Despite the fundamental importance of patterning along the dorsal-ventral (DV) and anterior-posterior (AP) axes during embryogenesis, uncertainty exists in the orientation of these axes for the mesoderm. Here we examine the origin and formation of the zebrafish kidney, a ventrolateral mesoderm derivative, and show that AP patterning of the non-axial mesoderm occurs across the classic gastrula stage DV axis while DV patterning aligns along the animal-vegetal pole. We find that BMP signalling acts early to establish broad anterior and posterior territories in the non-axial mesoderm while retinoic acid (RA) functions later, but also across the classic DV axis. Our data support a model in which RA on the dorsal side of the embryo induces anterior kidney fates while posterior kidney progenitors are protected ventrally by the RA-catabolizing enzyme Cyp26a1. This work clarifies our understanding of vertebrate axis orientation and establishes a new paradigm for how the kidney and other mesodermal derivatives arise during embryogenesis.