Going Dutch — Constructing the
Netherlands through the Cartographic Narratives of the Leo Belgicus and Leo Hollandicus —
Written for “European Urban Cartography”
Critic : Victoria Sanger
The Netherlands, as a country, is unique within the premodern context of Europe in that it has been defined predominantly by both political and environmental precarity – beleaguered along the entirety of its periphery by greater powers, fighting an eighty year war for its independence from Hapsburg Spain, and having to reclaim vast portions of its land from an unaccommodating (and often hostile) sea. The "Golden Age of Netherlandish cartography" (of the 16th and 17th centuries) was a period defined by the unique combination of scientific, artistic, political, and economic elements in the history of mapmaking. This sociocultural desire to identify the autonomy of the nation against the aforementioned forces, to affirm, build limits around, and arrange and consolidate its territory and sovereignty, is illustrated in “The Art of Painting” by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer, where the juxtaposition of his allegorical painting with a map of the Seventeen Provinces by Claesz Janszoon Visscher in the background is skillfully rendered with (typically Vermeerian) light.1 Though maps have often been described as fundamental to and descriptive of the mechanisms of national power in Europe during the Early Modern era, the Netherlands experienced a series of cultural and economic booms that resulted from its secessions from Hapsburg Spain in the 16th and 17th Century, which, when associated with the specific, artistic milieu of the Netherlands at the time and the enthusiasm of the general populace for geography, allowed mapmaking and cartography to be construed as a form of visual art.2
This association of mapmaking with painting allowed many cartographic elements to be shared with art, and, combined with contemporary Dutch nationalist movements and political demands, manifested itself into a dynamic representation of the nation which testified to its desire for sovereignty, the Leo Belgicus and the Leo Hollandicus, or “a zoomorphic cartographic representation that reproduced the geographical and political reality of the Netherlands between the 16th and 17th century” as a ferocious lion.3 The self-representation of the lion with the topographic figure of the Netherlands here is connected to its demands for independence and autonomy from the Spanish Empire, and is of interest as it “signals an early-modern nation, without natural borders on all sides, in an attempt to capture and visualize its territorial shape. Secondly, the Leo Belgicus that emerges demonstrably represents not only the, but an image of the nation,” capturing the rise of a national identity via its specific, cartographic narratives and desires to project a national image and character of strength.4 It is important to note here that the Latin “Belgicus” in this instance does not refer to the modern state of Belgium and its contemporary, political boundaries, but to the Roman conception of the entirety of the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and a miniscule portion of contemporary, Northern France).5 The Latin terminology and translation of the Low Countries (and, by extension, the Netherlands proper) remained commonplace even after the division of the Low Countries into a Catholic, southern-half (Belgium) and a Protestant, northern-half (the Netherlands) in the 16th century, as later cartographic iterations of the Dutch Republic are entitled with the Latin “Belgium Foederatum.” It is through a survey of various iterations of this curious typology of maps, beginning with its earliest form as the Leo Belgicus proper in 1583, and ending with a more robust analysis of Claes Janszoon Visscher’s Leo Hollandicus (completed in 1648, after the full realization of the proper sovereignty of the Dutch United Provinces), that the desires and the histories of attempts of the Netherlands to construct a particular national image and supremacy can be read, and the relationship between political power, cartography, and national history can be averred.
