It is no secret maps have been used by those in power to promulgate ideologies. Each map tells a story from the cartographer’s—typically commissioned by the person or people in power—point of view. One popular technique employed by cartographers to politicize geography in the 16th and 17th centuries was to portray land forms—particularly those of empires and budding nations—as animals.
Referred to as a “zoomorphic” map, Leo Belgicus is widely considered one of the most well-known of its kind. This map uses the form of a lion superimposed over the Netherlands, or the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg or Benelux Countries and Northern France). The map is still known by its original Latin designation, Leo Belgicus.
Leo Belgicus was conceptualized by Michael Eytzinger (1530–98) and appeared in his work on the history of the Low Countries, De Leone Belgico, published in Cologne (present-day Germany) in 1583. The lion faces east and spans the entirety of the land represented. Over the ensuing two centuries, the map was reprinted, redrawn, and redesigned by many artists for depiction in books.
Leo Belgicus was created during the Eighty Year’s War (1568–1648), or the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain. The lion’s form typically included the Seventeen Provinces in the Low Countries—the Duchies of Brabant, Guelders, Limburg (with the Landen van Overmaas), and Luxemburg; the Counties of Artois, Hainaut, Holland, Namur, Flanders, and Zeeland; the Manors of Frisia, Groningen, Mechelen, Overijssel (with Drenthe and Lingen); the Lordship of Utrecht; the Cities of Lille, Douai and Orchies, and the City of Tournai.
The Leo figure is classified into three forms: the Eytzinger form—a standing lion facing right or east with the right forepaw raised; the Jansson-Visscher form—a lion passant facing left or south-west; and the Leo Hollandicus.
The maker of the map above was Pieter van den Keere (also seen as Petrus Kaerius, 1571–circa 1646), a Flemish cartographer and engraver who settled in Amsterdam with his brother-in-law, Jodocus Hondius, in about 1593 and established a business that produced globes and the first wall maps of the world. The map is part of a larger work, Germania Inferior. Originally published in 1617, Germania Inferior is considered the first original atlas of the Netherlands published in folio size. This map is from a 1622 edition and modeled after the Eytzinger version.
The maker of the above map was Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612), also Flemish cartographer and engraver. Hondius’ Leo Belgicus is oriented with west at the top. North is on the right side, placing the city of Brussels on the lion’s left shoulder and Amsterdam near the crest of his back. It is an example of the Jansson-Visscher form.
This German version of Leo Belgicus is classified as a Strada version of the Eytzinger form. Famiano Strada’s version is considered the most popular of all the Leos. Its distinction is that the lion holds a shield with its right paw, which typically bears the map title. There are over 90 editions of Strada’s Leo between 1632 and 1794, with text in Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, English, and Polish. In this version, the Seventeen Provinces are shown along with ships representing the Netherlands as a maritime power.
As the Eighty Year’s War evolved and the Seven Provinces of the north broke away to form the Dutch Republic in 1581, the animal form also changed into Leo Hollandicus, which shows the Seven United Provinces or Dutch Republic as a lion. Leo Belgicus and Leo Hollandicus were symbols of Dutch patriotism. They often appeared in 17th-century Dutch paintings, and they have dotted walls of many inns and private homes ever since.
We invite you to conduct your own animal hunt in the Geography and Map Division collections to see what animal forms you can find!
- Animals printed on maps in The Exotic Animals of the Americas.
- Pictorial maps in the Early Pictorial Maps of Asia and Europe from the Hauslab-Liechtenstein Collection.
- Tooley, Ronald Vere. (1963) Leo Belgicus, an Illustrated List of Variants. Map Collectors’ Series, Number 7.