Atlases & Charts

Many sophisticated star charts have been produced as single-sheet maps, but to represent the sky in its entirety requires an atlas. Bound volumes of astronomical drawings were produced as early as the second century A.D., and collections of astronomical woodcuts such as those of Albrecht Dürer and Johannes Honter circulated during the early sixteenth century, but the first true printed star atlas did not appear until 1540 when Alessandro Piccolomini published his “treatise on the fixed stars” De le Stelle Fisse. It featured a catalog of stars grouped by constellation, along with woodblocks of the Ptolemaic constellations accompanied by mythological descriptions (though without constellation figures). Piccolomini's atlas proved very popular, going through some fourteen editions by the end of the century.1

The full flowering of the star atlas took place during Europe’s Golden Age of celestial cartography, a period which spanned roughly 1600 to 1800 and which was driven by technological advances in astronomical observation and printing techniques. During this period the mapmakers of Europe vied with each other to produce ever larger, more elaborate, and more accurate star atlases. It was an era that gave birth to the “big four” atlases most prized by collectors: the Uranometria of Johann Bayer (1603), the Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia of Johannes Hevelius (1690), the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed (1729) and the Uranographia of Johann Elert Bode (1801). Many other notable atlases were produced during this period, such as Johann Doppelmayr’s Atlas Coelestis and the Harmonia Macrocosmica of Andreas Cellarius.2

Bode’s atlas of 1801 represented the Golden Age’s swan song. With more than 17,000 stars in his catalog, Bode was compelled to add five new constellations to the already burgeoning passel of non-Ptolemaic figures, and the resulting charts were so crowded as to nearly defeat the purpose of using figures in the first place.3 As the nineteenth century progressed and astronomical observations continued to improve, the known stars multipled beyond any capability of the constellation format to keep up with their increase. With so much new information to convey, the genre of the star atlas began to fracture into professional charts, which omitted the traditional constellation figures in an effort to be complete, and popular star atlases, which retained the constellations but made no attempt to chart every star.

The three celestial atlases presented here are a cross section of the genre. The Harmonia Macrocosmica of Andreas Cellarius marked a high point in the artistic development of the celestial atlas, but was valued more for its artistic than for its scientific merits. Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis was a landmark of accuracy for its time and had great practical value, but it lacked the artistic qualities of its predecessors. Elijah Burritt’s Atlas designed to illustrate the geography of the heavens was one of the first products of the split of the star atlas genre, a popular atlas that made no attempt at completeness (and was thus not of much use to professional astronomers) but which did a great deal to popularize the study of astronomy in nineteenth century America.

1 Kanas 134-144.

2 Kanas 151.

3 Ashworth 92.

Harmonia macrocosmica Atlas coelestis Atlas designed to illustrate the geography of the heavens
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