The use of the lion itself is of particular interest in the projection of political power and sovereignty in the Early Modern era. Besides the obvious cultural connotations of the lion with ferocity and strength and the mysticality of the lion in the premodern, European imaginary (lions being neither native nor distributed across Europe at the time, they first appeared as a pseudo-heraldic device in ancient Egypt as a symbol of power, retaining their symbolic value as “the king of beasts” over time)6, since the Middle Ages, the lion had already existed as an emblematic figure often used in the coats of arms and symbols in the provinces and counties of the Low Countries, especially within the County of Holland.7 An inquiry on the frequency and connotations of medieval arms conducted by Michel Pastoreau, a distinguished specialist of heraldry, remarks that the lion was by far the most prevalent heraldic figure at the time (stemming from the medieval period), particularly in the Low Countries:
The lion is by far the most frequent heraldic figure in medieval coats of arms. More than 15% are accounted for . . . This primacy of the lion is found everywhere: from the twelfth century to the fifteenth, in Northern Europe as in Meridional Europe, in noble coats of arms as in non-noble coats of arms, in the coats of arms of natural persons as in in those of juridical persons, in true heraldry as in imaginary heraldry. The famous adage “qui n’a pas d’armes porte un lion (‘he without arms bears a lion’)” appeared from the twelfth century and persists everywhere in the modern era . . . It is in Flanders and the Netherlands that lions are the most numerous.8
Therefore, it can be interpreted that the symbolic usage of the lion as the standard bearer for the new Netherlands did not manifest itself holistically due to its metaphorical connotations, but furthermore due to the political symbols already present in the Netherlands carried by those in power. When the prominent House of Nassau (counting among its members the famous William of Orange, the leader of the revolt against Hapsburg dominion and the Dutch “Father of the Fatherland”), became involved in the political issues of the Low Countries during their struggles for independence from the Hapsburgian Spanish Empire, they reinforced the symbolic position of the lion as the emblem of the Netherlands, as their arms were also underscored by the presence of the heraldic lion.9
In 1651, when the constituent, political bodies of the future, United Republic convened in Utrecht to deliberate on independence, the States General adopted the lion as the emblematic figure of Holland, therefore projecting the symbols of the gentry onto the national image of the fledgling nation-state — of particular note was the additional adoption of a sword and arrows within the grasp of the lion, as the Dutch were declaring themselves in open revolt against the Spanish Empire.10 Indeed, in addition to the appearance of the heraldic lion in the coats of arms of the Dutch nobility, the heraldic lion also was featured prominently in the coats of arms and symbols of several, prominent, Dutch provinces: Brabant, Flanders, Frisia, Guelders, Hainaut, Holland, Limburg, Luxembourg, Namur, and Zeeland.11 The lion thus can be construed as a unifying, political symbol meant to coalesce what was previously a relatively-loose confederation of semi-autonomous states12 into a singular, common republic: the Dutch United Provinces.13
The first known iteration of a zoomorphic map of the Netherlands represented as a lion was accomplished in 1583 — just after the aforementioned adoption of the lion as the symbol of the Netherlands — by the Austrian cartographer Michaël Eytzinger.14 Eytzinger, referred to contemporaneously as “the Austrian” (Michael Aitsingero Austriaco) was born in 1530, and worked primarily as an astronomer, geographer, polyglot, and polymath. Following his studies in Vienna, he travelled across the Netherlands, Belgium, and Northern France, where he became intimately connected with the contemporary political reality and the Dutch struggle for secession. The first map of the Leo Belgicus appears in his anthology of Dutch history “of more than 520 pages, in which the Dutch history from 1509 to 1583 is told not only through words and tables describing the key moments, but also through very evocative engravings” and images.15 The initial Eytzinger iteration of the Leo Belgicus map type established the standard language for future iterations of this peculiar typology; his version, with the lion rampant, its head located at the northeast of the country and its tail at the southwest, the city of Groningen placed approximately at the location of the lion’s nose, Luxembourg in its front paw, and the nation’s northwestern shoreline composing its back, set up the characterization of the lion and established a template for future iterations (though some deviated from this standard somewhat drastically over the course of Netherlandish history).16
Eytzinger’s cartographic flourishes are not without meaning, and an analysis of his epi-cartographic phenomena, such as his cartouche, inscriptions, the orientation of the lion, etc., can be interpreted as a systematic way of establishing the image of an independent, unified Dutch Republic when read alongside the contemporary political history of the Low Countries. For instance, the adoption of the lion rampant (or facing right) was not purely due to geographic or morphological accuracy or necessity: a later, more anomalous typology of the Leo Belgicus map created and conceptualized by Jodocus Hondius in 1611, portrays the lion passant, or facing left.17 Indeed, subsequent manifestations of the Leo Belgicus created by other cartographers, such as through the aforementioned Visscher family, all distort the territory of the Low Countries to accommodate the physiology of the lion to different degrees:
[Nonetheless], in all cases, though, it was a lion through and through, sometimes at the expense of the land’s actual shape. “The Leo Belgicus that emerges demonstrably represents not the nation, but an image of the nation,” Hoenselaars writes. It was more important to be leonine than accurate.18
Given this conjecture, Eytzinger’s design decision to display the lion facing right must be interpreted for its underlying, political connotations; the territory of the Low Countries in his example is contained safely within the lion’s torso, and it bellicosely roars towards the east, in the direction of the Hapsburg Empire. The orientation of the lion here thus establishes a political conflict, and, given Eitzinger’s familiarity with the Netherlands, underscores the desire of the Low Countries to assert their proper sovereignty against their Spanish overlords.
