Ortelius’ Theatre of the World

Ortelius frontispiece

The Making of the First Modern Atlas

In an age when the contours and crevices of the Earth’s continents were rapidly relinquishing new secrets of previously uncharted peoples and places, an increased interest in mapping the Earth arose. Among her representors was Abraham Ortelius, a map illuminator and antiquarian who rose to prominence in 16th century Antwerp. Aided by the genius of the Flemish map-maker and cosmographer, Gerard Mercator, and the honed talent of Christophe Plantin, Antwerp’s finest publisher and printmaker, Ortelius orchestrated the production of a series of codified maps depicting every part of the discovered globe which he compiled into the world’s first atlas, Theatrum orbis terrarum or Theatre of the World (1570).

Map of the world

Map of the World

Ortelius Pl. 1 of Theatrum orbis terrarum

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With rationalized consistency, the continents, countries, cities, and regions of the thus-charted globe were rendered in accordance with the most up-to-date cartographic records. Comprising 69 copper-plate engraved maps on 53 sheets of paper, and measuring 19” x 12”, the atlas was the tallest and most costly book produced in the 16th century. In prestige and popularity, it was second only to the Bible. Alongside the finely engraved maps, Ortelius wrote the corresponding text for each depicted region. Ortelius’ atlas was consistently revised and reissued from its initial publication in 1570 until well into the 17th century by which time it contained double the number of maps as new regions were discovered and detailed.

Theatre of the world 1579

Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or The Theater of The World Atlas, 1579

As the first world atlas, Ortelius’ Theatrum is greatly sought after by map collectors and antiquarians

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Today, Theatre of the World is one of the most sought-after atlases by antiquarians and map collectors alike. The maps are ornamented with signs and symbols; a visual language familiar to the time and place of its creation. Through reference to classical antiquity and the medieval era, Ortelius positions the Theatrum as successive to the lineage of the Western intellectual tradition. Moreover, the atlas is valuable as a historical document offering insight into how the world was perceived and conceptualized at that time. Rather than being an objective delineation of the globe, the atlas is depicted through a very subjective lens: that of a 16th-century European Man – an identity that characterizes the majority of Ortelius’ collaborators.

The atlas itself begins with a conspicuous frontispiece in which the four major continents are personified as women of varying attributes ensconced within a proscenium portico. Illuminated at the center of the architectural feature are the words “Theatrum orbis terrarum.” Meanwhile, the female figuration of Europe is imperiously seated on top of the portico with a scepter and orb in hand. To the left and right sides of the structure, allegorical figures of Asia and Africa are cast as caryatids to Europe’s throne. Lastly, a bare and languid America is postured at the base of the composition with an arrow and decapitated head in hand.

Portrait of Ortelius

Portrait of Ortelius


Frontispiece to Theatre of the World

The frontispiece personifies the four major continents in a conspicuous hierarchy with Europe at the top, the Americas below, and Asia and Africa relegated to the left and right sides.

This frontispiece is a strong indication of the distinctly European perspective from which the atlas was created with the prominence and centrality of Europe, the domination of the newly-discovered Americas, and the relegation of Asia and Africa to the sidelines as supporting actors to Europe’s lead. Ortelius’ atlas was published during an era of European imperial expansion and colonization, as well as increased international trade. The New World in particular, as a recent acquisition of the European imagination, was being fought over by Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English powers. Here, the naked and feral personification of the Americas is calculatingly positioned to justify the civilizing presence of European influence in the New World.

Likewise, Asia, depicted to the left, is garbed in swathes of richly colored clothes loosely fastened with jewel-encrusted brooches. Held in her hand, an incense jar profusely emotes plumes of scented smoke. Similarly, Africa is depicted to the right with a balsam sprig in hand and a fiery halo behind her head. It appears as though these reductive figurations of Asia and Africa are characterized by their major European exports, which they don as accessories. This characterization hints at the European interest in the natural resources and economic opportunities of these continents.


After the frontispiece and a lengthy acknowledgment of the many hands that contributed to the compilation and production of the atlas, the compendium of maps ensues beginning with a depiction of the Earth. Shown in its spherical splendor, the cartography of the Earth is delicately delineated with an ornate moulding encasing the title and descriptive elements of the map at the top and bottom of the page. Decorative and didactic elements including the titles and scale legends lend continuity to the appearance of the maps in Ortelius’ atlas. The subsequent maps range from macroscopic depictions of continents to microscopic portrayals of cities and regions.


Putti holding the title for a map of the low countries

A Renaissance charm permeates Ortelius’ compendium, which consistently references classical art and architecture, Roman mythology, and medieval marginalia. As a humanist and student of classical antiquity, Ortelius consciously incorporated these elements to posture his work as a continuation of the Western intellectual tradition. Take for example the map depicting the low countries, present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and French Flanders, in which the Latin title is upheld between two putti. These cherubim can be found throughout Renaissance art as allegories of the human spirit and symbols of the omnipresence of God.

Sea monsters

Likewise, ornamental illustrations of ships, mythological creatures, and sea monsters populate the various bodies of water and margins of the maps. Take, for instance, the map of Italy which features a trident-bearing Neptunian figure caught in the act of romancing a merwoman. In a similar vein, a sphynx-like creature guards the map legend. Likewise, a map of Zeeland, a western province in the Netherlands, features a bearded man riding a sea monster as Dutch ships glide by. In both maps, the reference to Roman and Greek mythology is overt. Moreover, these ancillary figures evoke the mysterious horror vacui (fear of empty space) of medieval marginalia.

In conclusion, Ortelius’ Theatre of the World was groundbreaking as the first attempt to comprehensively depict the entire known world, which he accomplished by compiling the resources and knowledge of Europe’s finest geographers, cartographers, and artists. The result is an astonishing atlas containing uniformly rendered maps compiled in a logical sequence. The term “Theatrum” is particularly fitting for Ortelius’ work because it emphasizes the agency of the individual parts in informing the unity and harmony of the whole. Moreover, the term implies the active unfolding of history in time and geographical space. By juxtaposing the microcosmic with the macrocosmic, Ortelius prompts the viewer to contemplate their inextricable relation to the whole.

Neptunian figures

Two Neptunian figures

Map of Italy

Works Referenced:

Baldacci, Cristina. 2017. “‘Visible World’: The Atlas as a Visual Form of Knowledge and Narrative Paradigm in Contemporary Art.” In World Building, edited by Marta Boni, 77–90. Amsterdam University Press.https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1zkjz0m.7

Binding, Paul. 2003. Imagined Corners: Exploring the World’s First Atlas. London: Headline Book Publishing.

Charlier, Roger H., and Constance C.P. Charlier. 2016. “Lowlands Sixteenth Century Cartography: Mercator’s Birth Pentecentennial.” Journal of Coastal Research 32, no. 3: 670–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43784303

Nuti, Lucia. 2003. “The World Map as an Emblem: Abraham Ortelius and the Stoic Contemplation.” Imago Mundi 55: 38–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3594755

St John’s College Library, Oxford. October 31, 2016. “Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum” https://stjohnscollegelibraryoxford.org/2016/10/31/abraham-ortelius-theatrum-orbis-terrarum/


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