Catalog Archive
Auction 182, Lot 734

"Presbiteri Iohannis, sive, Abissinorum Imperii Descriptio", Ortelius, Abraham

Subject: Central Africa

Period: 1602 (published)

Publication: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

Color: Hand Color

Size:
17.3 x 14.8 inches
43.9 x 37.6 cm

The mythical kingdom of Prester John is one of the most persistent legends of all time and often appears on early maps. This myth had its origins in rumors spread throughout Europe in about 1150 A.D. that there was a powerful Christian priest-king who had conquered the Muslims and founded the kingdom of Kara Khitai in Asia. This mysterious king became a symbol of hope in the Christian world, which at the time was beset by the Mongol hordes. A succession of Dominican and Franciscan missionaries and civil ambassadors were dispatched by popes and European monarchs to search for the kingdom. Many of these emissaries never returned, and those that did reported that the Christian kingdom in deepest Asia could not be found and was probably a myth. But the popular fancy was not easily dispelled, and so over time the location of the kingdom was merely transferred to Africa. Prester John's kingdom can be found on early maps in Scythia, India, Central Asia and Abyssinia.

This great map depicts the central African kingdom of Prester John, the mythical Christian priest-king who, according to legend, provided a bulwark against Barbarians and was an ally to the Crusaders. Ortelius designed this map himself using geographical information including Gastaldi's 1564 map of Africa. The mythical twin lakes of Zaire and Zaflan are shown as the origin of the Nile, with the Mountains of the Moon located as the source of the lakes. Two pairs of large elephants appear in the interior, and sea monsters and an Arabic ship (dhow) are depicted in the Atlantic. Two large strapwork cartouches balance the sheet, one enclosing the title and the other with text of the legend. The dedication is to King David, with a long genealogy tracing Prester John's lineage back to that of the Biblical king. This is the second state with additional hatching. German text on verso.

References: Norwich #11; Van den Broecke #175.2.

Condition: B+

Full contemporary color on a sheet with a coat of arms watermark, light toning and soiling, and a narrow bottom margin, as issued. There are a few minute worm holes only visible when held to light, and an archivally repaired centerfold separation at bottom.

Estimate: $900 - $1,100

Sold for: $700

Closed on 4/28/2021

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