Nonetheless, the intention of Eytzinger in the construction of the map is relatively clear in his authorial inscription to the map in its upper right corner; which serves simultaneously as an introduction to the typology and an apologia.19 The territory, according to the inscription, is presented “in such a form as it has never been seen before, in order that you will better understand the description of the various parts it comprises.”20 Despite the obvious political connotations carried by the Leo Belgicus map, Eytzinger, a constituent of Hapsburgian Austria, affirms his own neutrality in the ongoing conflict and presents the map as work that is simultaneously “truthful and acceptable since [he] personally observed and verified all the facts on both sides . . . not for the purpose of calumniation but to find out the truth”21 therefore attempting to establish a “historically and geographically neutral analysis, in order to give the reader as much as an objective, accurate and clear historical overview of the Netherlands from 1559 to 1583.”22 Eytzinger, openly professing impartiality despite the personal decision to portray a symbolic projection of an image of a nation rather than its proper, physical territory calls into question whether the faithfulness of cartography to a physical reality or an ideologicalreality should be paramount:
That is to put in close correlation – graphical and historical at the same time – the figure of the lion to the morphology and the borders of the Netherlands, while remaining in a field of substantial neutrality and impartiality . . . The Leo Belgicus maps have represented, in this direction, a perfect example of integration of history and cartographic representation: they reproduced the Netherlands in the zoomorphic image of a lion, symbolizing the different and signifying steps of the construction of the national identity through the signs, the faces and attitudes that the lions assumed in the several considered maps.23
To the creator of the map, the conflation of the Netherlands with the characteristics of the Netherlands was a truthful representation, the point of which was to underscore the brave nature of the Dutch and to reproduce a fledgling national identity for the Dutch people through a series of cartographic, design decisions, irrespective of physical reality or truth.
As the Dutch Revolt continued over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, Eytzinger’s design exploded in popularity due to the political connotations that began to be ascribed to it, and the typological image of the Leo Belgicus began to take on new iterations by other artists, who affixed to these adaptions their own epi-cartographic phenomena, artistic flourishes, and political dedications and situations.24 For instance, in 1609, the celebrated Dutch mapmaker Claes Janszoon Visscher (who additionally produced the map depicted in Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting,” and the Leo Hollandicus map), generated an iteration of the Leo Belgicus where it sits peacefully, in an upright posture with its sword facing downwards, marking the Twelve Year’s Truce with Hapsburg Spain.25 Allegorical characters and symbolic images and flourishes surround the figure of the lion, whose purpose appears to be the exaltation of ensuing period of prosperity for the fledgling Republic after a period of intense instability and warfare; the richness of the details and the artistic methodology with which the landscape is portrayed further give credence to this period of relative affluence, and affirm a sense of newfound national pride. The aforementioned iteration formulated in 1611 by Jocodus Hondius (with the lion passant rather than rampant) depicts a further pacified lion, standing on all fours, its tail coiling around its hind legs, and having no sword or arms in its possession at all.26 The myriad manners in which the figures of subsequent, intermediate iterations of the Leo Belgicus are represented can therefore by read in parallel to the history of the rising Dutch Republic and its political aspirations; this relationship clearly establishes the Early Modern associations between political power and cartographic representation of the nation state.
