Around this time we celebrate the Spring Equinox, an important point in the yearly calendar but also, marking as it does the change from Winter to Spring with the hope of better weather and more light, good for the soul. Both the Spring and Autumn equinoxes mark the point when the Sun’s path is directly above the Equator, giving equal amounts of daylight and night (the word ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin term Aequus nox, equal night). This double hemisphere World map comes from a Dutch eighteenth-century atlas* and shows the paths of the Equator and the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, when the Sun is at it’s highest point for Northern and Southern summer and winter solstices.

Planisphærium Terrestre sive Terrarum Orbis…from Atlas Minor by Claes Janszoon Visscher, c1705. Map Res 85

The line of the Equator is described as ‘Æquator sive circulus æquidialis vulgo æquinotialis’  (‘Equator or equidistant circle’)

Here’s a page from a German atlas by the publisher Justus Perthes, circa 1910, explaining the way the movements of the Earth around the Sun (Erde und Sonne) create the solstices, equinoxes and seasons.

Page 2 from ‘Sydow-Wagners method. Schul-Atlas’ c1910. B1 (1745)

In Erde und Sonne different diagrams explain the journey of the Earth around the Sun, showing the tilting of the Earth on its axis that gives us the changing seasons. For the purposes of the blog figure 5 is the most important, Lauf der Erde um die Sonne (Erdrevolution), which shows the Earth’s rotation around the Sun. At the top is the Earth in relation to the Sun on the 21st of March, showing a perfect split between light and shade running from Pole to Pole,

This last third period of March has a number of ‘named’ and other important days. As well as the Equinox, the 18th of March, according to the Venerable Bede, was the first day of the Creation. This idea was due to Lady Day, the 25th, which was until 1751 considered the first day of the year. With the 18th being the first day of Creation it could then be worked out that, by a nice coincidence,  fours day later on the 21st the Sun, Moon and Stars were created, this is also St Benedict’s day. The 25th, Lady Day, marks the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, nine months later it will be Christmas.

Mary is an important figure in the history of navigation. She is the Pole Star, a constant in the night sky and is also the saint of Navigators and, most useful on a journey, the ‘Virgin of Good Winds’. This image of the Virgin and Child comes from an early Portuguese portolan chart of the Atlantic. The cartouche with Mary in the centre is located in North America, a guide to those making the perilous journey across the ocean to the New World. Circling Mary are the words to the prayer ‘Ave Maria’, a prayer no doubt uttered on many a dangerous moment on-board ships, ‘…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen’.

[From an] Untitled portolan chart of the Atlantic, c1550 (MS) K1 (111)

*We have more than one edition of the Atlas Minor…, one edition uses gold-leaf at key points to highlight certain features, including appropriately enough, a Sun