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Out of this World

What most distinguishes early star maps from our modern-day equivalent is the extent to which they were embellished with art. At times, the constellations were so ornate that the positions of the stars were almost lost in the superbly sculptured forms. One of the early masterpieces was a star map by Andreas Cellarius, rector of the Latin School at Hoorn, the Netherlands, which is now in the collection of the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. His 1660 view of heaven and earth had the stars superimposed on an outline map of the earth's northern hemisphere—offering viewers the sense of stargazing from heaven. The constellations were given a three-dimensional look, and the principal stars were embossed with gold leaf, which, when held to the light, make them glitter like real stars even 300 years later. The chart's most striking features were the two figures from classical mythology—Serpentarius from the southern sky and Boötes from the north—who supported the universe on their shoulders while philosophers and their students looked on. Across the top of the map, angels played their trumpets and putti carried tools of the astronomer's trade.

Modern-day historians say star mapping is at least as old as its terrestrial counterpart and might, indeed, predate it.

A treat for the senses and the mind, Cellarius's chart was obviously meant to be owned, displayed, and admired as a piece of art. And as a work of art, it was truly one of a kind. That's because all celestial charts started out as black and white maps, and if they were colored at all, the coloring was applied by hand according to the tastes of the purchaser. The more time and effort a seller put into coloring a chart, the more a patron would be expected to pay for it. Therefore, the amount of coloring applied to the map and the colors used differed from one map to the next, making each a unique item.

As well as artistic achievements, star maps carried a message of the times. The sixteenth to eighteenth centuries were a period of unprecedented exploration and expansion for Europe, and celestial maps—like their terrestrial cousins—had become very much a part of the celebration of the continent’s achievements on the world stage. A plain map of the stars was unheard of; it had to be adorned in imagery befitting Europe’s central role in the new order of things.

Christian icons were particularly prominent. Sometimes the border surrounding the chart was adorned with Biblical scenes. Other times, the constellations, which were pagan inventions, were re-organized into Christian deities or some other entity that played tribute to the astronomer’s patrons: all unfamiliar now since they were never accepted by the scientific world. Scenes depicting Europe's advances in the sciences, especially in astronomy, were also popular motifs for celestial maps. The charts might also feature Johann Bayer’s system for grading the stars according to its magnitude and for ordering the stars within each constellation using letters of the Greek alphabet.

If such charts are examined closely, it is easy to see that European stargazers of the time thought the universe was a finite, closed system with the sun, planets, and stars occupying a series of concentric spheres centered on the earth. The stars always occupied the outermost sphere and were presumed to be small luminous bodies that moved en masse at the same fixed distance from the earth, a tidy yet inaccurate view of the celestial symphony.

Today these celestial maps are little known. They are seldom featured in antique map exhibitions or in books on mapmaking. It is unfortunate, since at their best the early star maps were not only stunning reflections of Renaissance philosophy but also vehicles that helped the people of the time better understand the world around them. No doubt many were used in much the same way we used our star chart on a summer's night in the hayfield. Perhaps our ancestors also gathered under the summer's sky with map in hand and tried to trace the constellations. If they did, I suspect they got just as much delight as I did out of seeing the expressions of wonder on their children's faces as they tried to make some sense out of the confused mass of twinkling lights.

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Jeffrey S. Murray is a senior archivist at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, where he has helped to acquire nationally significant records on Canada’s cartographic heritage for more than twenty-five years. He recently published Terra Nostra, 1550-1950: The Stories behind Canada’s Maps (2006).