Ordering the Heavens: A Visual History of Mapping the Universe
By Maria Popova
The love of maps is a running theme here at Brain Pickings, from these 7 must-read books on creative cartography to, most recently, BBC’s fantastic documentary on important medieval maps. Humanity’s long history of visual sensemaking is as much a source of timeless inspiration as a living record of how our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it evolved. It seems like the farther from the known mapmakers’ imaginations traveled, the more fascinating their maps became. And hardly does the unknown glimmer with more alluring sparkle than the cosmos. is a fantastic online exhibition from Explaining and Ordering the Heavens The Library of Congress, examining over 8 centuries of humanity’s evolving views of the universe, from ancient Buddhist cosmological maps to Galileo’s seminal work in astronomy to Persian celestial globes and more. Gathered here is a curated selection of images from the exhibition, alongside the original caption text accompanying them.
The Emperor’s Astronomy Petrus Apianus. Astronomicum Caesareum. (The Emperor’s Astronomy). Ingolstadt, Germany: 1540. The ‘Emperor’s Astronomy'(dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) elegantly depicts the cosmos and heavens according to the 1400-year-old Ptolemaic system, which maintained that the sun revolved around the earth. By means of hand-colored maps and moveable paper parts (volvelles), Petrus Apianus (1495-1552) laid out the mechanics of a universe that was earth- and human-centered. Within three years of Apianus’s book, this view was challenged by Copernicus’s assertion that the earth revolved around the sun, making this elaborate publication outdated.
Popular Sixteenth-Century Scientific Work Petrus Apianus and Gemma Frisius. Cosmographia, Petri Apiani. additis euisdem argumenti libellis ipsius Gemmaa Frisii. (Cosmographia of Petrus Apianus,carefully corrected and with all errors set to right by Gemma Frisius.) Antwerp: Arnoldi Birckmanni, 1564. Cosmographia (1524) by German mathematician Petrus Apianus (1492-1552) provides a layman’s introduction to subjects such as astronomy, geography, cartography, surveying, navigation, and mathematical instruments. In this popular edition with changes by another noted mathematician, Gemma Frisius (1508-1555), movable paper instruments (volvelles) enabled readers to solve calendar problems and find the positions of the sun, moon, and the planets. Apianus depicted the cosmos according to the 1400-year-old Ptolemaic system, which maintained that the sun revolved around the earth, a theory challenged by Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) in Apianus’s lifetime.
A Heliocentric Cosmos Nicolaus Copernicus. De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI. Nuremberg: Ioh. Petreius, 1543. This volume is the first edition of the work that set forth evidence that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. Written by Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and published just before his death, the work was met by tremendous opposition because it contradicted religious beliefs of the time. The Copernican views provided the basis for the later work of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727).
Ancient Chinese Concept of Change The Astronomical Phenomena. (Tien Yuan Fa Wei). Compiled by Bao Yunlong in the 13th century. Ming Dynasty edition, 1457-1463. The book is an explanation of the ‘Ba Gua’ used in the Yi-ching (I Ching or Classic of Changes, also known as the Book of Divination). According to this Chinese world view, the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate. This principle is divided into two opposite principles–yin and yang. All phenomena can be understood using yin-yang and five associated agents, which affect the movements of the stars, the workings of the body, the nature of foods, the qualities of music, the ethical qualities of humans, the progress of time, the operations of government, and even the nature of historical change.
Earth-Centered Universe View William Cuningham. ‘Coelifer Atlas’ from The Cosmographical Glasse. London: John Day, 1559. This illustration from William Cuningham’s The Cosmographical Glasse (1559) represents Ptolemy’s conception of the universe. Atlas, dressed like an ancient king, bears on his shoulders an armillary sphere representing the universe. In the center of the sphere is earth, made up of the elements of earth and water. Surrounding the earth are two more elemental spheres, for air and for fire. Other bands represent the spheres of the planets, the firmament of fixed stars, the crystalline sphere, the primum mobile, and the signs of the zodiac. Below Atlas are lines on cosmological themes from Virgil’s Aeneid.
Descartes’s Mechanical Philosophy René Descartes. Principia philosophiae. Amsterdam: Apud L. Elzevirium, 1644. According to French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the universe operated as a continuously running machine which God had set in motion. Since he rejected Newton’s theory of gravity and idea of a vacuum in space, Descartes argued that instead the universe was composed of a ‘subtle matter’ he named ‘plenum,’ which swirled in vortices like whirlpools and actually moved the planets by contact. Here, these vortices carry the planets around the Sun.
