Magdalen’s Celestial Atlas from the Dutch Golden Age – The Harmonia Macrocosmica

04 February 2020

Author: Andreas Cellarius

Publication Date: 1661

Shelfmark: Tab.2.17

The 17th century was truly a Golden Age in the Netherlands. Despite only declaring independence from Spain in 1581, throughout the following century the country flourished politically, economically, and militarily. Coined by historians as ‘the Dutch miracle’ (Helmers and Janssen, 2018: p.1), this period saw the Dutch establish an expansive overseas trade empire and become the foremost maritime and economic power in the world.

The Harmonia Macrocosmica, housed in Magdalen’s Old Library, can be considered to be a masterpiece from this Dutch Golden Age. Indeed, it is the only celestial atlas published in the Netherlands in the period. This makes it a unique and important work in the history of astronomy that reflects the Dutch cartographical prowess of the time.

Figure 1: The beautiful title page of the Harmonia Macrocosmica

Magdalen’s copy of this influential text, pictured above, was published in 1661 and written by Andreas Cellarius (1596-1665), a German-Dutch cartographer. In the book, Cellarius uses maps, diagrams, and illustrations to discuss the three great planetary models debated at the time of its publication. The first and oldest theory discussed in the work is the “Ptolemaic” model. Developed in Ancient Greece, this model argued that the Earth was the centre of the universe, with the sun, moon, and stars revolving around it. Below, you can see one of the beautiful double-page illustrations in the book that depicts this model, with the Earth clearly visible in the centre of the page and surrounded by the sun and other planetary bodies.

Figure 2: The Ptolemaic Model

Next, Cellarius goes on to depict the later “Copernican” model of the universe. Now accepted by modern science, this model placed the sun in the centre of the solar system and was revolutionary when published in 1543, going against established Church thinking. More information about Copernicus can be found in this article that discusses some of Magdalen’s other astronomical works. The image below shows a double-page illustration of the “Copernican” model, with the sun clearly visible in the centre and the moon orbiting the earth.

Figure 3: The Copernican Model

Finally, the work discusses the “Tychonic” model of the universe. Developed by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, this model combined the mathematical benefits of the Copernican system with the philosophical and religious benefits of the earlier Ptolemaic system. Specifically, it argued that the planets orbited the Sun, but maintained that the Sun and Moon orbited around the Earth.  Below, you can see the illustration that Cellarius used to depict this third model of the universe.

Figure 4: The Tychonic Model

From a modern perspective, it may seem perplexing that this volume continues to present the Ptolemaic and Tychonic models together with the Copernican one over a century after Copernicus published his revolutionary theory, especially as modern science now recognises that model as scientific reality. It is, however, important to recognise that Copernicus’ ideas, although accepted in the modern era, were highly disputed by other astronomers and the powerful church. Indeed, as Gingerich (2016) reveals, it would take over a century and a half for Copernicus’ ideas to gain a majority of educated followers (p.2). This volume, therefore, is an important text in the history of science as it encapsulates both this developing debate and its philosophical and spiritual importance.

Later in the text, Cellarius closes with a discussion of the movement of celestial bodies across the night sky and the locations of the main constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. Again, the text is accompanied with more beautiful double-page illustrations. These illustrations have always been the most popular in the entire text and their baroque beauty still attracts great interest from illustrators and collectors worldwide (Kanas, 2012: p.194). Below is a picture of a particularly striking illustration of the constellations in the night sky. You can clearly see the major constellations, such as Leo, Aries, and Taurus, and the main image is surrounded by heavenly cherubs in the corners. The drawing, therefore, effectively combines art, science, and religion in one image.

Figure 5: Constellations

The Magdalen copy of this text has a smooth, dark-brown leather binding over thick millboard, decorated with gold-tooled double-fillet borders. It came to Magdalen thanks to the generosity of John Warner (1581-1666), Bishop of Rochester and fellow of Magdalen College. To mark his generous donation, his portrait was placed in the Old Library, where it still hangs today.

Figure 6: Bishop John Warner

The Harmonia Macrocosmica is without doubt an important and influential work. In the first place, the illustrations alone make it worthy of study as they have effectively caught the attention of readers for centuries. Equally, it remains a key text for the history of science, effectively emphasising both the struggle between different models of the universe and the flourishing cartography in the Golden Age Netherlands.

Written by William Shire, Assistant Librarian, Magdalen College

References and Further Reading:

Gingerich, O. Copernicus: A Very Short Introduction. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Helmers, H. and Janssen, Geert. Introduction: Understanding the Dutch Golden Age. In H. Helmers and G. Janssen (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the Dutch Golden Age. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Hoskin, M. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Kanas, N. Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography. (New York: Springer, 2012).