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Medieval drawing of sun, planets, partial maps of earth

The World’s Most Beautiful Celestial Maps


A atlas of the stars from 1660, the Harmonia Macrocosmica, is hypnotic in its illustrations of the structures and dynamics of the sky.

In a few centuries, today’s maps of the universe will probably be but obsolete curiosities. But many ancient maps of the cosmos are, to say the least, still captivating. Perhaps it’s because they’re a response to the human impulse to describe and explain the universe we inhabit, and all with a spectacular aesthetic. Centuries ago, during the golden era of Dutch cartography, the Harmonia Macrocosmica of 1660 was created. An atlas of the stars it describes the movements of stars and constellations of the Northern Hemisphere in 29 double folios.

The volume also presents some of those who’ve explored the universe and some of the other universes invented by humankind over time. These range from Ptolemy’s geocentric universe, to the heliocentric universe of Copernicus, and even to the hallucinatory universe of Tycho Brahe, which is a mixture of both: in it, the Moon orbits the Earth and the planets orbit the Sun, but the Sun continues to orbit the Earth.

Little is known of the life of the Dutch-German cartographer Andreas Cellarius, who created this book of maps. Born in about 1596 in a small village near Worms, Germany, Cellarius spent most of his adult life working as a school teacher in Amsterdam, The Hague and Hoorn. In Hoorn, in 1637, he was appointed rector of the local Latin school, and there he wrote the Harmonia Macrocosmica and most of his other academic books.

What’s come down to us as the Harmonia Macrocosmica was intended as the historical introduction to a larger, two-volume treatise on cosmography. But only the initial volume was produced and eventually printed by Johannes Janssonius in 1660, in Amsterdam. In 1708, some 40 years after Cellarius’s death, editors Gerard Valk and Petrus Schenk the Younger published a version containing only the illustrations, some of which are shown here.

The margins of Cellarius’s cosmic maps are decorated with images of angels, astronomers who analyze the details, cherubs, and fluttering birds. These are the details which transform such planes into the fantastic territories inhabited, also, by suns and other stars personified. It’s but a glimpse of the beauty of these many universes we’ve invented.


Images: Public Domain

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