First Atlas of the Moon Johannes Hevelius. Selenographia sive lunae descriptio, atque accurata tum macularum eius, quam motuum diversorum. Danzig: Hunefeldianis, 1647. Before the revolutionary, sun-centered ideas of Copernicus, the traditional geocentric or earth-centered universe was usually depicted by concentric circles. In this popular German work on natural history, medicine, and science, Konrad von Megenberg (1309-1374) depicted the universe in a most unusual but effective manner. The seven known planets are contained within straight horizontal bands which separate the Earth below from Heaven, populated by the saints, above.
Picturing the Universe Konrad von Megenberg, Buch der Natur (Book of Nature). Augsberg: Johannes Bämler, 1481. Before the revolutionary, sun-centered ideas of Copernicus, the traditional geocentric or earth-centered universe was usually depicted by concentric circles. In this popular German work on natural history, medicine, and science, Konrad von Megenberg (1309-1374) depicted the universe in a most unusual but effective manner. The seven known planets are contained within straight horizontal bands which separate the Earth below from Heaven, populated by the saints, above.
Buddhist Cosmological Map Sekai dais no zu (Buddhist Cosmological Map). Japan: 1830 This map represents the Buddhist mythological and real worlds. The upper half of the map depicts the seven great forests interwoven with seven rivers, the Sun God Palace, and the ‘Great Jambu Tree.’ The tree is described as 10,000 miles high and bearing the most delicious fruits. Only those who cultivated the divine power can visit the tree. The central section is the Sun God Palace in heaven.
Traditional Korean Maps Chonhado (World Map) from Chonha Chido (Map of the World).Hand-copied manuscript map. Korea: mid-eighteenth century. From the oldest known examples (perhaps from the sixteenth century) to almost the end of the tradition in the nineteenth century, the content and structure of traditional Korean maps such as these examples changed very little. The map of the world (or Chonhado) presents Korea, China, and their East Asian neighbors surrounded by rings of exotic, mythical lands and peoples and reflects the traditional Korean view that the world was flat. Being a peninsula, Korea stood out on the map and was close to China, the classical center of Asian civilization.
Tibetan Astrological Thangka Srid pa ho (Divination Chart). Tibet, late twentieth century. Paint on cloth. Tibetan astrology depicts the signs and symbols of the universe in this traditional format, possibly introduced from China as early as the seventh century and popular in Tibet since the seventeenth century. The central figure is a large golden tortoise, representing the Bodhisattva of Knowledge, upon whom are drawn various geomantic diagrams, such as the nine magic squares and symbols of the eight planets. This type of Thangka is often hung in homes for protection and displayed for special occasions.
Constellations from Classical Antiquity Reiner Ottens. Atlas maior cvm generales omnivm totius orbis regnorvm. Amsterdam: 1729. Hand-colored engraving. The star charts of Reiner Ottens (1698-1750) were intended first and foremost as a feast for the eye and had no pretensions to scientific precision or the presentation of the most recent cartographic information. The constellations on this chart are elaborately represented by figures from classical antiquity. In the corners of the chart are illustrations of four European observatories, including that of the noted sixteenth-century astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). This atlas is a seven-volume compendium of assembled-to-order star charts and geographical maps.
Aztec Calendar Stone Antonio de León y Gama. Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras. Mexico City: F. Zuniga y Ontiveros, 1792. In 1790 workers repaving near the Cathedral in Mexico City discovered a stone eleven and one-half feet in diameter inscribed with the Aztec calendar. When in use, the stone would have had bright polychrome colors and would have held sacrificed human hearts that the Aztecs believed were needed to feed the sun and keep civilization alive. This first study (pictured to the left) of the stone explained its 260-day divinatory cycle. The stone’s colossal size, elaborate patterning, and symbolic imagery have made it an unofficial emblem of Mexico.
Omens in the Sun Burmese astronomical-astrological manuscript, mid-nineteenth century. Accordion-style paper manuscript. This manuscript of the mid-nineteenth century, possibly of Sgau Karen origin (the Karen are a minority people in the mountainous parts of Burma), shows various appearances in the sun, the moon, clouds, etc., and indicates the primarily bad omens these appearances foretell. Explanations in English were added to this manuscript by a nineteenth-century American missionary.
Astronomy Cards Jehoshaphat Aspin. A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy. London, 1825. An unidentified lady, referred to by her nom-de-plume, Jehoshaphat Aspin, designed these whimsical astronomy cards. Most of the names of the zodiacal constellations date from the early Babylonian period, possibly from the Sumerians. The zodiac itself is a mathematical concept, which does not appear to be in use prior to 400 B.C. It provides a frame of reference in which the positions of the sun, moon, and planets could be expressed by their angular distance from the beginning of the sign in which they were located.
See more gems in the Library of Congress
online exhibition. You can read more about how the exhibition was envisioned, curated and brought to life here.