Behind this cover lies a world treasure

A small and ornate book opens up to reveal one of the great masterpieces of Renaissance manuscript illumination

Published 12 August 2015

The exquisite Rothschild Prayer Book, one of a handful of peerless illuminated manuscripts produced at the end of the 15th and the early 16th centuries, will be the centrepiece of an exhibition featuring the collection of media owner Kerry Stokes, which opens at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in August.

In private hands for much of its 500 years, confiscated from the Rothschild family by the Nazis in 1938, and selling for a world record price in 1999 following its tardy restitution by the Austrian Government, it is a book of breathtaking beauty and exceptional skill.

The Rothschild Prayer Book was produced by pre-eminent artists in the Ghent-Bruges school, whose manuscripts were sought and treasured throughout Europe, and created in the final flowering of illuminated manuscripts, after the beginning of print and just before the Reformation brought an end to the production of lavish prayer books.

Image: Priceless: Virgin and Child on a Crescent Moon. Seven Joys of The Virgin, The Rothschild Prayer Book, fols 197v-198r. Attributed to Gerard David.

“The manuscript is an example of this school of painting at its peak,” says Margaret Manion, co-author of the exhibition catalogue, “with miniatures by the most sought-after illuminators of the day, such as Gerard Horenbout, Simon Bening and his father, Alexander Bening.

“There are also images by artists who were trained as panel painters, as for example the depiction of the exquisite Madonna and Child above a crescent moon, by the Bruges panel painter Gerard David.”

Perhaps because the book may have remained closed for much of its 500-year life, its 252 pages are pristine, its pigments deep and bright, its golds glittering on the page.

Image: The supplicant: King David in Penitence. Penitential Psalms, The Rothschild Prayer Book, fols 147v-148r.

Each devotion opens with a large illuminated initial decorated with staves of acanthus. Twelve full-page calendar folios feature the names of feasts, the relevant zodiac signs and scenes of people going about appropriate occupations for each month. Sixty-seven full-page miniatures and five smaller miniatures are replete with the imagery of saints, landscapes and secular scenes.

These are surrounded by intricate, three-dimensional borders with illusionistic features such as sprays of flowers that appear to be strewn across the page, jewels and enamels, gleaming peacock feathers, and even flies that appear to be sitting on the page. Made for devotional purposes, the book was also clearly designed to delight the viewer.

Kate Challis, whose Phd focused on early 16th century illuminated manuscripts, in particular deluxe southern Netherlandish books, first saw the Prayer Book in Vienna’s National Library before it was returned to the Rothschilds.

Image: Intricate detail: St Helena. Suffrage, The Rothschild Prayer Book, fols 233v-234r.

“It was magnificent, magical,” says Challis. “Unlike art in paintings, where you see them from afar as you approach them, a book is closed. Once I opened it, it was revealed in its majesty, and also in its intimacy, in its size and proximity. Today we’re bombarded with imagery, but in those days people would not have seen many images at all except the occasional altarpiece.”

Challis compares the Prayer Book to today’s smartphone, in terms of how it might be carried around and of how it might absorb the viewer. However a prayer book of this quality would have been a luxury, most probably owned by royalty or people of influence. It would have been a source of great pride to its owners.

“It was also a form of entertainment. Artists were really showing off their skills,” she says.

Kelly Gellatly, director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, also makes a point of the way the prayer book was used.

“For me, part of the appeal of the book itself, beyond its breathtaking beauty, is its human scale – the fact that it is an object that was made to be used, and to be held. As a Book of Hours, one can equally surmise that its remarkable survival is due in part to exactly this aspect of its nature – that it was a personal and highly treasured object and importantly, that it was portable – able to travel easily with its owner in times of change, upheaval and crisis,” she says.

Much is made of the book’s somewhat mysterious provenance. The original owner is still unknown and its history remains obscure for a period of several hundred years, until it shows up in the collection of Anselm von Rothschild in the late 1800s.

Image: Slaying the dragon: St George and the Dragon. Suffrage, The Rothschild Prayer Book,fols 220v-221r.

Theories have imagined the book in the hands of queens in Navarre and Germany, and in the libraries of prominent royal dynasties. But it is called the Rothschild Prayer Book because this is the only part of its provenance story that is certain.

The exhibition An illumination: the Rothschild Prayer Book & other works from the Kerry Stokes Collection c.1280-1685 will feature the Rothschild Prayer Book in combination with other illuminated manuscripts, early decorated printed works known as incunabula, paintings, sculptures and stained glass sequences. It will also include the only Pieter Brueghel the Younger painting known to be in Australia (Calvary, 1615), allowing, as Gellatly says, “rare insight into the use and significance of these objects at the time they were made.”

Image: Perfect Picture: Vision and Hymn of St Bernard of Clairvaux. Hymn of St Bernard, The Rothschild Prayer Book, fols 245v-246r. Attributed to Simon Bening.

The exhibition is at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, from 28 August-15 November. It will be accompanied by a series of lectures from internationally renowned experts and academics bringing context to the exhibition, from considerations of the Rothschild Prayer Book to the famous Book of Hours of Queen Jeanne of Navarre, to luxury textiles from the guilds of Europe to female book collectors on the Renaissance, to the late Medieval Nuremberg carnival, to Bruegel the Younger’s Crucifixion.

“The University of Melbourne is honoured to be part of a celebration of what is one of the finest private collections of Medieval and Renaissance art,” says Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis.

“For those with passion for art, history, politics, religion or literature the exhibition is a rare opportunity, while the accompanying lecture series will bring to life many of the extraordinary items on display.”

An illumination: the Rothschild Prayer Book & other works from the Kerry Stokes Collection c. 1280-1685 will be on display at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 28 August-15 November.

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