period each continent was associated with a respective son of Noah and a Magus; since about 1450 the images of the Adoration of the Magi have “portrayed one of those Magi as a black African prince, with the concomitant implication that the other two kings represent Asia and Europe” (191). Although these stories were originally meant to highlight the common origins and therefore the equality of all parts of the world in the eyes of God and the church (and a monogenetic view of the world), gradually these images were deployed to establish a hierarchy of continental difference in terms of culture, characteristics, and value. Simultaneously, medieval cartographers underwent a shift “from portraying Europe as an unremarkable part of the globe to making it increasingly important in both sacred and profane terms” (464). Wintle tries to describe some “traces of future Eurocentrism and even Euro-assertion” (174) in some of them, though he does not write about the possible reasons for this transformation.

            According to Wintle, it was during the Renaissance (fifteenth through seventeenth centuries) that under pressure from an emerging sense of European superiority the most common medieval T-O map gave way to a reordering of the world map, in which Europe started to occupy the central position. In this period, maps of the whole continent appeared more frequently, and the most characteristic technique to enhance and promote the status of Europe used by Renaissance geographers was personification. Europe and other continents were portrayed as persons, usually as women, and the visual strategies used to depict Europe were meant to indicate the superiority of the continent (236). By the end of the sixteenth century the image of the “Queen Europe” also entered the books of icons intended for the use of artists and craftsmen. As a result of these developments, by the mid-seventeenth century, Europe was firmly established in the popular imagination of an average European as superior to other continents (i.e., as in Cesare Ripa’s famous Iconology, 1593). Then, during the Enlightenment, the concepts of “civilization” and “Europe” were linked for the first time by French philosophers, who at the same time associated innocence and primitivism with “the Other” (non-Europeans). In the geographical imagery of the period, Europe was defined largely on the basis of the difference between itself and other continents, and particularly against its colonies in terms of race, religion, and gender, which brought the Eurocentrism of the Renaissance to its culmination around 1800.

            The long nineteenth century and especially the years leading up to the First World War were the zenith of “Eurocentric arrogance and imperialism in the geographical imagery of European visual arts, especially in the portrayal of the continents” (349). Wintle claims that it happened exactly in this period that modern Eurocentrism, built on notions of European superiority, was comprehensively established. In this period also a new tendency appeared when the promotion of a nation-state (by the images of Marianna, Britannia, Germania, or Mother Denmark) coexisted with the assertion of European superiority, where nations “used” Europe in attempt to “harness its force to establish their own pedigree and legitimacy” (381). The increasing power of militant nationalism meant that images of Europe increasingly were “usurped” by nationalist personifications. In this way, the personification of individual European nations/states began to prevail over traditional European imagery. However, the overriding feature of both national and continental imagery was European superiority, even when it was flown under a nationalist flag. Therefore Wintle states that the two levels of representation—national and European—were not incompatible, but were more like “two sides of the same coin, just as was the case with nationalism and imperialism” and only the disasters of the twentieth century finally introduced “a measure of restraint into Europe’s narration of self-image” (405). He continues this idea in the final chapter, and looks more closely at the EU’s (and preceding organizations) use of such visual signifiers, such as the EU flag and EU architecture, in its campaigns for wider support.

            To conclude, this book is an invaluable intellectual addition to the rapidly growing field of European studies. Still, as its author acknowledges, it is written “from the mindset of an early twenty-first-century, middle-class, male academic from Northern Europe” (462), and also clearly limited by his mastery of foreign languages. Therefore, despite Wintle’s attempt to use a “macro-European” approach and to write about the European-wide representations of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals (“and beyond”), the reader will not find much on East-Central Europe (for instance, his only source for Poland is Bronislaw Geremek’s The Common Roots of Europe [1996]), or on Southern European imagery of Europe. Therefore, it would be desirable that this book be followed by a collaborative volume on images of Europe in regions not only surrounding the Low Countries. The same concerns are relevant regarding images of Europe created by non-Europeans. Although Wintle does have a few pages on the topic (70–79), the portrayal of Europe in non-European cultures (similar to Europe Observed by Chatterjee and Hawes on the early-modern period) is an excellent idea for a future volume. Despite its shortcomings, Wintle makes important breakthroughs in the fields of both historical geography and the history of images, which one can hope will lead to more research on new, previously unseen images.

Anton Kotenko

Central European University



Burke, Peter. Eyewitnessing: the Uses of Images as Historical Evidence. London: Reaktion Books, 2001.

Chatterjee, Kumkum, and Clement Hawes, eds. Europe Observed: Multiple Gazes in Early Modern Encounters. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2008.

Geremek, Bronislaw. The Common Roots of Europe. Cambridge: Polity, 1996.

Harley, Brian. The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Edited by Paul Laxton. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Haskell, Francis. History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Panofsky, Erwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957. First published 1939.