One of the best known of all zoomorphic maps is the ‘Leo Belgicus’ – the Lion of the Low Countries. The Low Countries, or the XVII Provinces, were the Flemish and Dutch territories now known as Belgium and Holland. As well as naturally fitting the shape of the region, the lion was frequently found in the arms of the individual provinces and cities, and so could be readily accepted as symbolic of the XVII Provinces.

The appearance of the first ‘Leo’ map coincided with a period of great turmoil in the Low Countries. Through accident of dynasty and history, the Low Countries had come to be part of the Habsburg Empire, ruled and controlled by the kings of Spain. The so-called Dutch Revolt, a war of independence and self-determination in which the provinces sought to gain freedom from their Spanish masters, to throw off ‘the Spanish yoke’, began in 1568. The first ‘Leo’, although conceived by the Austrian author Michael von Eitzing, was engraved by Frans Hogenberg, a supporter of the revolt. He conceived the lion as an emblem of strength and courage, master of its own destiny, roaring to put fear into its enemies. By bringing all the different provinces together within the ‘body’ of the lion, he was also encouraging the provinces to unite together in the face of their common overlord, the Spanish king.

Hogenberg’s map was published in von Eitzing’s De leone Belgico (1583), a history of the war of independence to that date. The revolt continued until a truce was declared in 1609. When the truce expired, the fighting began again, finally ending with the northern, Dutch provinces securing their independence.

The ‘Leo’ symbol must have struck a particular chord with the Dutch public, and a large number of different versions were prepared between 1583 and 1648, while the struggle for independence continued. These continued to be printed long after the fighting had ended. The example illustrated here was first published by Johannes van Deutecum Jr in 1598. This version is an altogether more elaborate construction than Hogenberg’s original. The most notable addition van Deutecum made was the insertion of the elaborate borders on three sides, with portraits of the successive governors in the side panels, and the Dutch Stadtholders in the lower border. Text in the two lower corners, in Dutch and French, explains the significance of the ‘Leo’ map. Two insets depict the seats of government: Brussels (‘Palatium Bruxellen Sie’) and the Palace of the Court of Holland (‘Palatium comitÅ«-Holland’).

Van Deutecum’s plate later passed to Claes Jansz. Visscher (1587–1652), who printed this example in 1650. For this printing, Visscher made a small number of changes to bring the plate up to date, including adding the portraits of Archduke Ferdinand (Spanish Governor from 1634 to 1641) and Prince Frederick Hendrick (Stadtholder from 1625 to 1647).