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Prester John, Priest-king, Visual representations


The mythical figure of the priest-king known to late medieval and early modern Europeans as Prester John fascinated literate Europeans for many centuries. Historians have weighed in on textual depictions of the legendary figure, but visual interpretations by European artists of the physical appearance of this eastern potentate have not been examined in any significant depth. These portrayals primarily took the form of map and book illustrations, and this essay examines the evolving visual representations that European artists developed of Prester John. In general, there was a gradual evolution over time in European artistic depictions of the legendary Prester John, and changes in European portrayals of reflected concurrent changes in European understandings of Africa and Asia.