Nonetheless, it was not until three decades later when the Netherlandish claims of freedom, projections of strength, and assertions of national sovereignty could be read in earnest in the ultimate typology of the Leo Belgicus maps, or the Leo Hollandicus. In 1648, after the Treaty of Westphalia, Dutch independence from Spain was effectively reached, and a map produced by Claesz Janszoon Visscher (the map is ascribed to Nicolaes Ioannis Visccher, the Latin form of his name) at the time demonstrates the fully formed national identity of a united Netherlands at the time, referred to as the Leo Hollandicus.27 The semantic shift here is significant; Holland, the most powerful constituent province of the United Provinces has begun to represent the totality of the Republic, and its name serves as a metonym for a united Netherlands, thus gesturing to a shifting power relationship away from the loose confederation of semi-autonomous states to a more unified, centralized republic:
It was a Hollandicus Lion because [by this time] a full national identity was acquired, based on the centrality of the Holland Province, in which the other ones recognized the most authority, derived mostly from the commercial activity and based on the political weight in the States General.28
It is important to note here as well that the semantic shift from Belgicusto Hollandicus entails the omission of Luxembourg and the Southern Netherlands from the cartographic representation; the Southern Netherlands (essentially, Belgium) remained principally Catholic and were notably less resistant to Spanish dominion, therefore forming a separate national identity over the course of time.29 Their exclusion from the Dutch union thus alludes to the formulation of a stable and defined national image for the Netherlands (defining what is “Dutch” and what is “Other”). The lion, aggressive in both posture and expression, brandishing a sword (on which is emblazoned the words “patriae defensio” – in defense of the homeland), is ready to strike, demonstrating the Dutch determination in defending its hard-earned independence, attained after eight decades of rebellion against Spanish dominion.
The map, oriented with north at the top as is customary in the representation of the Leo Belgicus, celebrates this newfound national identity with various epi-cartographic phenomena and symbols (indeed, the map itself seems to be comprised disproportionately to these flourishes at the expense of the topographic accuracy of the map itself); these epi-cartographic phenomena all merit a robust analysis to divulge the underlying meanings of the map’s representation. At the lower margin of the map are included a series of coats of arms, indicating a dedication of the map to various cities within the Low Countries.30 Along the two sides is visible a set of vignettes containing perspectival views of major towns and cities, with a particular emphasis on the prominent seafaring culture that existed in the country. Along the upper margin, Visscher represents Dutch citizens of myriad classes (aristocrats, farmers, merchants) in vernacular dress, identifying the Dutch people and signifying an image of the Dutch population.31 These flourishes and artistic touches all gesture to the establishment of a vernacular, Dutch national identity; the representations and figures on the map itself tell the spectator (with relative accuracy) the identity of the Dutch people and the identity of the Dutch cities—the map delineates Dutch lands, and (using the lion) betrays what the power of the Dutch is. Finally, prominently displayed at the upper middle point is the seal of the Netherlands (again depicting a lion) and the inscription “t’ Graesschap Hollandt” or “the county of Holland,” emphasizing the national dimensions now assumed by the most powerful and influential constituent of the United Provinces.32
The methods which Visscher utilized to represent what was central or primal within the figure of the Leo Hollandicus itself are fascinating and elucidating to scrutinize —the city of Amsterdam is located at the heart of the lion, a decision that should be read as intentional. It should be noted that Amsterdam, though the prime city of the Netherlands, was neither the seat of government for the United Provinces nor of its successor state, the contemporary Netherlands (the States General and the Dutch monarchs historically presiding in the Hague). Amsterdam itself was not the capital of the United Provinces, and it was not until 1815 after the collapse of the Napoleonic, Batavian Republic and the establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands that Amsterdam was granted de jure status at the constitutional capital. Nevertheless, however, Amsterdam held a privileged status as the discrete heart of the nation’s vigorous economic system and culture.33 Amsterdam was widely-considered to be the most influential city during the Dutch Golden Age, during which it became one of the wealthiest cities in the western world and one of Europe’s most important financial centers and shipping centers.34 This economic prosperity powered the Dutch nation, and the favoring of Amsterdam as the “heart” of the lion (and, by extension, the nation-state) gestures to a privileging of a particular economic situation and identity that allowed the political aspirations of the state to flourish.
