Leen Helmink Antique Maps

Antique map of China by Münster / Ptolemy

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Stock number: 19119

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Sebastian Münster (biography)
Claudius Ptolemy (biography)



First Published

Basle, 1540

This Edition



25.0 x 34.4 cms




This Item is Sold


One of the earliest maps of the Far East and China, according to the Roman/Greek cartographers from classical antiquity.

A pristine example from the rare 1552 fourth and final edition of Münster's Geographia.

This is Sebastian Münster's woodcut map of Ptolemy's eighth map of Asia, covering Scythia beyond the Imaus mountains, Serica, and Sina regio, the eastern most lands known to the ancient Greeks. The area corresponds to the Asian steppes and the mysterious land that supplies the silk ("Serica", i.e. China). SINA regio is situated in the lower right, corresponding also to China. The northeastern part of India with the Ganges River is in the lower left. The legendary Gates of Alexander the Great are depicted at the left.

The geographical contents is based on Ptolemy's Geography that was published around 150 AD in Alexandria, and is the oldest surviving European representation of the region before the 16th Century explorers charted it.

It is noteworthy that where nearly all other Ptolemy maps of Münster use Ptolemy's canonical or trapezoid projection, which is relatively simple to draw. Here however, Münster has chosen Ptolemy's second "cloak" (chlamys) or 'homeotheric' projection, which provides a far more satisfactory image of the earth's shape, but is also much harder to contruct mathematically, because both the lines of latitude as well as the lines of longitude are curved.

Sebastian Münster has added decorations in and around the map that are not from Ptolemy but that go back to other Greek sources.

In the north, the map is decorated with cannibal scenery of "Anthrophagi" (man-eaters). For sources of this see e.g. Pliny Historia Naturalis VII.2: ".. drink out of human skulls and use the scalps with the hair on as napkins hung round their necks ..". The horse eaters (Hippophagi) and lice eaters are nearby.

Around the map are depictions of mythical creatures:

"umbrella-foot" man (Pliny VII.2: ".. because in the hotter weather they lie on their backs on the ground and protect themselves with the shadow of their feet .."),

people with dog's head (Strabo 1.2: ".. men who are half dog .."),

creatures having no heads but face on their breast (Strabo 1.2: ".. men with eyes in their breasts ..").

and the small pygmies, who grow pepper in great abundance, and are in continual battle with the cranes (after d’Ailly, Ymago mundi, Chap. 16).

The back of the map has decorative woodcuts that are attributed to the great artist Hans Holbein the Younger, a close friend and colleague of Sebastian Münster.

Antique Maps - A Collector's Guide

To enhance Tabula VIII of Ptolemy's Asia, Münster borrowed creatures from medieval legend. Among them is one of those curiously afflicted people of India with only one leg. The size of his foot compensates, however; it makes a good sunshade. There is a cruelly taloned Scythian gryphon, here menaced by hunters. And there are a headless race of men with faces set into their chests and hill-men with dogs' heads who 'barked for speech'.

On the map itself to the North of Serica - the Land of Silk - an Anthropophagi couple prepare a meal. The presence of Serica with Sera (modern Sian), the chief city along the silk routes, suggests that Ptolemy gleaned information from traders.

(Tooley & Bricker).

Sebastian Münster (1489-1552)

Following the various editions of Waldseemüller's maps, the names of three cartographers dominate the sixteenth century: Mercator, Ortelius and Münster, and of these three Münster probably had the widest influence in spreading geographical knowledge throughout Europe in the middle years of the century.

His Cosmographia, issued in 1544, contained not only the latest maps and views of many well-known cities, but included an encyclopaedic amount of detail about the known - and unknown - world and undoubtedly must have been one of the most widely read books of its time, going through nearly forty editions in six languages.

An eminent German mathematician and linguist, Münster became Professor of Hebrew at Heidelberg and later at Basle, where he settled in 1529. In 1528, following his first mapping of Germany, he appealed to German scholars to send him "descriptions, so that all Germany with its villages, towns, trades, etc. may be seen as in a mirror", even going so far as to give instructions on how they should "map" their own localities. The response was far greater than expected and such information was sent by foreigners as well as Germans so that, eventually, he was able to include many up-to-date, if not very accurate, maps in his atlases.

He was the first to provide a separate map of each of the four known Continents and the first separately printed map of England. His maps, printed from woodblocks, are now greatly valued by collectors. His two major works, the Geographia and the Cosmographia were published in Basle by his step-son, Henri Petri, who continued to issue many editions after Münster's death of the plague in 1552.

(Moreland & Bannister).

The remaining modern maps, [...], are all drawn on a plane projection, undergraduated, without scales, and variously oriented with north, south, east or west at the top, "without the excuse of topographical necessity", as Nordenskjöld severely remarks. In spite of these and other cartographic defects, they constitute an important corpus of geographical knowledge and interpretation; Münster was the first atlas-maker to furnish separate maps of the four continents then known; and for England, Scandinavia and southern Germany, eastern Europe and America he brought recent and significant representations into general currency.


The Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster must rank as the greatest geographical compendium of the period - an immensely detailed work illustrated with woodcut portraits, scenes, town plans and panoramas, and maps. Born in 1488, Münster was a Fransiscan who became Professor of Hebrew at Heidelberg and later at Basle, where he taught Hebrew and, amongst other works, published the first German translation of the Bible from Hebrew. In 1540 his edition of Ptolemy's Geographia was published, followed in 1544 by the Cosmographia Universalis. Together these ran to over 35 editions published mostly in Basle in Latin, German, French and Italian versions. Münster's particular cartographic importance lies in the number of 'new' maps he introduced and, above all, in the innovative, separate mapping of each of the four continents. The map of the Americas is not only the first map to show the Western Hemisphere separately, but is also the first to show North and South America joined together.

(Potter p38).

Sebastian Münster was raised as a Franciscan monk, converted to Lutheranism, taught Hebrew at Heidelberg and Basle, and was proficient in Greek and some Asian tongues. He died of the plague in 1552. First published in 1540, his atlas was the first to contain separate maps of each of the four continents.


In 1540 Sebastian Münster, who was to become one of the most influential cartographers in the sixteenth century, published his edition of Ptolemy's Geographia with a further section of modern, more up-to-date maps. He included for the first time a set of continental maps, the America was the earliest of any note. Münster studied Hebrew at Heidelberg and was a scholar of geography, writing amongst other works the Polyhistor.

He was one of the first to create space in the woodblock for the insertion of place-names in metal type. The map's inclusion in Münster's Cosmography, first published in 1544, sealed the fate of "America" as the name for the New World. The book proved to be very popular, there being nearly forty editions during the following 100 years.


Claudius Ptolemy (c.100 - c.170)

Ptolemy, Latin in full Claudius Ptolemaeus was an Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, and geographer of Greek descent who flourished in Alexandria during the 2nd century AD. In several fields his writings represent the culminating achievement of Greco-Roman science, particularly his geocentric (Earth-centred) model of the universe now known as the Ptolemaic system.

Virtually nothing is known about Ptolemy’s life except what can be inferred from his writings. His first major astronomical work, the Almagest, was completed about 150 ce and contains reports of astronomical observations that Ptolemy had made over the preceding quarter of a century. The size and content of his subsequent literary production suggests that he lived until about 170 AD.


The book that is now generally known as the Almagest (from a hybrid of Arabic and Greek, “the greatest”) was called by Ptolemy Hē mathēmatikē syntaxis (“The Mathematical Collection”) because he believed that its subject, the motions of the heavenly bodies, could be explained in mathematical terms.


Ptolemy has a prominent place in the history of mathematics primarily because of the mathematical methods he applied to astronomical problems. His contributions to trigonometry are especially important. For instance, Ptolemy’s table of the lengths of chords in a circle is the earliest surviving table of a trigonometric function. He also applied fundamental theorems in spherical trigonometry (apparently discovered half a century earlier by Menelaus of Alexandria) to the solution of many basic astronomical problems.

Among Ptolemy’s earliest treatises, the Harmonics investigated musical theory while steering a middle course between an extreme empiricism and the mystical arithmetical speculations associated with Pythagoreanism. Ptolemy’s discussion of the roles of reason and the senses in acquiring scientific knowledge have bearing beyond music theory.


Ptolemy’s fame as a geographer is hardly less than his fame as an astronomer. Geōgraphikē hyphēgēsis (Guide to Geography) provided all the information and techniques required to draw maps of the portion of the world known by Ptolemy’s contemporaries. By his own admission, Ptolemy did not attempt to collect and sift all the geographical data on which his maps were based. Instead, he based them on the maps and writings of Marinus of Tyre (c. 100 ce), only selectively introducing more current information, chiefly concerning the Asian and African coasts of the Indian Ocean. Nothing would be known about Marinus if Ptolemy had not preserved the substance of his cartographical work.

Ptolemy’s most important geographical innovation was to record longitudes and latitudes in degrees for roughly 8,000 locations on his world map, making it possible to make an exact duplicate of his map. Hence, we possess a clear and detailed image of the inhabited world as it was known to a resident of the Roman Empire at its height—a world that extended from the Shetland Islands in the north to the sources of the Nile in the south, from the Canary Islands in the west to China and Southeast Asia in the east. Ptolemy’s map is seriously distorted in size and orientation compared with modern maps, a reflection of the incomplete and inaccurate descriptions of road systems and trade routes at his disposal.

Ptolemy also devised two ways of drawing a grid of lines on a flat map to represent the circles of latitude and longitude on the globe. His grid gives a visual impression of Earth’s spherical surface and also, to a limited extent, preserves the proportionality of distances. The more sophisticated of these map projections, using circular arcs to represent both parallels and meridians, anticipated later area-preserving projections. Ptolemy’s geographical work was almost unknown in Europe until about 1300, when Byzantine scholars began producing many manuscript copies, several of them illustrated with expert reconstructions of Ptolemy’s maps. The Italian Jacopo d’Angelo translated the work into Latin in 1406. The numerous Latin manuscripts and early print editions of Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography, most of them accompanied by maps, attest to the profound impression this work made upon its rediscovery by Renaissance humanists.