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The Earth & the Heavens: the art of the mapmaker

World map

This major British Library exhibition traced the West's response to the oldest intellectual challenge facing the human mind: what is the shape and the extent of the earth and of the cosmos which contains it?

The problem has been the province of religion, poetry and myth, but in the western scientific tradition it resolved itself into the twin enterprises of mapping the earth and the heavens. The exhibition of more than 100 maps, books and artefacts, drew on a thousand years of science and art. It showed the progress of scientific knowledge of the earth and the heavens, and also the ways in which art and symbolism have been used to make statements about man's relationship to his world and the mysteries of the universe.

Ptolemy's world map, c. 150 AD.

Ptolemy's world map

Ptolemy's world map, republished 1482. Maps 1.d.2
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Ptolemy (c.100-168) the Greek astronomer and the author of works on physics, mathematics, optics and geography, produced the data for creating a world map in about 150 AD. Unfortunately, none of his maps survived and his work was lost to the West until the Renaissance. Scholars in the 15th century recreated Ptolemy's map using the instructions in his work Geography, which explain how to project a sphere onto a flat piece of paper using a system of gridlines - longitude and latitude.

Ptolemy's map consists of the world known to him; he does not speculate on the unknown, and as he worked in Alexandria the map is most detailed round the Mediterranean. There are only three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. The two red lines are the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn; the sea is light brown, the rivers are in blue and the mountains in dark brown. The surrounding heads represent the major winds.

Psalter map, c.1250

Psalter map

Psalter map
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The Psalter map is so called because it accompanied a 13th-century copy of the Book of Psalms. It is one of the earliest maps with Jerusalem at the centre, reflecting the medieval world view. Although tiny (15 cm x 10 cm), it contains a wealth of information. It is the earliest surviving map to symbolise Christ's power as overseer of the world; and one of the earliest maps to depict Biblical events - for example, Moses crossing the Red Sea (the large red expanse, top right); and the earliest to display the `monstrous' races in Africa (the strange figures, some without heads, depicted on the right-hand edge).

The map shows the world with an encircling sea and three important waterways: the rivers Dan and Nile and the Mediterranean. They divide the land into three continents with Asia at the top, Africa bottom right and Europe in the bottom left quarter. The map has east at the top; just below Christ is a depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If the map is rotated so that north is at the top it becomes much easier to understand.

In this rotated detail of the Psalter map, the Mediterranean is the waterway on the left. The Nile, with its prominent delta, runs from bottom right into the Mediterranean and to the right is the vivid Red Sea. North of the Nile is the Aegean sea and beyond that the Black Sea.

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso


Paradiso, Yates-Thomson MS 36, f.130
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A detailed section of the Paradiso is available [33 Kb]

Dante (1265 - 1321) was the author of the Divine Comedy, an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. This illustration from an Italian 15th-century manuscript of the Paradiso shows Beatrice, who acts as tutor, explaining to Dante that the universe is a hierarchy, with all creatures obeying divine laws. In the `sea of being' are earthly creatures devoid of reason, while heaven is depicted as nine spheres ruled by the figure of love. Paradiso is full of ideas about astronomy, cosmology, and the physical and spiritual order within the universe.

Andreas Cellarius, Atlas Coelestis, Amsterdam, 1660

Cellarius map of heavens

Atlas Coelestis, 1660, BL Maps C.6.c.2
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Cellarius, unknown to the history of astronomy, produced the most elaborate and famous celestial atlas of the 17th century - the Atlas Coelestis, 1660. It contained many imaginatively designed plates showing the classical and Christianised heavens, the Ptolemaic planetary system, where the earth is the centre of the solar system, and Copernican view, where the sun is the centre.

This plate presents a novel view of the earth, the Pacific and Antarctic regions, as if seen through the starry sphere from a deep point in space. The image is ingenious, but its practical use for astronomers is highly doubtful.

John Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis, 1729

Detail from Flamsteed's map of heavens

Atlas Coelestis, 1729, BL Maps 5.e.11 (detail)
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Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal, was the spirit behind the foundation of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (1675). His celestial atlas, produced from his catalogue of about 3000 stars visible from Greenwich, was published ten years after his death. The detail shown here is taken from a map of four constellations in the northern hemisphere - Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia and the northern triangulum - and the two zodiac constellations Taurus and Aries.

The main feature of the constellation Andromeda, named after a princess of Greek mythology, is a spiral galaxy, 2.2 million light years away. It is the most distant object visible to the naked eye. Andromeda resembles the Milky Way, but with twice as many stars. The constellation Cassiopeia is named after the mother of Andromeda.

World geological map, 1849

World geological map

World geological map, 1849, BL Maps 946 (5)
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Rocks and minerals have fascinated people since ancient times, but it was not until the development of analytical chemistry in the late 18th century that systematic classification was possible. It had been suggested as early as the 17th century that the world had been formed in strata laid down in a time sequence. Advances in mineralogy, stratigraphy and palaeontology permitted the publication of the first geological maps in the early 19th century, in which colours were used to indicate the distribution of rocks and soils.

As well as this map, James Reynolds published a geological atlas and several astronomical charts. His Geological Map of the World was compiled with a considerable degree of licence (or perhaps imagination) since huge areas of Africa and central Asia had not been explored. The map also illustrates coral reefs, ice barriers and volcanic islands. In fact an authentic world geology map would not be possible for another 50 years.

Further reading

  • Peter Whitfield, The Mapping of the Heavens, British Library
  • Peter Whitfield, The Image of the World, British Library
  • P.D.A. Harvey, Medieval Maps, British Library
  • P.D.A. Harvey, Maps in Tudor England, The Public Record Office and The British Library
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