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Harmonia Macrocosmica

Andreas Cellarius
Amsterdam: G. Valk & P. Schenk, 1708
Atlas of 29 hand-colored double maps
From the collection of the University of Michigan Map Library

Although little is known about the life of Andreas Cellarius (born around 1596), his work Atlas Coelestis, seu Harmonia Macrocosmica is well known among collectors of celestial maps for the sumptuous Baroque style of its 29 double plates. The first 21 constitute a historical survey of cosmological theories, illustrating the motions of the sun and planets according to Ptolemy, Copernicus and Tycho Brahe. The last eight plates are celestial hemispheres and planispheres depicting the constellations; they are the most ornate of all, and their level of artistic detail has made these plates popular among collectors of fine art.

The first of a projected two-volume set (the second volume never materialized), Cellarius’ atlas had its first printing in 1660 and went through two subsequent printings in 1661 and 1666.1 The images at right come from a reprint by the Amsterdam publishers Gerard Valk and Petrus Schenk, who purchased the original plates in 1694 and in 1708 produced a new edition of the Harmonia Macrocosmica without the extensive Latin text that had accompanied the original printings.2

Despite its continued popularity as an art object, the Harmonia Macrocosmica was panned on its first appearance by professional astronomers (including Cellarius’ countryman and contemporary Christiaan Huygens) for its scientific inaccuracies.3 But more recent commentators have taken a more conciliatory view. Van Gent quotes the Swiss astronomer Rudolf Wolf, who in his 1877 book Geschichte der Astronomie suggests that, for all its failings, Cellarius’ atlas had merit by virtue of its all-encompassing scope:

For its peculiarity, the atlas by Andreas Cellarius, published in Amsterdam in 1708 under the title Harmonia macrocosmica seu Atlas universalis et novus, totius universi creati cosmographiam generalem et novam exhibens, deserves particular emphasis, for in it he attempts to depict not only the heavens but the entire structure of the world. The Ptolemaic, Tychonic and Copernican systems are dealt with in 29 plates — the first is particularly detailed, with special concentration upon the theories of the Sun, the Moon, the upper and lower planets; the next two plates represent the Christian, the last six the heathen skies — naturally according to the taste of the period, so that in spite of the neatness of the drawing one can hardly see the stars for the figures.4

The Harmonia Macrocosmica marks a high point in the artistic development of celestial maps, but it was based largely on existing work and contributed no new science. The perfection of the telescope would soon force artistic considerations to take a back seat to accuracy: Although the beauty of Cellarius’ atlas has rarely been surpassed, it was quickly superseded by homelier but more accurate maps.

1 Warner 1979 53-54.

2, 3, 4 Van Gent 10-11.

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