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The 17th century was an exciting time for cartography, as explorers criss-crossed the oceans and delved deep into unspoiled continents.  World maps were being updated on an almost annual basis as the empty parts of the Earth were gradually filled in with new discoveries.  But the wider world beyond the Earth still remained largely mysterious and speculative.  Using state-of-the-art telescopes, astronomers could observe most of the planets and theorize about their movements, though they often disagreed on the structure of the universe.  It would be centuries, after all, before anyone (or anything) from Earth could go and get a closer look.

And yet, that did not stop anyone from trying to map the universe.  One such ambitious man was Andreas Cellarius, who lived in Germany and the Netherlands from 1596 to 1665.  His Harmonia Macrocosmica (Cosmic Harmony), created in 1660, was one of the most prominent cosmic atlases of the time, employing gorgeous art with meticulous detail to illustrate the position of the Earth in space.

Following in the tradition of Ptolemy, Cellarius placed the Earth at the center of his cosmos, despite that fact that Copernicus had shown a century earlier that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  The Earth itself is wonderfully drawn.  It shows the extent of European knowledge of the world in the mid-17th century, with a half-finished Australia and purely speculative Antarctica.  The lines representing the Equator and the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn cross the Earth and continue outwards to encircle the surrounding space as well.  Cellarius depicts the planets (minus Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto), plus the Sun, all revolving around the Earth with their corresponding celestial symbols next to them (e.g., a circle with an arrow for Mars).  Finally, the map includes the 12 signs of the Zodiac in the multicolored ring around the Earth.  According to the map, as the Sun completes its circuit around the Earth, it moves through each Zodiac sign, which the astrologers will argue poses significance to the events of our lives.

The cosmos, from Andreas Cellarius’s “Harmonia Macrocosmica”, courtesy of University of Michigan Library (via Discovery Magazine, http://discovermagazine.com/galleries/2014/oct/space-maps)

One more thing to note: look at the corners of the map.  Populated by floating cherubs at the top, and ancient philosophers and cartographers at the bottom, these illustrations reinforce the point that this cosmic atlas does not exist in a vacuum.  Rather, this atlas is the result of a long-standing cosmographic tradition stretching back to Ptolemy, and the angels show us that the heavens of the map cannot be separated from the concept of heaven itself.

For more cosmic cartography, check out the book “Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time”, by Michael Benson, available now: http://www.amazon.com/Cosmigraphics-Michael-Benson/dp/1419713876

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