At the upper-right corner and the lower-left corner (within the margins) are two cartouches which identify Visscher as the creator and editor of the map itself, and the lion containing a relatively geographically accurate depiction of the Netherlands (and only the Netherlands) is flanked not by accurate geographic features, but an Edenic scene of a natural landscape and various figures working the land. What’s additionally notable is that the lion is illuminated by a centrally positioned sun prominently bearing the Hebrew tetragrammaton, representing the name of God.35 The lack of ambiguity in this symbolism is striking. The center-head, illuminating the entirety of the scene, is therefore not the king of Spain, nor any political (or even physically tangible) figure, but God himself, whose light shines upon and blesses the nation of Holland, bestowing the lion with the strength to defend its eponymous homeland. The primacy of God alone over the county of Holland (and, by extension, the United Provinces), is imperative in the narrative of Dutch independence and national sovereignty: no human should ever be able to impose their own will against the sacred, political ambitions of the nation-state (here represented as the Leo Hollandicus), sanctioned by God.36 This principle is reinforced and underscored in the 1581 Dutch Act of Abjuration, the declaration of independence by many provinces of the Netherlands from Phillip II of Spain:
As it is apparent to all that a prince is constituted by God to be ruler of a people, to defend them from oppression and violence as the shepherd his sheep; and whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no prince), to govern them according to equity. . .37
The epi-cartographic phenomena around the lion and peripheral to the map itself are saturated with meanings and political overtones that provide the viewer with a rich history of the political aspirations of the Dutch national image; the image carries deep, religious undertones which engage the viewer and provoke them to understand the sacredness of the collective, political will of the United Republic, therefore averring the relationship between cartographic representation and power.
The Leo Belgicus and Leo Hollandicus maps are incredibly curious cartographic representations of the Netherlands that were generated from a particular cultural milieu that flourished in the Low Countries in the Early Modern period. This cultural situation, combined with a period of relative economic prosperity and an intense struggle for political sovereignty, allowed the Leo Belgicus map typology to be ascribed with meanings that conveyed the political aspirations of the Dutch nation-state. The maps, florid in their representation and their artistic flourishes, can by analyzed by their various symbols in order to comprehend that attitudes of Dutch society to their sociopolitical and sociocultural climate, allowing for a richer and more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the construction of a map and the parallel construction of the imageof a nation. By reading and recontextualizing various iterations of the map, from Eytzinger’s original 1583 version to Visscher’s 1648 Leo Hollandicus, in parallel with contemporary political occurrences, it becomes visible that the heraldic lion represented in the map began to take on a life of its own, a life defined by the developing national image of the fledgling, Dutch nation-state.
1Welu, James A. "Vermeer: His Cartographic Sources." The Art Bulletin 57, no. 4 (1975): 529-47.
2Welu, James A. "Vermeer: His Cartographic Sources." The Art Bulletin 57, no. 4 (1975): 529-47.
3Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 103.
4Hoenselaars T. “Borders and Territories,” in van Montfrans M. (ed), Yearbook of European Studies, n. 7. Amsterdam/Atlanta, Rodop. 1993. 96.
