Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

In St John’s College Library’s Special Collections there are four copies of Ortelius’s world atlases. These were the first attempts at mapping the known world in its entirety which demonstrate a balance between striving for accurate cartography and presenting the wondrous elements of the distant world.

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598)

From Antwerp, Brussels, Ortelius was part of the world-renowned Dutch-Flemish school of cartographers. Over his lifetime he worked as an engraver, geographer, cartographer and book trader but he is most well known as the creator of the first world atlas – the first edition of which was published in 1570. Interestingly, Ortelius may also be the first person in history to have formally presented the basic theory of continental drift in his discussion of the ‘matching’ coastlines of Africa, Europe, and South America. It is fitting that his interests covered not only the revolutions in the scientific geography of which he was a primary innovator but also historical geography: his early works include detailed maps of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire.

 Abraham Ortelius, 1579, Wikimedia Commons

Ortelius travelled extensively within Europe, with recorded visits to the Seventeen Provinces (now the Netherlands, Belgium, Northern France and Luxembourg), France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and the UK. As part of these travels, he formed strong contacts with other European cartographers who influenced his career path away from engraving and towards scientific cartography. Chief among these relationships was his friendship with Gerardus Mercator. At the time, Mercator was the most renowned geographer of his day, primarily due to the publication of his world map in 1569 which was revolutionary in its nature as a map to enable navigation of the world’s oceans.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, created by Ortelius, was the first world atlas ever published. This is not to say that it contained the first world map; in fact, Ortelius relied heavily on the work of other cartographers and geographers in order to produce his atlas. He cites thirty-three cartographers from all over Europe in the atlas and makes reference to more than fifty contemporary geographers as well.

There are several ways in which Ortelius’s atlas has high historical significance:

  • It is the first collection of maps which are technically consistent with one another.
  • As a collection of maps, it is the first which aims to comprehensively cover the entire known world.
  • It is the first example of a collection of maps in which the maps are organised in a particularly logical fashion – for instance with maps corresponding to a particular continent or area appearing together.
  • It is the first of its kind to include explanations, commentaries and discussions alongside the maps.

Although the atlas was first published in 1570, Ortelius published multiple editions of the work throughout his life – and his family continued to publish further editions until 1641 – 43 years after Ortelius’s death. Each edition shows a development and extension from the previous, which shows Ortelius’s apparent desire to strive towards making his atlas an authoritative, accurate and definitive source. The changes from one edition to another accumulated to the point that the 1612 edition had more than double the number of individual maps found in the original 1570 edition.

It is not only the beautiful and contemporarily accurate maps which make Ortelius’s atlas outstanding but the accompanying descriptions. Modern readers have commented on the language in the atlas in various ways; one argues that the maps and textual descriptions are made to be equally ‘delectable’, while another believes that the flowery language – and the occasional description of miracles – is for Ortelius to make his scientific work appealing to an audience who were ‘not so much interested in geographical truth, but rather in exciting, exotic wonders’.

At St John’s

St John’s College Library has four copies of Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, all of which are unique to Oxford libraries. These are the first and second editions, published in 1570 and 1579 respectively, and two editions published after Ortelius’s death, in 1602 and 1612.

Unfortunately, St John’s copy of the first edition survives only as burned, unbound pages. The text suffered heavy damage from a fire, probably during the nineteenth century.

Burnt fragments of the first edition of Ortelius's atlas (1570) – the foremost page shows an area of the Middle East.
Burnt fragments of the first edition of Ortelius’s atlas (1570) – the foremost page shows an area of the Middle East.

Fortunately, St John’s copy of the second edition of Ortelius’s atlas, published in 1579, is in much better condition, as can be seen in this photograph of a page showing a map of North Africa.

A map of North Africa and the Mediterranean in the second edition of the atlas (1579)
A map of North Africa and the Mediterranean in the second edition of the atlas (1579)

These next two photographs are of the 1603 edition.

'Typus Orbis Terrarum': An Image of the Whole World, Ortelius (1603)
‘Typus Orbis Terrarum’: An Image of the Whole World, Ortelius (1603)

Here you can see the world as it was imagined to be by Ortelius and the cartographers he worked with in his atlases. At the South Pole, the green area marked ‘Terra Australis Nondum Cognita’ (Southern Land Not Yet Known) represents the unexplored waters; from here there is a small portion of Australia marked as known while the rest is classed as unknown. Much of Ortelius’s world map is recognisable to our understanding of the continents, although with certain aspects missing or unrefined, such as the western coast of South America and the islands of Indonesia.

