Learn about the stunning 16th Century Netherlandish illuminated manuscript recently acquired for the Kerry Stokes Collection. This manuscript belongs to a type of prayer book called a Book of Hours, which flourished in medieval Europe.
Margaret Manion, one of Australia's pre-eminent art historians, explains the Rothschild Prayer Book's significance within the context of Books of Hours, illustrating how this genre contained not only popular prayers, but some of the finest paintings of the Middle Ages. Erica Persak, Executive Administrator of the Kerry Stokes Collection, explores the Prayer Book's provenance and history, from the world of 1500 through to its 2014 acquisition by the Kerry Stokes Collection.
The Rothschild Prayer Book
Location: National Library of Australia
Speaker/s: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, Director General National Library of Australia, Erica Persak and Margaret Manion
Anne-Marie Schwirtlich: Distinguished guests and dear friends, good evening and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Anne Marie Schwirtlich and it’s my great joy to be the Director General of the National Library. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home. In 2014 a splendid 16th century Netherlandish illuminated manuscript was acquired for the Kerry Stokes Collection. It is familiarly known as the Rothschild Prayer Book after the Vienna branch of the wealthy European bankers who owned it from the late 19th century up to the Second World War. The Stokes Collection is an astonishing and diverse collection; it includes international sculpture and paintings, Australian painting, Aboriginal art, rare books, military history, maps and illuminated manuscripts. The Rothschild Prayer Book or the most expensive book in the world which is how many people describe it in shorthand now has a home with one of Australia’s greatest art collectors in Perth. In Mr Stokes’ own words illuminated manuscripts in most of their forms are an artistic and religious interpretation of their time, a portal to a lost world that reflects our history.
Tonight we are so fortunate to hear about the significance of the Rothschild prayer book from two immensely knowledgeable scholars and curators, Erica Persak and Margret Manion. Erica Persak is executive administrator of the Kerry Stokes Collection and is responsible for managing all aspects of this extraordinary collection. Erica has been involved in the cultural sector for over 30 years working in the area of collections management and with the Stokes Collection since 2007. Many of you may know Erica as she was Assistant Director for Collection Services at the National Gallery of Australia between 1998 and 2007. Tonight Erica will speak first, sharing the story of the Rothschild Prayer Book, its creators, its fascinating provenance and history of survival over the last 500 years. The Stokes Collection includes 12 illuminated manuscripts from the medieval and renaissance periods and Erica may touch on these too. Emeritus Professor Margaret Manion is also no stranger to many of you here tonight as one of Australia’s distinguished scholars in the humanities. From 1979 until 1995 she was Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne and she continues to share her expertise and her love and to mentor scholars especially in the field of illuminated manuscripts of the medieval and renaissance periods. Margaret is our second presenter this evening and she will discuss the Rothschild Prayer Book in the context of the history of the book of ours, a type of prayer book that flourished in Europe and from the late 13th to the early 16th centuries.
Following this, Erica and Margaret, I hope that we will have time for questions for first of all we’ll see how we go with speeches and so first of all I’d ask you to welcome Erica Persak.
Erica Persak: Thank you, Anne-Marie, for that warm welcome and can everyone hear me at the back? Good? Okay, great, thank you. Well I’m delighted to be here in Canberra on a cold Friday evening but I must say the weather has been unusually mild. I remember when lived here it was always very cold after Anzac Day. As Anne Marie indicated I will be speaking about the Rothschild Prayer Book, a history of surviving war and peace. Here we go; I just have to get some more papers out. Okay, here we go on a journey everyone. Okay, my talk this evening will cover the provenance of the Rothschild Prayer Book, its survival and acquisition in 2013 by Kerry Stokes. I will also discuss some of those artists identified as being responsible for the exquisite miniatures and touch on the state of book production and world history at the time the book was created.