5Langa, Melanie. "Leo Belgicus." Universe of Maps - Opening the David Rumsey Map Center - Spotlight at Stanford. March 13, 2016. Accessed May 02, 2019. https://exhibits.stanford.edu/david-rumsey-map-collection/feature/leo-belgicus.
6Pedrick, Gale. A Manual of Heraldry: Being a Popular Introduction to the Origin, Significance and Uses of Armorial Bearings ; a Guide to the Forms and Regulations of the Art-science of Blazonry and a Prelude to the Influence of Heraldry upon Poetry, Art, Architecture and Literature. London: T.W. Laurie, 1920. 39.
7See Figure 1.
8Pastoureau, Michel. "Quel Est Le Roi Des Animaux ?" Actes De La Société Des Historiens Médiévistes De Lenseignement Supérieur Public15, no. 1 (1984): 133-42. doi:10.3406/shmes.1984.1442. 133-134. Translated by the author.
9Kielo, Jack. "’Leo Hollandicus’ of Visscher, The Centre and the Name." Centres and Centralities. June 06, 2015. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://centrici.hypotheses.org/775.
10Kielo, Jack. "’Leo Hollandicus’ of Visscher, The Centre and the Name." Centres and Centralities. June 06, 2015. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://centrici.hypotheses.org/775.
11Ehrenberg R. Mapping of the world. An Illustrated History of Cartography, Washington, National Geographic. 2006. 112.
12The Hapsburg crown, humorously reinforcing the nebulous political climate of the region, often referred to this vaguely defined land as “de landen van herwaarts over” or “the lands over there.”
13Giaimo, Cara. "The Lion-Shaped Maps That United a Nation." Atlas Obscura. June 19, 2017. Accessed May 04, 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/netherlands-leo-belgicus-lion-map.
14See Figure 2.
15Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 104.
16Giaimo, Cara. "The Lion-Shaped Maps That United a Nation." Atlas Obscura. June 19, 2017. Accessed May 04, 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/netherlands-leo-belgicus-lion-map.
17See Figure 3.
18Hoenselaars T. “Borders and Territories,” in van Montfrans M. (ed), Yearbook of European Studies, n. 7. Amsterdam/Atlanta, Rodop. 1993.
19Crouch, Daniel, Robin Hermanns, and Nick Trimming. Catalogue V. London: Daniel Crouch Rare Books LLP, 2013. 12.
20Crouch, Daniel, Robin Hermanns, and Nick Trimming. Catalogue V. London: Daniel Crouch Rare Books LLP, 2013. 12.
21Crouch, Daniel, Robin Hermanns, and Nick Trimming. Catalogue V. London: Daniel Crouch Rare Books LLP, 2013. 12.
22Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 104.
23Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 107.
24Hoenselaars T. “Borders and Territories,” in van Montfrans M. (ed), Yearbook of European Studies, n. 7. Amsterdam/Atlanta, Rodop. 1993.
25See Figure 4.
26See Figure 3.
27See Figure 5.
28Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 115.
29Bitsch, Marie-Thérèse. Histoire De La Belgique: De LAntiquité À Nos Jours. Bruxelles: Complexe, 2004.
30Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 116.
31 Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 116.
32Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 116.
33Kielo, Jack. "’Leo Hollandicus’ of Visscher, The Centre and the Name." Centres and Centralities. June 06, 2015. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://centrici.hypotheses.org/775.
34Haverkamp-Begemann, Egbert. Rembrandt, the Nightwatch. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.P., 1982. 57.
35Ricci, Alessandro. “Maps, Power, and National Identity. The Leo Belgicus as a Symbol of the Independence of the United Provinces. Associazione Italiana di Cartograpfia. 116.
36Kielo, Jack. "’Leo Hollandicus’ of Visscher, The Centre and the Name." Centres and Centralities. June 06, 2015. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://centrici.hypotheses.org/775.
37"Plakkaat Van Verlatinghe 1581." Plakkaat Van Verlatinghe 1581. Accessed May 03, 2019. https://www.law.kuleuven.be/personal/mstorme/verlating.html.