Islandia: Iceland, Ortelius (1603)
Islandia: Iceland, Ortelius (1603)

This double-page spread of Iceland, a later addition to the atlas, shows the fantastic elements alongside the scientific method of cartography which resonates throughout Ortelius’s atlases. While the coastline and islands are meticulously defined, sea-monsters surround the island’s shores, each marked with a small initial, pertaining to a description in the textual commentary overleaf.

Meanwhile, a group of polar bears appear to arrive by iceberg at the north-eastern corner of the island. While this is a printed book, printing in colour was found to be too expensive for mass production, and consequently someone would be employed to colour in the illustrations after printing. In this case, it would seem that the individual colouring in was none too familiar with the far north as these polar bears have been painted brown.

It is also interesting to note the convergence of current events with the production of Ortelius’s atlas. Near the centre of the island a volcano marked ‘Hekla’ is shown to be erupting with a cloud of red and black smoke. Mount Hekla is an active volcano is Iceland and its depiction here as erupting probably links to the geographers’ knowledge of a particularly violent eruption a few decades early in the sixteenth century.

These next photographs show pages from the 1612 edition, which is unlike St John’s other copies of the atlases in that its pages have been left uncoloured.

A detailed map of Great Britain and Ireland, with the line of descent of English monarchs on the right, Ortelius (1612)
A detailed map of Great Britain and Ireland, with the line of descent of English monarchs on the right, Ortelius (1612)

The precision of this map proves the attention to detail which Ortelius paid to the production of his atlas. Unsurprisingly, of course, this also shows the dramatic difference of knowledge European cartographers of their home countries and neighbouring areas, as the next image shows, compared to places further afield.

Another page from the 1612 edition, here showing Japan and Korea
Another page from the 1612 edition, here showing Japan and Korea

This map shows Japan and Korea, in whichJapan is depicted without its most northern island, Hokkaido. While an attempt to add place names, mountains and rivers to the map of Japan is evident, Korea is much more sparsely annotated, with only two settlements on the western coast receiving recognition.

See below for a bibliographic description of each Ortelius atlas in St John’s collection. All of these copies are written in Latin.

  • The first edition from 1570. This originally had 60 hand coloured pages including 53 map sheets with descriptive text.
    St John’s copy survives only as burned fragments, unbound, which were saved in a fire and thus large areas of text are missing. This copy was donated to St John’s College Library by Archbishop Laud.
  • The second edition from 1579, grows to 93 pages, all hand coloured. Each of these pages appears as a double leaf, all with text on the recto of the first leaf and maps on the inner facing pages, and the verso of the second leaf left blank.
    This copy was donated to the library by John Atkinson.
  • This copy of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was published in 1603, five years after Ortelius’s death. By this point, the atlas comprises of 118 pages, all of which are hand coloured. This copy has a 17th-century binding and was donated to the library by benefactor William Paddy.
  • The library’s latest copy of the atlas totals 160 pages, which includes Ortelius’s index of Ptolemy’s geographical terms, and a historical study of ancient geography in the pages following the atlas as it appears in earlier editions. An engraved title page introduces each section.This is an imperfect copy, lacking leaves at the beginning. It is still bound in a 17th-century binding.  This copy was donated by Archbishop Laud.


Cary, Elizabeth Tanfield, ed. Mirror of the Worlde. (Montreal, CA: MQUP, 2012)

Depuydt, Joost, ‘Ortelius, Abraham (1527–1598)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Online edition edited by David Cannadine. (Oxford: OUP, 2004)

OUP blog ‘Ortelius publishes first world atlas’, 22nd May 2012, blog.oup.com/2012/05/ortelius-publishes-first-world-atlas

Romm, James, ‘A new forerunner for continental drift’, Nature, Vol. 367, 407-408 (3rd February 1994)

Van den Broecke, Marcel. ‘Background Information on Ortelius Atlas Maps: Structure and Characteristics of the Texts.’ Cartographica Neerlandica. www.orteliusmaps.com

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