“Leo Hollandicus” of Visscher, The Centre and the Name

Leo Hollandicus, by C. Visscher, 1648

(…) All these considerations give us more than sufficient reason to renounce the King of Spain, and seek some other powerful and more gracious prince to take us under his protection.


Dated in our assembly at The Hague, the Six and Twentieth day of July, 1581, indorsed by the orders of the States General

(An extract from the Act of Abjuration of the United Provinces “Plakkaat van Verlatinghe”, 26th July 1581)


Dutch cartography has been one of the most elaborate and most refined in the world since the XVIth Century. A magnificent example of this cartography is the Leo Hollandicus map (1648) by Claes Janzsoon Visscher of Amsterdam, a striking representation of the Province of Holland embedded with political/ideological meaning (Figure 1). We analyse centrality as it is represented in this map and then we draw some results and horizons for further reasearch .

Leo Hollandicus, by C. Visscher, 1648

Figure 1. Leo Hollandicus, by Visscher, 1648

The lion as an emblematic figure of the Low Countries

Since the Middle Ages the lion is an emblematic figure often used in the coats of arms and symbols of the provinces and counties of the Low Countries, especially the County of Holland. A study on maedieval arms, conducted by Michel Pastoureau, a French eminent specialist of heraldry, shows that the lion was the most popular, as a heraldic and emblematic figure, in the Low Countries (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Frequency of the lion as a heraldic figure in maedieval arms of Western Europe. Map is by Michel Pastoureau.

Figure 2. Frequency of the lion as a heraldic figure in maedieval arms of Western Europe. See how the lion is most popular in the Low Countries. Map is by Michel Pastoureau.

When the House of Nassau, princes of Orange, became involved in the political issues of the Low Countries they reinforced the lion’s symbolic position as their arms had lions. And when the constituencies of the future United Provinces met in Utrecht, in 1581, their States General adopted the lion of Holland as an emblematic figure and coat of arms by adding a sword and arrows to his hands, as the Dutch were in revolt against Spain and the Empire to gain their independence.

Figure 2, Two Leo Belgicus: A- Of Aitzinger, 1583. B- Of Visscher, nicknamed "of the Truce", 1609.

Figure 3. Two Leo Belgicus: A- Of Aitzinger, 1583. B- Of Visscher, nicknamed “of the Truce”, 1610.

The first known zoomorphic map of the Low Countries was in 1583 (just after the adoption of the new arms by the States General) by the Austrian cartographer Michael Aitzinger (see Figure 3-A).

The cartographer we study today, Visscher, drew other versions of his lion: notably the Leo Belgicus, drawn some time between 1610 and 1620 (See Figure 3-B). By that time the Dutch Provinces were in the time of “the Truce” with the Holy Empire and Spain (1609-1621), thus the lion is not fighting: he is putting his sword down and has a pacific gaze.

Leo Hollandicus and the “roaring” Holland

In our representation, Leo Hollandicus, the semantic shift is striking: first it is Holland (and not the whole Belgica[1]), and second the lion here is rampant, having a detailed map of Holland inside him and roaring in the direction of the Empire (and thus Spain) and brandishing a cutlass with PATRIAE DEFENSIO written on its blade. The Dutch cities and their blasons are depicted around, along with some Dutch citizens. We can explain some of the symbolism of this map before speaking about how centrality is embedded in it:

1- The lion rampant is clearly in a position of attack (or defense), as it was in a time where Holland, along with the Seven Northern Provinces, was in war against Spain and the Empire, just before the Treaty of Münster (Peace of Westphalia). Thus there was still the need to defend the country and this is seen in the motto written on blade of the cutlass (PATRIAE DEFENSIO in Latin means “I defend my Homeland” or “Defender of the Patria”).

2- The title of the map says “The County of Holland in the curious form of lion… edited by Nicholas Visscher in the year 1648“[2] but it is dedicated to Prince Maurice of Orange, stadholder of the Provinces, and the lion is holding his coat of arms. Maurice of Orange passed away in 1625. This map is an edition of an original engraving which dates back to 1622 (Figure 4). We can suppose that Visscher edited the first map and added colours but without changing the core or the dedication: this can also be seen in the attack position of the lion, as the first colour-less map was made just after the Truce.

Figure 3: The original Leo Hollandicus of 1622.

Figure 4. The original Leo Hollandicus of 1622.

3- The citizens represented in the upper part of the map, above the lion, are of a wide spectrum of the Dutch: farmers and peasants from South Holland and from North Holland, nobles from Holland and merchants from the cities. In Holland, one of the first “capitalist” and “middle-class” countries in the world, everyone was called to play a role in enhancing the economy of the county (and of the whole Provinces).

4- The Province-County of Holland is mapped in an accurate way and with techniques of modern mapping of that time. The exactitude is striking even when compared to some XXIth Century maps. Thus the cartographer, Visscher, was quite familiar with modern catrographic techniques. But he chose the lion as he had a more profound comprehension of geographical space: that geometry is not geogrpaphy and that all space is subjective, thus a very accurate mapof Holland can be contained in a totally symbolic setting.

Discreet Amsterdam… and a (less discreet?) God

Figure 4, two details from the Leo Hollandicus of Visscher: A- Amsterdam. B- The Tetragrammaton.

Figure 5. Two details from the Leo Hollandicus of Visscher:  A- Amsterdam. B- The Tetragrammaton.

After this note on the general aspect of the map le us analyse the centre: how centrality is depicted in the Leo Hollandicus of Visscher.

