TITLE: Liber chronicarum Secunda etas Mundi

DATE:  1493

AUTHOR: Hartmann Schedel

DESCRIPTION: The Nuremberg Chronicle, as this compendium is popularly known, was one of the most remarkable books of its time. The text is an amalgam of legend, fancy and tradition interspersed with the occasional scientific fact or authentic piece of modern learning. The many illustrations include two maps, one map of the world and one of Northern Europe, together with views of the principal cities, and a host of repeated decorative woodcuts. Hartmann Schedel, a physician of Nuremberg, was the editor-in-chief; the printer was Anton Koberger, and among the designers the most famous were Michael Wolgemut and his stepson Hanns Pleydenwurff, master painters of the Nuremberg workshop where Albrecht Dürer served his apprenticeship; and the overall work was commissioned by Sebald Schreyer and his brother-in-law Sebastian Kammermeister, wealthy local businessmen.   In addition, so vast a project obviously involved a host of woodcut craftsmen, apprentice printers, ghost writers and others.

Two of the abundant illustrations are maps which typify well enough the range of old traditions and new information which characterizes the text itself. The first mappamundi is of Ptolemaic configurations, although without Ptolemy’s scientific apparatus of latitudes, longitudes, scales, rich nomenclature, etc. The world map is a robust woodcut taken from Ptolemy (#119) without great attention to detail. The border contains twelve dour wind-heads while the map is supported in three of its corners by the solemn figures of Ham, Shem and Japhet taken from the Old Testament.

What gives the map its present-day interest and attraction are the panels representing the outlandish creatures and beings that were thought to inhabit the further most parts of the earth. There are seven such scenes to the left of the map and a further fourteen on its reverse. Pliny, Pomponius Mela, Solinus and Herodotus’ Fables have been the sources for many of these mythological creatures; others were doubtless born of medieval travelers’ tales.  Among the scenes are a six-armed man, possibly based on glimpses of a file of Hindu dancers so aligned that the front figure appears to have multiple arms; a six-fingered man, a centaur, a four-eyed man from a coastal tribe in Ethiopia; a dog-headed man from the Simien Mountains, a cyclops, one of the men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders, one of the crook-legged men who live in the desert and slide along instead of walking; a strange hermaphrodite, a man with one giant foot only (stated by Solinus to be used as a parasol but more likely an unfortunate sufferer from elephantisis), a man with a huge underlip (doubtless seen in Africa), a man with waist-length hanging ears, and other frightening and fanciful creatures of a world beyond. 

Twelve winds are named as well as major place names. According to Wilson, the source of this map is apparently the frontispiece of Pomponius Mela’s Cosmographia printed by Ratdolt at Venice in 1488. The woodcut from which it is printed is ascribed to Wohlgemuth, the teacher of Albrecht Dürer, prepared in the year in which Columbus discovered America.

Hartmann Schedel’s Liber chronicarum [Book of Chronicles] was first published in Latin on 12 July 1493; a German translation appeared the following 23 December. The overall measurements are 38 x 52 cm, with the map area being 31 x 44 cm.  This survey of the history of the world from the Creation to the year 1493, with its 299 leaves, 1,809 illustrations (actually 1,165 woodcuts, some of which are repeated at different places, in some cases more than once) including 26 double-page city views, two double-page maps, this mappamundi, and a map of central Europe, was the most lavishly illustrated printed book of the 15th century. It must also have been one of the most widely diffused, since more than 1,200 copies of the Latin and German versions are still extant.

In the Liber chronicarum, now commonly known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, the history of the world is divided into seven ages according to the scheme laid down by the seventh century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (Book II, #205). The second age begins with Noah’s ark and ends with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is in this section, following a discussion of the Flood and Noah’s drunkenness, that we find an account of the fabulous races of mankind, for which Schedel cites as his authorities Pliny, Saint Augustine, and Isidore of Seville. Some examples of those races are illustrated on the recto and verso of fol.12. They appear next to a map of the world that has Noah’s sons at three of its corners, to represent Japhet’s inheritance of Europe, Shem’s of Asia, and Ham’s of Africa. Schedel used as a model the mappamundi found in an edition of the Cosmographia of the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela published at Venice in 1488. Like Mela’s, Schedel’s world map is based on that of Ptolemy, but simplified and without indications of longitude and latitude; it is also shown as a segment of a globe in the conical projection, and surrounded by the twelve winds identified by name. Typical of the Ptolemaic world maps the Indian Ocean is wrongly depicted as an enclosed sea, with Asia linked to Africa by a strip of land. Sri Lanka, is unrecognizably large, and the shape of India is badly distorted. One of Schedel’s very few improvements on the map in Mela’s Cosmographia involves the definition of the southeastern bend of the coast of West Africa, as recorded by Portuguese navigators around 1470. By 1493, however, one would have expected a better understanding and a more accurate rendering of the whole west coast of Africa, since in 1487-1488 Bartolomeu Diaz had circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope, the most southerly point of the African continent. Even areas that were well-known, such as Western Europe and the Mediterranean, are relatively poorly rendered: they appear more accurately, for example, in the world map from the 1482 Ulm edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, and in nautical charts of the time.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is also best known for its eighty-nine views of towns and cities; of these, thirty are more or less recognizable renderings, while the other fifty-nine are fanciful (and share only seventeen different woodcuts). The book also contains a map of central Europe by Hieronymus Muinzer, based on a manuscript map made in 1454 by Nicolas of Cusa, which is probably the first map of the German Empire to appear in a printed book. The copy of the Chronicle from the National Gallery of Art is beautifully hand-colored and preserved in a fine binding made for Raimund Fugger (1489-1535) of Augsburg, a member of the famous banking family.

LOCATION: Peabody Institute Library

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


*Brown, L.A., The World Encompassed, no. 44, Plate XII.

*Levenson, J.A., Circa 1492, p. 124.

*Shirley, R.W., The Mapping of the World, pp. 18-19, Plate 25.

*Wilson, The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle, p. 115, Plate 6.

*Woodward, D., Art and Cartography, p. 136, Plate 16.