Lovely—and extraordinarily rare—late-Renaissance cosmography by Van Aelst

Nicolas van Aelst, [Untitled Christian cosmological diagram of the celestial spheres; with dedication] Sermo. Principi Ferdinādo Comiti Palatino Rheni Utriusq. Bauariæ Ducis Guilielmi F. picturæ, et elegantiorū artium admiratori maxo. Dno. ac Mecoenati Colenmo. Nicolaus van Aelst Bruxellens. observantiae ergo Romæ. d.d. 1593. Rome: Nicolas van Aelst, 1593.
Engraving on laid paper with fleur-de-lis watermark, 19 11/16”h x 14 15/16”w at neat line plus narrow margins, uncolored. Horizontal fold flattened, trimmed close all around with a few nicks to edges, lined with tissue on verso.

Second recorded impression of this elaborate and lovely synthesis of Classical and Christian cosmography, engraved in late-Renaissance Rome by Nicolas van Aelst.

Such geocentric cosmographical diagrams are of great antiquity; versions appear, among others, in the writings of Aristotle (385-322 B.C.) and the great Alexandrian geographer and astronomer Ptolemy (fl. ca. 150 B.C.). The Classical diagrams feature a central Earth set within inner spheres of air and fire; these in turn are surrounded by at least eight addition concentric celestial spheres: the inner seven holding the “moveable stars”, being the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; the outer being the stellar sphere, in which the fixed stars are embedded. Some thinkers added a “crystalline” sphere, while Ptolemy added a primum mobile (“prime mover”), an outermost sphere whose rapid motion imparted motion to the others.

As with many things from the classical and pagan worlds, early Christians adapted this model to their own mystic culture, adding an unmoving, outermost sphere, the coelum empyreum (“empyrean heaven”), the Christian heaven where the Holy Trinity, the blessed Virgin, the angels and the saints resided. Most medieval and Renassiance renderings of this model were simple diagrams of labelled concentric circles, though there were more graphically complex versions such as that in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle.

Van Aelst’s treatment of the subject is distinctive in format, complexity and content. Rather than depicting the spheres in their entirety, he has chosen to depict a small quadrant of the cosmos at a much larger scale than usual, enabling him to insert rich detail seen on few other such images. Thus the central Earth is represented by a map of the Mediterranean world; each of the planets by a tiny portrait of its corresponding Roman god; and the eighth sphere, that of the fixed stars, by astrological drawings. Most unusually, however, he then introduces a ninth sphere, apparently representing the constellations (lucidi characteres) as “affirmed by the Arabs”. Returning to convention, the tenth sphere is the primum mobile, here rendered as the sphere “where motion ceases”. An unnumbered eleventh sphere, the caelum chrystallinum in quo aquae omnes quae super caelos, seems to be an awkward attempt to blend the crystalline sphere of the ancients with a nod to the “waters above the heavens” described in Genesis 1:6-7. Surrounding the whole is the coelum empyreum, populated by an array of angels and saints presided over by the Trinity and the Virgin Mary.

At lower right an inset depicts St. John the Evangelist on the island of Patmos, where he received a divine vision, which an angel instructed him to write down (The vision is depicted as a wedge bearing 26 tiny pictorial panels, emanating from the Trinity and terminating above John.) This text forms the basis for the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse of John (from the original Greek meaning of apocalypse as an unveiling or revelation). This included prophetic predictions describing the final battle between God and Satan, with Jesus’s second coming leading to the final victory over evil and a new world for true believers.

Nicolas van Aelst (ca.1526-1613)
Van Aelst was a Flemish artist, printmaker, print seller and publisher, who is found in Rome no later than 1585 and died there on July 19, 1613. He specialized in prints of the antiquities, monuments and buildings of ancient and modern Rome, Biblical, religious and classical themes, as well as prints of current and ceremonial events. In 1585 he received a patent to make engravings of works of art owned by the Papal State, and in 1588 a privilege to publish prints of monuments redesigned or erected by Pope Sixtus V.

Antonio (Antonino) Saliba, a Maltese theologian and philosopher, drew a cosmographical diagram, engraved and published by Mario Cartaro, a Neapolitan based in Rome, in 1582. To his map, Saliba introduced imagery and philosophical concepts of the Renaissance era, not part of the traditional Christian cosmology, with all manner of natural and legendary phenomena depicted within the outer circles. It seems plausible that van Aelst’s version, perhaps papally inspired in view of his links and the senatorial privilege it bears, was counter-Reformation restatement of the traditional (orthodox) teachings of the Church, issued as a conservative counter to Saliba’s work, stripping away the Renaissance additions. This does not, however, suffice to explain the inclusion of the ninth sphere, the constellations as “affirmed by the Arabs”.

More likely, perhaps, van Aelst’s remarkable image should be viewed as part of a broader-based holding action against observational and theoretical advances that were putting unsustainable pressure on Classical cosmography and Christian adaptations thereof. Salient among these was Copernicus’ 1543 publication of his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, with its heliocentric theory of the Solar System.

Van Aelst’s cosmography is of the greatest rarity; the only other example I have located is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, acquired in 2011.

Rijksmuseum #RP-P-2011-59. Not in COPAC, KVK, OCLC or the on-line catalog of the British Museum. Not mentioned in Bifolco and Ronca, Cartografia e topografia italiana del XVI secolo; Cosgrove, “Images of Renaissance Cosmography, 1450-1650”, History of Cartography, Volume 3: Cartography in the European Renaissance; or Loredana Lorizzo, “Nicolas van Aelst’s Will and a List of his Plates”, Print Quarterly, vol. XXXI no. 1 (March 2014), pp. 3-20. The Cosgrove article provides helpful background on the subject.