In the past 15 years there has been a lot of discussion in the museum world about provenance, provenance research and due diligence during the acquisition process so basically what is provenance? Provenance is seen as a historical record of ownership, the provenance of a work of art is also a record of changing artistic tastes and collecting priorities, of social and political alliances and an indicator of economic and market condition influencing the sale or transfer of a work of art. Of course an ideal provenance history would provide a documentary record of the owner’s name, dates of ownership and means of transfer, whether that be by inheritance or sale through a dealer or auction and also locations where the work was kept from the time of its creation until the present day. Unfortunately such complete unbroken records of provenance are rare and most works contain gaps in provenance. Gathering provenance information can be challenging because of the period in which a work was executed and the availability of surviving documentation. In many cases particularly works produced before the 20th century it may be impossible to reconstruct the complete ownership history. Many archives have suffered damage or dispersal through wars or natural disasters and documentary material can be ... often be lost or just missing. Moreover private owners may not have saved purchase records over the years and dealers and galleries may no longer be in business.
Certainly in the case of the Rothschild Prayer Book there is nothing to identify its intended owner. There are neither coats of arms, emblems nor a portrait of a donor. We do see in one of the folios, 237, image of St Vincent shown here in half length inside a Gothic porch with partially glazed windows including stained glass. Here you can see a coat of arms but I think its conjecture to say that there’s a link between these coats of arms and the intended owner of the book. The first documented reference to the owner of this prayer book was when it was recorded in the collection of the Rothschild banking family. The Rothschilds began acquiring illuminated manuscripts around 1850. Two of the original five brothers had small collections of manuscripts. These were Carl Mayer who was based in Naples and James Mayer in Paris. Car’s second son, Adolph, inherited his father’s fortune and he became a collector of art and manuscripts. Baron Adolph had no children and when he died in 1900 his manuscripts were left to his widow, Julie, who was an Austrian Rothschild and the daughter of Ausom Solomon Rothschild. And here we have an image of Ausom. He was also a collector of works of art and manuscripts. Ausom’s collection is documented and in 1866 it is recorded that he owned nine illuminated manuscripts.
Christopher De Hamel, the renowned scholar in illuminated manuscripts has written a book called the Rothschilds and their Collection of Illuminated Manuscripts. He believes this is basically what the entire collection of illuminated manuscripts consisted of in 1866. In 1872 just seven years later a second catalogue was issued and seven more illuminated manuscripts were added to this list. In this list there is a manuscript numbered 597 ... I hope you can see that ... which is described as ... and this is in the catalogue list, this is how this book is described ... a book of hours, vellum, burgundy, probably brogue, circa 1500, 67 full page miniatures, calendar with occupations of the months and many small miniatures and initials. It has its pencil number 597 as you can see on this image in the corner of its final flyleaf. In fact number 597 is what is going to be known as the Rothschild Prayer Book. Ausom died in 1874 and two of his surviving three sons, Nathaniel and Fernand, inherited manuscripts from their father and basically continued to expand their bequests. Nathaniel Mayer was the first son of Ausom. This is an image of Nathaniel. As the eldest son and as was expected he was going to run the Viennese family bank but rather than going into business he basically spent his life building mansions and collecting works of art. What a glorious life.
He built one of the palais Rothschild at 14 Thermonogasar in Vienna where his large art collection was on display. The palais Nathaniel built was a palatial house and one of five palaces that the Rothschilds had in Vienna. This is unfortunately a very ... oh sorry, this is a ... oh something’s out of order here. This is his house. Wonderful. It was built in the French neo-Baroque style between 1871 and 1878. The palace was two storeys high and inside were 15 salons, 15, recalling the different styles of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was surrounded by a lush garden decorated with foundations and sculptures and it was basically built to showcase the wealth of the Rothschild family. Now I ... just as an aside I’ll just let you know that this was bombed by the Allies during the war and when the family went back to Vienna it was just left in ruins and whatever material was left was taken and used to rebuild other buildings in Vienna and basically what was left standing was completely flattened and now what sits on this site is a modern contemporary very plain building.
Now after Nathaniel’s death in 1905 his collection was again inventoried and in 1906 the Rothschild Prayer Book was catalogued as number 452. Nathaniel, he never married and his collection passed on to his nephew, Alphonse Mayer von Rothschild. He inherited the house and presumably the prayer book along with it. And I hope ... yes, this ... sorry, this is the only image I could find of Alphonse. The manuscripts were renumbered with four digit numbers preceded by the initials AR which was written in pencil on the verso of the flyleaf. The Rothschild Prayer Book was now recorded as AR3390. I wonder if I could go back ... no. That was a previous image that I showed you, that was out of order, okay? Now in 1936 Alphonse and Eugene who were brothers in the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family left Austria in the face of increasing German pressures and out of fear of German intervention. The third of their brothers, Louis, who was single continued to manage the business of the Viennese bank then on March the 12th 1938 German troops marched into Austria to annexe the German-speaking nation for the third reich. Nazi agents raided the Vienna houses of Baron Alphonse and Louis von Rothschild. Alphonse and his wife were already in London at the time but his brother, Louis, was not so fortunate.
