MapCarte 314/365: Atlas Maior by Joan Blaeu 1662-1672

MapCarte314_blaeuatlasDutch cartography is renowned as amongst the very best, principally due to the many dutch cartographers, engravers and printers in the late 16th and early 17th century who formed the period known as the Golden Age of Dutch Cartography. Joan Blaeu was one of the very finest cartographers, son of cartographer Willem Blaeu though originally qualified as a doctor of law. Joan Blaeu became official cartographer of the Dutch East India Company. Alongside his father, he published many atlases and globes, initially using the copperplates purchased from the widow of another cartographer Jodocus Hondius II. Their first original atlas was published in two volumes in 1635 entitled Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. In itself, this was a magnificent pice of scholarly work but here, we celebrate perhaps his finest achievement, the Atlas Maior.


After his father’s death, Joan Blaeu carried on the business and made many atlases, often working alongside other notable cartographers of the time. His Theatrum evolved into his final work, the Atlas Maior which had a monstrous 594 maps bound in eleven volumes and in its own ornate case (in the Latin version). This was the largest and most expensive book published in the 17th Century and contained some of the most detailed and finest cartography of the period.


The maps are designed to showcase not only Dutch knowledge and world explanation but also cartographic expertise. They contain dense, rich information with beautiful and ornate layouts. The colours are vibrant and used to delineate different countries or regions with internal vignettes. Typographically, the maps contain a wealth of information using legible but ornate calligraphy. The many cartouche and painted marginalia add to the sense of this being a comprehensive work both scientifically and artistically.


Blaeu had originally intended Atlas Maior to be the first of a much larger series. It contained maps of the earth, sea and heaven yet he intended to add maps of the coasts, seas and oceans in a second edition and of the skies in a third edition. He died before he was able to fulfil this ambitious opus yet even still, Atlas Maior is one of the most important works in the history of cartography. The design of such a large project was both revolutionary and brave.

MapCarte 65/365: Leo Hollandicus by Claes Visscher, 1648


Maps have long provided inspiration for more elaborate artwork. The shapes of countries, in particular, can lend themselves to all manner of design opportunity. The Lion has long been associated with the Low Countries (current Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium) and used in heraldry so it is no surprise that many cartographers as far back as the mid 16th Century have drawn on it for inspiration.

Michael Aitzinger is credited with the earliest depiction of a lion as a way of depicting the area. The lion existed in many of the coats of arms and the arching back of the lion rearing up fits perfectly with the shape of the coastline. Claes Janszoon Visscher, a dutch engraver, mapmaker and publisher worked during the Golden Age of Dutch cartography. He began depicting the area in this way in 1609 and he made perhaps the most famous version. Here, his third version, published in 1648 after the independence of the Dutch Republic, frames the map with panoramas of major Dutch towns and cities as well as incorporating decorative flourishes (cartouches), flags and other imagery.

Beautiful artistry and integration of themes and motifs support the map’s use as a proud statement of independence and territorial dominance. As a tool to learn something of the geography of the land the map might be limited but it certainly gives a clear view of nationhood and tells something of the story of the country. Its densely packed layout contains a wealth of information and with the main map as a central actor, the surrounding detail supports the mains story.