A- The city of Amsterdam is in the place of heart of the lion (which is not a coincidence). But at the same time it is very discreet and needs an attentive eye to be seen (see Figure 5-A).

Amsterdam has never been a seat of government of the United Provinces or of its successor state, the Netherlands. It is the discreet “heart” of its economic system and its culture (and since 1815 its constitutional capital). The seat of government and the meeting place of the States General, The Hague, is also too discreet on the map and has no eminent position in the body of the lion nor in the map of County of Holland.

Centrality in this regard, the “centre-as-heart” one, is meant to be discreet: yet and as we know, effective. This discretion is in contrast to the Spanish political and economic centres, always very eminent and always around the monarch.

B- Another striking centre in the image: under the cutlass’s edge and just above the lion’s head there is a sun, on which the Tetragrammaton (The Name, THE LORD) is written (See Figure 5-B). The Tetragrammaton is on the axis of the drawing, shining upon Holland and her lion. It is discreet in a way but gives light to Holland and “heat” to the cutlass. We can say that the Tetragrammaton is a “centre-head” in this map: if the heart is discreet, Amsterdam, the head is not physically in the map but above the map and above Holland.

The shift of this “centre-head”, between the first Leo “of the Truce” of Visscher in 1610 and the one of 1648, is important: in the first God is very discreet and His sun, along with His Dutch Name, is covered by some clouds on the corner of the map and some angels around are still “cleaning”… In the second God is shining right above Holland and is visible with His Sacred Name: no more ambiguity, and no more “clouds” or “rubbish” in the vision of Holland (See Figure 6).

Figure 5: A- God in the first Leo of Visscher. B- And God in the second Leo.

Figure 6. Shifting “centre”: A- God in the first Leo of Visscher, 1610. B- And God in his second Leo, 1648.

This centre-head is thus not the king of Spain, nor the pope, nor the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but God himself whose Light shines upon Holland and gives power to the lion to defend his homeland.  This “centre-head” primacy, the primacy of God, is crucial in the story of Dutch independence: God, and only God, is “above” Holland; thus no human can impose himself by whatever sort of “divine” right over Holland. This principle, which later inspired the Fathers of the American Independence, is put forward in the Dutch Act of Abjuration of 1581:

“As it is apparent to all that a prince is constituted by God to be ruler of a people, to defend them from oppression and violence as the shepherd his sheep; and whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no prince), to govern them according to equity, to love (…)”

The shifting centre

The centre shifts and its representation changes following political situation. Leo Hollandicus is a clear example: a new “centre-head” is there with the new internationally-recognised state that gained its independence by its own hands. We can draw some results, at the same time some questions for further research on this zoomorphic map:

1- The “centre-head” shift is inetersting between the first representation of the Leo in 1610 (of “The Truce”) and the second in 1648. In the beginning God was covered, shy and has a Dutch name; while in the second He is bold, shiny and has a hebrew Name considered universal in Christendom in reference to the Divinity. We thus see an interesting question behind this shift: how political centre appropriates, modifies, and sometimes creates divinities which can serve its objectives.

2- The semantic shift between Leo Belgicus and Leo Hollandicus is also inetersting: Holland begins here to represent the ensemble of the constituencies of the Seven Provinces and with the time “Holland” serves as a metonym for “Netherlands”. Can this cartographic change be an expression of power relation and of more con-centring on Holland as the most important Province of the Seven? Such shifts, “Netherlands-Holland” or “whole-to-part”, are important in studying relational powers on the maps and discourse of the political centre. Thus The Hague, without being eminently present in the map, is shaping the space as the place of meeting of the States General, thus where the supreme authority in the United Provinces, drawn from God via the people, is.

3- It is manifest here that accurate scientific cartography used for political propaganda and charged with meaning. But cartography is, after all, political “propaganda” and interpretation of power’s political appropriation of space. Usual “scientific” maps can be studied the same way as Visscher’s Leo Hollandicus: as documents of political discourse shaped by political centre.


[1] That time Belgica was used as a name for the entire Low Countries and not only for the southern lands that constitute today’s Belgium.

[2] In Latin: “Comitatus Hollandiae Deuno Forma Leonis Curiose Editus a Nicolao Johannis Visscher Anno 1648


Further readings:

Leo Hollandicus Map on the  Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla.

The 1622 version of Leo Hollandicus for sale at Sotheby’s.

Biography of and some information on Claes Janzsoon Visscher at the Arader Galleries site.

Coat of arms of the Netherlands.

Here you can read the Act of Abjuration (the “Dutch Declaration of Independence”) of 1581.

“Quel est le roi des animaux” by Michel Pastoureau, in Actes des congrès de la Société des historiens médiévistes de l’enseignement supérieur public. 15e congrès, Toulouse, 1984. Le monde animal et ses représentations au moyen-âge (XIe – XVe siècles) pp. 133-142.

Image credit: All lion images used in this article belong to the Public Domain. The map of frequency of lion in maedieval heraldic figures belongs to Michel Pastoureau. 


I am passionately interested in relation between the political centre and names and toponyms; and in how political centre shapes the “onomosphere” (or “onymosphere”) around it then embeds its space with meaning via names. If you are interested in the same topic please do not hesitate to contact me!

Cite this blog post
Jack Keilo ( Jacques Keilo ) (2015, May 6). “Leo Hollandicus” of Visscher, The Centre and the Name. Centrici. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/mjf9

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