Presbiteri Iohannis, Sive, Abissinorum Imperii Descriptio

Presbiteri Iohannis, Sive, Abissinorum Imperii Descriptio

1574 [1612]
Size : 41 x 53 cm
Color : Uncolored
Condition : A
Technique : Copper engraving
Reference : CPV-45-73

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Beautiful copy of Ortelius' map of Central Africa representing the Christian Kingdom of the Priest John, a mythical king with a long cartographical history. He was supposed to provide a stronghold against the Barbarians and be the ally of crusaders. Priest John's kingdom was first located in India as per Waldseemüller, 1507. More than a decade later, the kingdom was placed in Africa as per Gemma-Frisius-Ptolemy, 1522.

This map encompasses the African continent along with Arabian Peninsula and south eastern parts of Asia. Seas with rough waves and sea monsters surround the continent.  A large sailing vessel, an Egyptian dhow, firing a canon, decorates the lower left corner, a cartouche with busts and floral details frame the title decorates the right. Several large blocks of text spread across the map, among which is 17 line text in the top left corner framed in a cartouche with a coat of arms, attributed to Prester John as the note explains.

The highlight of this map is the Nile River extending along the northeast of Africa (Egypt and Sudan). Sixteenth century cartographers representation of the source of the Nile in central Africa differed, it was often from two lakes with a legendary mountain range "Mountains of the Moon". In this example, Ortelius builds on the Ptolemic model where the Nile branches from two lakes, a large central lake Cafates, and another smaller lake located slightly to the north. He has brought back the Mountains of the Moon, after Giacomo Gastaldi had removed them in his 1564 map.

Van den Broecke, 175 ; Meurer p. 151.


Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) was a Renaissance cartographer and geographer, considered to be one of the founders of modern cartography. He was born in 1527 in Antwerp, then part of the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). Ortelius began his career as a map colourist, buying maps and colouring them before selling them on. His early interest in cartography soon developed into a passion for scientific geography.

During his travels, particularly in the company of renowned geographers such as Gerard Mercator, Ortelius acquired an in-depth knowledge of geography. It was thanks to these travels and his encounters with other scholars that he was inspired to create his most famous work, the "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum".

Ortelius published his first major work, a world map in eight sheets, in 1564. He continued to produce various maps, including one of Egypt in 1565, a plan of Brittenburg Castle on the coast of the Netherlands, and a map of Asia, before publishing his masterpiece in 1570.

Ortelius' "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum" is considered to be the first true modern atlas. In its first edition of 1570, it contained 53 maps, but was rapidly expanded with each successive edition. This revolutionary atlas harmonised the formats and styles of maps available at the time, while retaining the names of the maps' original authors. Ortelius also created a catalogue of map authors, updated from edition to edition, to recognise the contributions of numerous geographers.

The success of the "Theatrum" greatly contributed to the spread of geographical culture in Europe at the end of the 16th century. After Ortelius's death in 1598, his atlas continued to be published and improved by other editors, leaving a lasting legacy in the field of cartography.