Illustration in maps

Illustration has been used in maps throughout history. Many very early maps depicted houses, ships and livestock to add visual information, while later maps Have used illustration in even more creative ways. We've taken a look at 4 Intriguing ways that cartographers have incorporated illustration into their maps.

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1. To document the inhabitants of foreign lands 

Early explorers were keen to share stories of the strange and exotic creatures they had come across on their travels. While some of these were real, other were rather more of a stretch of reality. 

Terrifying sea monsters were depicted on numerous maps as representative of the real hazards faced by sailors (see below right), while wild and wonderful stories surrounded many far flung countries. 

A popular myth in the perpetuated by maps of the 16th century was that Patagonia, in South America, was populated by 9 foot giants. Sightings of the giants were first made in 1522 and continued until the 18th century. There was even a report by the secretary of the British Royal Society who wrote the report to the French Academy of Sciences that 'The existence of giants here is confirmed.



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The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 (left) records many fanciful beings, originating from stories of antiquity, including a six-armed man, a centaur, a four-eyed man from a coastal tribe in Ethiopia, a dog-headed man from the Simien Mountains and a Cyclops!

A mythical Island called Taprobana was also believed to exist. It was thought to be home to a race known as the Sciapodes, men with one giant foot, who used it to shade them from the sun (see image above).


2. For religious purposes

Historically, many took the bible's view of Heaven and Earth and religious mythology in very literal terms. 

This 1893 map of the 'Square and Stationary Earth' (right) illustrates Professor Orlando Ferguson’s interpretation of bible passages to mean the world was both flat and square. The reference in Revelations 7:1 to angels standing in ‘four corners of the earth’ indicated the world’s level nature, he claimed, while Isaiah 11:12’s mention of ‘four quarters of the Earth’ proved its square shape.

While the other map, shows a literal depiction of the Garden of Eden as a physical place on Earth, neighbouring Persia, surrounded by descriptive images of the landscape and scenes of life in Eden.

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3. As Political propaganda

Personifying countries and continents for the purpose of propaganda or political reasons began in the 16th century and continues to today.  

The Europa Regina, or depiction of the European continent as a standing Queen became popular in the 1500's. Very few maps at this time depicted the countries of Europe separately. In 1537, when the Europa regina was introduced, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Habsburg had united the lands of the Habsburg's in his hands, including his country of origin, Spain. The map is oriented with Spain as the crowned head, pointing at the Habsburgs' claim to be universal emperors of Europe. The crown, sceptre and orb also point to the connections to the Holy Roman Emperor.

In a more modern image, the infant USSR was threatened with invasion in 1921 with the fear of famine and social unrest. To counter this, brilliant designers were employed to create pro-Bolshevik propaganda.

Using a map of European Russia and its neighbours, this image of a heroic Bolshevik guard defeating the invading 'Whites' helped define the Soviet Union in the Russian popular imagination.









4. TO BE DECORATIVE and informative 

Sometimes illustrations on maps are used predominantly to be decorative and bring the mapped data to life. Our celestial map functionally records the position of the stars and incorporates the original 17th century illustrations by Polish Astronomer Johannes Hevelius to beautify and clarify the star patterns.   

While this heavily stylised map by Owen Davey is decorated to highlight and celebrate the forests, mountains and snowy landscape of Scandinavia.

Other maps use Infographics - informative visuals to present data more quickly and clearly.  The map below shows a map of the USA with small coloured figures to show political opinions on Healthcare, with additional colours to clarify figures.


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