07 November 2007

P is for Prester John

Across the road from the Feather Market Hall, between the City Hall and the Old Post Office in Port Elizabeth is an amazing statue dedicated to the seafarers who searched for Prester John between 1145 and 1645.



The statue was commissioned by a Port Elizabeth businessman Johan Eggers and sculptured by local sculptor Phil Kolby. I remember Johan waxing eloquently about his vision for this statue and eventually turning this into a reality. The result is a brilliant work of art.


During the 12th and 13th centuries, Prester John was believed to be the ruler of a vast and powerful empire in the interior of Asia. From the 14th to the 16th century, he was believed to be the king of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in northeast Africa.


It all started in 1165 with a letter supposedly written by Prester John, describing his country as a land of natural riches, marvels, peace and justice. It was given to the Byzantine emperor and to the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa. It told of a magical kingdom in the East that was in danger of being overrun by infidels and barbarians.


Thus began the quest for the wealth of Prester John.


It was his reputation that helped drive explorers to find the sea route to India. King John II of Portugal specifically instructed the expeditions of his time to discover this fabulous kingdom. The legend endured until the 18th century and died after the Scottish explorer James Bruce had travelled through Ethiopia.



Though some scholars think that the basis for Prester John came from the great empire of Genghis Khan, others believe it was merely a fantasy. Whatever it was, the legend of Prester John profoundly affected the geographical knowledge of Europe by stimulating interest in foreign lands and sparking expeditions outside of Europe, which is what this statue is all about.

30 comments:

Oswegan said...

Great historical photo essay max.

It's a very interesting and intricate piece of art.

I wonder what the four inlayed crests represent.

~Oswegan

Max-e said...

Hi Oswegan
Thanks for the comments. The one thimg I do not have any information on is the creats. Will do some more research and see what I can find.

Ackworth Born said...

A fascinating story - thanks for the lovely history lesson.

Peter M said...

Would love to be able to do some close up photography of that Cross, great story

Digital Flower Pictures said...

Thanks for the photo essay. I too find the crests interesting.

kml said...

What a beautifully detailed statue! Thanks for the great read!

Max-e said...

Hi Ackworth Born
What I find amazing is that the belief of the early explorers was so great that they risked hardships and everything to find Prester John.

Max-e said...

Hi Peter M
This is the fiirst time I have really had a close look at the statue. It is a fantastic suject for close ups, with all the detail and different angles. Unfortunately the light was not good, it was overcast and there was a terrible glare - I will be back

Max-e said...

Hi Digital Flower Pictures
Thanks for your comments. I will try to get the answer to the question about the crests. All I can think of for now is that the red represents the "old world" and the blue the "new world".

Max-e said...

Hi KML
I found the research on Prester John fascinating and only scratched the surface. Phil Kolby was a very talented sculptor. He also did one of Gandhi in Durban, which I am keen to see.

Suzi-k said...

Nice post max-e, i think I must post my picture of you taking these pictures, to show the scale of the statue....

Michele (Rocky Mtn.Girl) said...

This is a wonderful post, extremely fascinating and educational. I was glued to the screen the entire time. Thank you for sharing a piece of history I would never have known about.
Thank you for dropping by my blog as well.

Neva said...

What a great blog! I had no idea about Prester John.. I am learning a lot!

Old Wom Tigley said...

A beautifully statue, I watch a programme on TV a while back about this a the whole affair was fascinating, this as been a great post and one that as been enjoyed by all.

Oswegan said...

No worries, I just thought they were cool and am always interesting in the symbolic meaning of things.

~Oswegan

SecludedHabitat said...

Heya,
Not only some lovely photos however a history lesson as well.
I love it, and I must agree with you... it really is a masterful work of art.
Stuart

Max-e said...

Thaks Suzi-k it is a lot bigger than it looks

Max-e said...

Go to http://arty-fartying-around.blogspot.com/2007/11/max-e-photographs-prester-johns-statue.html to get an idea of the scale

Max-e said...

Hi Michelle, glad you enjoyed it. The Prester John legend is quite a story and it did spark off a lot of exploration.
I enjoyed you site very much and will be a regular visitor

Max-e said...

Hi Neva, it is fascinating. Fact, fiction or legend he influenced the "old world" to explore.
His name also appears in many fiction stories - can't remember them off hand though.

Max-e said...

Hi Tom, can you recall the show? I would love to see it. Thanks for your comments

Max-e said...

Oswegan, you sparked my curiosity and I will be forever wondering, unless I get the answers

Max-e said...

Hi Stuart
Thanks for the visit. It is a an interesting story an a brilliant piece of art

WalksFarWoman said...

What an intriguing post Max especially when you look at the dates and see how long and how many men must have gone on this search. As you say a brilliant way to discover navigation skills and geographical knowledge in a time when we were unaware of how big the world truly was. He deserves a statue!

mrsnesbitt said...

Fascinating!
I too was fixed to the PC reading this history.
It lives on when told through words.

Great.
Denise

Max-e said...

Hello WalksFarWoman, I find this subject fascinating. The early explorers were an intrepid bunch.
Bartolomeu Dias rounded Africa's Cape of Good Hope in 1488, but returned to Portugal soon after that.
Vasco da Gama left Lisbon on 8 July 1497 and eventually arrived in Calicut in India, on 20 May 1498.
His fleet went for more than three months without seeing land and only 54 of his 170 companions, on two of his four ships, returned to Portugal in 1499.
That is truly amazing, especially when you see how small their ships were.
This statue is dedicated to these men.
I will do a post on them someday.

Max-e said...

Hi Denise
One cannot begin to imagine the hardships and uncertainty these men must have suffered, yet despite this there was always someone ready to take the trip.
Yes it is truly amazing

Anna said...

Thanks for this post. Excellent photos (just excellent, especially the close ups), and follow up story. Really enjoyed it.

BTW I like your new blog layout. Cool. Anna :)

Max-e said...

Hi Anna, thanks for your comments. Glad you enjoyed it.
I never really liked the old format - spent an evening trying to select one I liked.

Kristin said...

Thanks for writing this.