Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio (Map of the Northern Hemisphere)


Mercator’s map of the Arctic was first published in 1595 in Duisburg, a year after his death, by his son Rumold.

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Mercator’s map of the Arctic was first published in 1595 in Duisburg, a year after his death, by his son Rumold. Museum founder, Dallas Pratt thought that this map was probably a later edition. He concluded this because the coast of the polar island opposite Europe has been burnished out; the shape of the arctic island Novaya Zemlya has also been revised, following the 1594–97 explorations of Willem Barents. The area covered extends beyond the Arctic Circle to latitude 60º and includes the recent discoveries made during the Arctic voyages of the English explorers Martin Frobisher (1576–78) and John Davis (1585–87). All these explorers had been engaged in a search for a Northeast or Northwest Passage to the riches of East Asia. European nations were encouraged in this quest by maps such as this, which showed an expanse of clear water between the polar ice and the northern shores of the continents. The roundels in each corner contain the title, the Faeroe Isles, the Shetland Isles and the imaginary island of Frisland, which is also shown on the main map between Iceland and Greenland.

Collecting material from his home in Duisburg, Mercator could only be as accurate as his informants. The Strait of Anian (now Bering) separates America from Asia, but what is now Alaska is named ‘California, known to the Spanish’. The ‘Sea of Sweet Water’ in the north of America may be the result of reports of Hudson’s Bay or the Great Lakes. The most surprising feature is the depiction of the North Pole: four islands are separated by four rivers that flow north towards a whirlpool with a black rock in its centre – the pole itself. When questioned by the occultist and scientist John Dee (1527–c.1608) about the source of his information, Mercator cited a second-hand account of a fourteenth century English Franciscan from Oxford, who ‘went to those islands; and… advanced still further by magic arts and mapped out all and measured them by an astrolabe.’ The black rock pictured may thus be an attempt to explain the magnetic pole, apparent to voyagers in the mysterious deviation of the compass. Such is the enduring power of myth (when reinforced by a respected cartographer such as Mercator) that this depiction of the North Pole within four islands was much copied by later cartographers.

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From 1595 (after) to Array

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» paper (fibre product)


» copper engraving (printing process)
» hand colouring

Production place

» Amsterdam, Netherlands


» Dallas Pratt Collection of Historical Maps



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