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Sebastian Münster (1488 – 1552)

born in Ingelheim, near Mainz, was a German cartographer, cosmographer and Professor of Hebrew. As a young man, he joined the Franciscan order in which he became a priest and then studied geography at the University of Tübingen. In 1518 he moved to Basel where he started to publish a Hebrew Grammar and three years later he moved again, to Heidelberg where he continued to publish Hebrew texts. After converting to Protestantism in 1529, he took over the chair of Hebrew at the University of Basel where he edited his main Hebrew work, a two-volume Old Testament, accompanied by a Latin translation. He also published a book on the basics of geometry „Rudimenta Mathematica“.

In 1525 Sebastian Münster published his first known map, a map of Germany, and in 1535 he released a map of Europe „Mappae Europae“. The first map of the Nordics titled „Schonlandia“ appeared in „Geographia“ which he compiled in 1540. Its geographic content is based on Jacob Ziegler‘s map of 1532.

Sebastian Münster‘s famous work „Cosmographia“ of 1544 with 24 double-paged maps was one of the greatest geographical and historical works and most popular books of the 16th century, until the advent of Ortelius‘ „Theatrum“. This earliest German-language description of the world passed through numerous editions in 100 years in different languages including Latin, French, Italian, English and Czech until 1628, but more than a half of all editions was in German language.

The „Cosmographia“ was filled with maps, views and rich descriptions of places throughout Europe and beyond. One of the most fascinating woodcuts is „Gemeine beschreibung aller mittnächtigen Länder …“ (see No. 67) which is loosely based on Olaus Magnus‘ „Carta Marina“ in 1529 (in Latin editions in that language „Septentriones Regiones …“)

Most of Münster’s work was published by his step-son Heinrich Petri (1508 – 1579) and his son Sebastian Henric Petri (1545 – 1627), both printers based in Basel, Switzerland.

Size: Sheet 21 x 31 cm; Map 15 x 10 cm
Image: Original colour
Year: 1550

Map details

This is a fascinating and evocative woodcut image of islands, ships and sea monsters in the Arctic Ocean, illustrating a text describing islands, from an early edition of Sebastian Münster‘s „Cosmographia“.

The woodcut map shows fantasy islands of the world in an archipelago, surrounded by turbulent seas. Some of the islands appear rocky and deserted while are others seem attractive with hills and trees, one island even with a walled medieval city. Several monsters prowl the archipelago, one resembling a giant sea-hog, and a sea-serpent menacing a sailing ship which fires its canon to drive the monster away. A big sailing ship and two small sailboats maneuver between the islands. From one of the islands, a robed figure approaches the shore as if to greet someone of the sailing boat. There seems to be nothing in the map to indicate any specific location, and to correspond directly to any of the details in the accompanying text. However, the island in the upper right could be Iceland with the two bishoprics Skalholt in the Southeast and Holar in the North both of which always look more majestic on old maps than in the realistic past.

The text underneath describes the genesis of islands and mentions England, Scotland (explicitly the Orcades) and Ireland in the North and numerous islands in the Mediterranean.

The focus is on Iceland („Ißland“). Translated from old German, the text is as follows: Iceland, the name comes from the coldness and the ice, stretches in length about hundred German miles, subjected to the King of Denmark. Has many high mountains, one of them is named Hecla which throws flames and stones, many sulphur pools in which sometimes adventurers fall. The ice on the shore is frozen eight months and when it breaks causes a horrible noise. The inhabitants say these are the cries of lost souls in hell.