Michael Boym’s Illustrated Magna Cathay and Gushi Huapu, the Chinese Source of the Images

By Eszter Csillag

Held at the Vatican Library, Magna Cathay (Borg. Cin. 531) is a never-printed map of China illustrated by the Polish Jesuit Michael Boym (1612–1659) when he returned to Europe from China. This map was part of a larger cartographical enterprise of the Jesuit order in the seventeenth century, when mapmaking was seen as one of the most important aspects of scientific practice.[i] In early modern Europe, the Eastern hemisphere was far from well-known. However, since the sixteenth century, mapmaking had become a competitive enterprise for trading companies and book publishers in different European countries. At the other end of the globe, Chinese emperors were also fascinated by European mapmaking. They encouraged Jesuits who resided in China to produce a series of world maps that all descended from Matteo Ricci’s printed map of the world, the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (坤輿萬國全圖). This rare map was printed in 1602 at the request of the Wanli Emperor (1563–1620), and it was followed by similar Jesuit world maps including those of Giulio Alieni in 1620, Francesco Sambiasi in 1633, and Ferdinand Verbiest in 1674.

While the Chinese were expanding their knowledge of the world through these maps, the Europeans, in turn, were seeking to obtain and produce detailed maps about China and East Asia. For the production of these maps, the requisite cartographic knowledge came from China to Europe through the Jesuits. The first map of this kind, the Novus atlas sinensis, was printed by Joan Blaeu’s firm in Amsterdam in 1655. Its author, Martino Martini (1614–1661), was a prominent Jesuit whose work was the first full atlas representing East Asia.[ii] This map broadly covers the provinces of China. Taking a similar format, Michael Boym’s Magna Cathay contains one large folio map of the Chinese territory followed by the atlas – fifteen provincial maps, according to the Ming administrative division. Boym intended to publish his work in the Dutch Republic, which was revealed in his letters.[iii] Notably, Magna Cathay is decorated and framed by drawings of a variety of plants, flowers, animals, and crosses, as well as Chinese rulers and military leaders. As the Polish Jesuit noted in the introductory Ad lectorem to the map: ‘We have also added some accurate pictures of the musk deer, and the most beautiful royal birds Fumhuam, and of the Chinese rhubarb root, and of the ginger, because the land of China is abundant in these, and also of crosses which have been found (…)’.[iv]

The origins of these drawings remain contested. As my doctoral research turns out, what the previous scholarship believed to be the work of Boym are in fact images copied from Chinese art historical works. Five of the thirty-six drawings in Magna Cathay are exact copies of prints from the Ming Chinese book of art history, Gushi Huapu (顧氏畫譜). This book was a popular painting manual, first printed in the early seventeenth century. At that time, illustrated books were in fashion in China, a ‘consumption-oriented image-conscious society’.[v] The title Gushi Huapu refers to master Gu’s pictorial album. Its author, Gu Bing, was a court artist who created this ‘imaginary collection’, an illustrated history of Chinese painting. The book consists of four volumes, each is organised by individual artists chronologically instead of thematically. [vi] Through the volumes, Gu Bing introduces the biographies of these artists and analyses their painting styles with his own comments. To visually showcase these features, the author selects one representative image from the oeuvre of each artist.

The five drawings that the Magna Cathay copies from the Gushi Huapu are the wild chicken, the cow, the sumxu (possibly a squirrel), the spring flower, and the confederate rose. It is yet unknown how Boym gained access to this Chinese book, and how he copied the prints. However, the finding that Boym copied the images from Gushi Huapu reveals how his atlas is based on Chinese sources. What is more striking is how the images were treated, negotiated, and used across the early modern world. Pictures of a Chinese painting manual, representing the individual skills of painters from the past, turned into generic and putatively authoritative representations of Chinese fauna and flora. When illustrating Magna Cathay, Boym not only transported images from China to Europe, but he also absorbed artworks into the cartographic representation of early modern natural philosophy.


[i] Steven J. Harris, Jesuit Scientific Activity in the Overseas Missions, 1540–1773, Isis 96, no. 1 (2005), 71–79.

[ii] M. Cams, Displacing China: The Martini-Blaeu Novus Atlas Sinensis and the Late Renaissance Shift in Representations of East Asia, Renaissance Quarterly 73 (2020), 953–90.

[iii] N. Golvers, Two New Letters from Michael Boym, SJ in Europe (1656; 1658), and the Editorial Dossier of His Various European Works on China, in Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium Graecae et Latinae, 29, no. 1 (2019), 107–116.

[iv]  Manuscript – Borg. Cin. 531, 3r, accessed on 27 March 2020. The end of the sentence cannot be read as the page is folded; translation is by the author.

[v] Michela Bussotti, The Gushi Huapu, a Ming Dynasty Wood-Block Printing Masterpiece in the Naples National Library, Ming Qing Yanjiu, 1995, 18.

[vi] Ibid., 21.

Image credit: Image of the sumxu (probably squirrel) and the turtle in Michael Boym, Flora Sinensis, Vienna 1656.

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