Chart of Juan de la Cosa: The First Known Map of America

A voyage around the world in 1500.

By Naval Museum

Museo Naval de Madrid

Chart of Juan de la Cosa (1500) by Juan de la CosaOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

This nautical chart is the first known cartographic representation of the American continent. It shows the extent of our knowledge of the world in 1500.

It was produced by the navigator Juan de la Cosa in 1500 in Puerto de Santa Maria (Cadiz, Spain), as can be seen from the inscription below the image of Saint Christopher. Its political importance most likely led it to be classed as a state secret by the Catholic Monarchs, for whom it is believed to have been drawn.

The Americas are shown as a large green mass, possibly in reference to the lush tropical rainforests there, which were a surprise to the Europeans.

The depiction of the Americas was based on notes made by transatlantic navigators, both from Spain and other rival powers. Among them was Juan de la Cosa himself, who undertook 3 voyages to the Americas before the year 1500, accompanied by Christopher Columbus, Vespucci, and Ojeda.

The map shows the meridian line in the Azores, representing how the navigational zones and parts of the Atlantic conquered in the New World were divided up between Spain and Portugal following the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Juan de la Cosa's work is full of narrative detail, such as the depiction of Saint Christopher at the top of the map: a place usually reserved for an image of the Virgin and Child.

Instead, the map's author placed the Virgin and Child in the compass rose, on a throne and flanked by 2 angels. The image was cut out from a piece of paper and glued on, and possibly drawn by Juan de la Cosa himself.

The European and Mediterranean coasts are drawn in the style of Mallorcan and Portuguese portolan charts. The coastline is covered with the names of cities and ports written in red and black, with red reserved for the most important.

The Atlantic coast of Africa is accurately depicted thanks to the nautical charts produced by Portuguese navigators.

The depiction of the continent of Asia, which was far less well known, is based on Ptolemaic theories, myths and legends, and the chronicles of Italian explorers such as Marco Polo.

Europe, Africa, and Asia are covered with illustrations alluding not only to geographical features, but to political, economic, and religious ones too.

The Three Kings follow the star to the city of Bethlehem.

The Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

The Tower of Babylon is shown as a large tower shaped like a minaret, reminiscent of depictions of the Tower of Babel.

The Queen of Sheba in the Arabian Peninsula.

Gold-mining in Africa.

The imprisonment of Gog and Magog behind the Caspian Mountains. The depiction of this scene combines biblical and mythical elements: the 2 main characters appear in the Old Testament, but the story of their imprisonment behind the Caspian Mountains by Alexander the Great is a medieval legend.

Prester John also features in Africa, near what is now Ethiopia. The legend of Prester John, who was said to be a Christian ruler in the Indies whose empire was filled with wonders, was very popular during the Middle Ages.

In the north of Asia, there is a figure with several faces on their head and hands, enclosed in a kind of niche bearing the inscription "Idol of Idolaters." It is an image of the idol worshiped by idolaters in the city of Castrema.

Not only was Juan de la Cosa's map a first-rate cartographic document, it was also an enlightened representation of man's understanding of the known world in the 16th century.

Credits: Story

Organized By
Museo Naval de Madrid (Naval Museum of Madrid)

Documentation and Research
Jose María Moreno Martín

Online Adaptation
Naval Museum Communications Department
Xián Rodríguez, Alicia Suárez

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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