The First Modern Atlas

Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp: Jan Baptista Vrients,1603)   A.1.2

Oxford, St John’s College, A.1.2. Detail of the map of Iceland

The cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) was the first person to create a book with ‘a collection of uniform map sheets and sustaining text’ (Koks). The first edition of his Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570) contained 70 maps, ‘for which copper printing plates were specifically engraved’ (Koks). By 1612, the atlas had been published ‘in thirty-one editions and seven different languages’ (Koks). Even though Ortelius did not draw the maps himself, he is still rightfully credited as the creator of the first modern atlas.

St John’s copy of the 1603 edition of the Ortelius atlas is hand-coloured to an exceptionally high quality. The hand-colouring was not usually part of the publication process. On the contrary, it was up to the respective buyers to commission this luxury according to their tastes and financial budgets. This copy was part of the bequest made by the St John’s alumnus William Paddy (1554-1634), royal physician to James I and one of the greatest benefactors of the College’s library. As no other ownership has been inscribed in the book or been verified through external evidence, it is possible that Paddy himself purchased the copy and subsequently commissioned its extraordinary hand-colouring.

Many of the maps exhibit additional decorative features. The most fantastic in that respect is the map of Iceland with sea monsters and ships surrounding the island. In the north-east corner of the map is a detail that appears to indicate the limits of knowledge about the natural world at the time. The bears on the ice sheets in that part of the world most likely represent polar bears, even though the colourist painted them brown instead of white.

St John’s College has three copies of other editions among its holdings. Our Ortelius atlas of the 1579 edition is hand-coloured, too, but to a lesser quality. Unfortunately, St John’s copy of the first edition, donated by Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645), survives only in fragments after it fell victim to a fire (possibly in the 19th century). Laud also donated an uncoloured copy of the 1612 edition.


Koks, Frans, “Ortelius Atlas”, Library of Congress: Articles and Essays, at [accessed 29/08/2023]

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