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Superb Example of Ortelius’ Suite of Sea Monsters

Iceland. ORTELIUS, A. [Antwerp, 1595]
Islandia. 13 ¼ x 19 ¼ inches
Fine hand color; fine condition.


A ravishing example of one of the most famous of all decorative maps, and the first printed map of Iceland based on an indigenous source. The engraving presents a virtual catalogue of the sea monsters that appear on early maps. Each creature is keyed to the text on the verso where they are identified and explained. One can discern the sources of many of the map’s creatures in actual species, such as a sea horse, ray fish, walrus, and, in particular, whales. In fact, it was probably mariners’ encounters with cetaceans that spawned many of the images here. Other creatures depicted here, however, are more purely fanciful. Some of these could derive from tales of St. Brendan, a sixth century Irish missionary who, according to legend, journeyed to Iceland. Ortelius’ source for many of these details was Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina et Descriptio Septemtrionalium Terrarum, which for fifty years had been the best map of Scandinavia and Iceland.
The geography displayed on Islandia, however, does not derive from Olaus Magnus. Ortelius credited the Danish priest and historiographer, Anders Sørensen Vedel, with having drawn it. However, Vedel could not have produced the map himself; it was so detailed and accurate compared to all previous depictions of the island that it had to have been drawn by an Icelander. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Vedel acquired the map from the Gudbrandur Thorlaksson, Bishop of Holar and the author of the first complete Icelandic translation of the Bible. Thorlaksson was also a mathematician and astronomer and thus had the necessary skills; moreover, there are surviving lists of churches and fjords attributed to Thorlaksson that would have been used in preparing such a map.

Campbell, T. Early Maps, plate 40; van den Broecke 161.

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