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Icelandic Imagery

A collection of rare maps on exhibit in Akureyri, Iceland. By Erica Olsen Erica Olsen lives in southwest Colorado. She is the author of Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House), short fiction about the once and future West. She visited Iceland during the Bárðarbunga volcanic eruption of 2014.

In 1590 Abraham Ortelius published a new supplement, Additamentum IV, to his atlas, Theatrum orbis terrarum. Amongst the new maps is one of Iceland (Islandia). It was anonymously engraved in the year 1585 and is now attributed to Gudbrandur Thorláksson, bishop of Hólar. Courtesy of the National and University Library of Iceland.

Remote, geologically active Iceland has intrigued adventurous travelers ever since its settlement by Vikings in the ninth century. In the regional capital of Akureyri, on the north coast of Iceland, 76 historic and beautiful maps of the land of fire and ice are currently on view. The exhibition, Land Fyrir Stafni / Land Ahoy, opened in 2014 at the Akureyri Museum, a fine small museum located a stone’s throw from Eyjafjörður, a narrow fjord hemmed in by steep, glacier-sculpted mountains.

The exhibition includes maps by Gerhard Mercator, as well as Athanasius Kircher, whose maps were the first to depict ocean currents, and T. H. H. Knoff, a Norwegian surveyor working for the Danish government whose map was suppressed for political reasons. The maps date from 1547 to 1808 and capture Iceland’s mountainous terrain and jagged coastline in vivid, although not always accurate, detail. Volcanoes spout red, hand-colored flames. Scaly, toothy sea monsters lurk in the coastal waters.

The comprehensive collection was assembled by German collectors Dr. Karl-Werner Schulte and Dr. Gisela Schulte-Daxboek. The couple purchased its first antique map at an auction in 1975. “I thought it would be a nice memory of my travels to Iceland,” Schulte recalled. “Thereafter I began to study literature on early Iceland maps. The interest was awakened … The second map, Porcacchi’s “Isola d’Islanda” (1590), arrived by mail the morning of our wedding day in 1976. Somewhat later we discovered the famous Ortelius map from 1585 [from the 1590 Additamentum IV] in an antiquarian map shop in the university town of Muenster where we lived in the 1970s.”

Traveling and collecting went hand in hand for the Schultes. On one visit to Iceland they met Haraldur Sigurðsson, author of Kortasaga Islands (1971), a work on the cartography of Iceland. That meeting determined the scope of their collecting. “We made the decision to collect as many maps [of Iceland] as we could get.” They joined the International Map Collectors’ Society and made contact with antiquarian shops all over the world. Wanting the maps to be seen, the Schultes donated their collection in 2014 to the municipality of Akureyri, where they had greatly enjoyed visiting. With a population of 18,000, Akureyri is Iceland’s second-largest city and a popular starting point for excursions to view the northern lights, geysers, and other natural wonders.

Haraldur Þór Egilsson, director of the Akureyri Museum, said the Schulte Collection reflects the development of European mapmaking. “People’s ideas about Iceland have changed significantly through the ages. Initially, cartographers knew little about the country’s existence, apart from fuzzy rumors … The maps reflect how Europeans’ knowledge of the world increased with time. The number of place-names and information registered with scientific precision increased without diminishing the maps’ aesthetic value.”

While mapmakers of old lacked the tools to create accurate maps, one must remember that Icelandic terrain was—and is—constantly changing. At the Akureyri exhibition, the modern traveler will notice one striking fact: on older maps of Iceland, the modern capital does not even appear. Reykjavik was officially founded in 1786; as late as 1806 it was a tiny hamlet with a population of only 300. Instead, the prominent sites are Thingvellir, where Vikings assembled the world’s first parliament, and the bishopric of Skalholt. Today, both are archaeological sites, stops on the Golden Circle, Iceland’s most famous tourist route.

Erica Olsen lives in southwest Colorado. She is the author of Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House), short fiction about the once and future West. She visited Iceland during the Bárðarbunga volcanic eruption of 2014.