Celestial maps: a stairway to Heaven?

celestial maps

Planar View of the Universe According to Brahe, merging theories of Ptolemy and Copernicus, original color with additions, Andreas Cellarius, Amsterdam: Schenk & Valk, 1708, reissue Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1660, $4,188, courtesy www.alteagallery.com

NEW YORK – Maps bridge many worlds, spanning time and place. Some of the earliest, found on prehistoric cave walls, depict the wondrous night sky. From time immemorial, its twinkling stars, besides dispelling darkness, figured in religious rites, orientation, and celestial navigation.

The oldest known accurately dated celestial map, an astronomical ceiling decoration appearing in an ancient Egyptian tomb, may have guided the dead in their heavenly quest for immortality. Centuries later, Babylonian astronomers listed planets and stars, based on observations by earlier cultures. They not only predicted weather patterns, seasonal changes, and celestial events by charting the movements of the planets and the stars. By dividing the Ecliptic, the annual path of the sun, into a zodiac with 12 corresponding astrological signs, they also created order from chaos. Chinese, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, and Mayan civilizations created their own star systems, designations, nomenclature, and legends.

Medieval monks created the earliest known European depictions of the heavens. Their concentric circles, graphs, and constellation images, hand-drawn on parchment, may have determined prayer times, feasts, and ceremonial activities. Yet only in 1515, when Albrecht Dürer engraved woodcuts depicting the northern and southern skies, did printed maps accurately portray the European night sky.

celestial maps

The Northern Hemisphere of the Celestial Globe, based on Ptolemy’s Almagest, engraved woodcut, Albrecht Dürer, circa 1515, British Museum, public domain image

Astronomers had long embraced the Ptolemaic theory that all celestial objects circle the earth. The science of the stars changed forever in 1543, however, when Nicolaus Copernicus introduced the concept that all celestial objects circle the sun. This revolutionary idea, initially considered heretical, was subsequently proven true.

celestial maps

Depiction of the Copernican world system, featuring corners filled with angels, putti and allegorical figures, original color with additions, Andreas Cellarius, Amsterdam, Schenk & Valk, 1708, reissue of Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1660, recently sold for $5,428, courtesy www.alteagallery.com

By the 1580s, an era of expansive exploration, celestial maps were repeatedly issued, then reissued with newly-discovered constellations and nebulae. All strove to translate the three-dimensional vastness of the heavens onto the written page.

celestial maps

Argo Navis constellation, colored with gold highlights, from Uranometria, Johann Bayer, engraved by Alexander Mair, Ulm: Johann Gorlini, 1639, $907, courtesy www.alteagallery.com

At the turn of the century, as rough woodcuts were replaced by copper-engraved plates, numerous celestial atlases appeared, each richer and more accurate than the last. John Bayer’s immensely popular Uranometria ( 1603) , for example, not only introduced a new system of star designation, but first encompassed the entire celestial sphere, as seen “by eye alone…from Heaven itself. ” It depicts a hazy Milky Way, nebulous nebulae, illustrations of the Ptolemaic star sets, as well as twelve new ones. Each, assigned a separate plate and superimposed with an engraved depiction of its constellation, is a work of art.

Other cartographers, to woo the public, took even greater creative license. Julius Schiller, in Coelum Stellatum Christianum (1627), for instance, replaced classical constellations with figures from the Old and New Testaments. The twelve signs of the zodiac appeared, appropriately, as the twelve apostles.

Though the telescope was patented in 1608, many astronomers continued to rely on traditional, naked-eye observations. In addition, constellations came and went. Some were invented to fill empty, unexplored areas of celestial maps. Some remained, renamed. Others were “cropped,” leaving stars available for assembling new, personalized constellations. Apes (Latin for bees), named in 1612, for instance, became Vespa just 12 years later. Then in 1679, three stars from Vespa were incorporated into Lilium, a heavenly tribute to Louis XIV of France. Today, they form part of Aries.

celestial maps

Phases of the moon and a human-faced sun, original color with additions, Andreas Cellarius, engraved by van Loon, Amsterdam, Schenk & Valk, 1708, reissue of Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1660, recently sold for $2,714, courtesy www.alteagallery.com

John Flamsteed, the first astronomer to observe the night sky through a telescope, tripled the number of then-known stars in his monumental 1729 publication, Atlas Coelestis. Johann Elert Bode’s Uranographia, which appeared decades later, depicts 100 constellations, thousands of nebulae, and over 17,000 stars. Crowded works like these, largely based on mathematics, were created to advance scientific knowledge.

Since heavenly discoveries also fascinated the public, noted cartographers also created entirely different sorts of celestial maps. Their charming, stylized visuals, which illuminate theories and discoveries that had concerned astronomers for centuries, are popular collectibles.

The Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660), compiled by Andreas Cellarius, features hand-colored plates of celestial bodies, phases of the moon, constellations, and historical theories, all edged by highly embellished borders. Some plates are quite curious. One depicts celestial bodies dramatically draped by size, each atop the next. Another merges the Ptolemaic and Copernican theories: the sun revolves around the earth, but the planets are bound to the sun.

celestial maps

Diagram of the Universe, contemporary color, two sheets conjoined, Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, Venice, circa 1700, recently sold for $4,410. courtesy www.alteagallery.com

Some of these charmers are more imaginative still. Vincenzo Maria Coronelli’s Diagram of the Universe (circa 1700), depicts not only a perpetual calendar, signs of the zodiac, and eclipse theories framed by wind-head borders. It also includes a cross-section of the Earth featuring the circles of Hell according to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Though antique celestial maps may have been issued in small numbers and survived in good condition, additional aspects may affect their worth. Those depicting astronomical discoveries for the first time, or near their dates of discovery, are very valuable. Those featuring extensive detail, symbols, icons, and ornamentation are also desirable. So are originals, especially ones hand-colored upon creation. Moreover, their cartographers, especially when comparing similar maps from similar eras, greatly matter.

celestial maps

Sizes of the Celestial Bodies, putti-filled borders, original colors with additions, Andreas Cellarius, engraved by van Loon, Amsterdam, Schenk & Valk, 1708, reissue of Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1660, recently sold for $2,442, courtesy www.alteagallery.com

Yet individual dealers alone — drawing on their knowledge, experience, and state of the market — determine their worth. So identical maps may command vastly different prices. Neither is right or wrong.

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