While attempting to flee he was arrested by the Gestapo at Vienna Airport. Louis was held in custody for more than a year until everything, houses, businesses, shares and artworks were handed over as a ransom. After he was released he fled Austria and joined his brother, Alphonse, who by this stage had moved to America with his wife. Both brothers had massive collections which were systematically looted by the Nazis and these figures are just staggering. 3,444 works were stolen from Alphonse’s home and 1,108 works were stolen from Louis’. The plundering of the Rothschild palace in Vienna was recorded by the American correspondent, William Shearer, who lived next door in his book called the Rise and the fall of the Third Reich. He said, and I quote, I myself from our apartment watched squads of SS men carting off silver, tapestries, paintings and other loot from the palace. Within a few days the entire contents of the Rothschild house was confiscated by the SS including the library, silver, paintings, jewellery and seven illuminated manuscripts. The initial plan was to send the manuscripts to Dresden. The Vienna National Library intervened with a counterclaim and the entire collection of stolen Rothschild illuminated manuscripts was assigned to the National Library. The Rothschild Prayer Book was then classified and numbered by the National Library as codex series number 2844. And that stamp actually appears in the half title page of the book.
Some of the stolen works eventually entered the private collections of Hitler, Goering, Ribbentrop and other Nazi officials and here I want to show a really ... this is a famous veneer painting of the astronomer ... this was in Hitler’s personal collection. A number of works were also sent to ... kept for Hitler’s planned museum of European art in the Austrian city of Lintz. Others were used to decorate Nazi offices and others were basically sold or traded for cash on the European art market. Now the Allied policy after the war called for the restitution of confiscated works to be returned to the governments where their pre-war owners resided for eventual return to the individuals. The majority were eventually returned but untold numbers were never returned. That ... and I ask the question how did Austria deal with the restitution of art and what ... private collections after World War 2? Between 1946 and 49 Austria passed a total of seven restitution acts which dealt with seized assets. The restitution of stolen art was carried out for the most part with the assistance of Allied occupying powers. This was done by the experts of the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program known as the MFFA. The MFFA was formed with the approval of President Roosevelt on the 23rd of June 1943. These experts were to become known as the monuments men. The monuments men were a group of approximately 345 men and women from 13 nations mostly who volunteered for service in the newly created MFFA. Many had expertise as museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects and educators. Their job description was simple, to protect cultural treasures so far as war allowed.
Now I’d like to take you through a series of black and white images just showing you some of the things that they found. But first of all, voila, who went to see the movie? The entire Kerry Stokes art collection did and it wasn’t a very good movie but I think it made people become more aware of what happened. And of course the gorgeous George Clooney in the movie is supposed to represent one of the main people who was very influential in the group of the American monuments men because he was really an innovative conservator who worked at the Fogg Art Museum and he was very concerned about the preservation of works and his name was George Stout. And George Clooney in the movie, his name was ca ... was changed to Frank Stokes. They didn’t use the original name. And this is a group of American monument men. And of course this is the original George Stout that Fred Clooney ... Clooney played in the movie. And here we are with a group of the monument men when they found ... this is the famous again altar piece and they were examining the condition of the altar piece and this is a coloured image of the altar piece. Here we have examples of how works were stored in the salt mines in Austria. The reason why they kept them in the salt mines, because these mines had been used for hundreds of years, there were lots of tunnels going down, it was very safe in case of bombing raids and also the temperature and the humidity was quite stable. Here we have the monuments men looking at the famous Madonna sculpture that was stolen by the Nazis, looking at the storage of paintings in the salt mines in Austria and soldiers waiting in their trucks to take artworks out of the salt mines. In the last years of the war and in the years that followed these men tracked, located and returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.
In 1945 American troops discovered Rothschild collections along with thousands of other works of art in the salt mines near Salzburg in Austria. As was the post war policy the works were later transferred to the Austrian government to be eventually returned to their rightful owners. Then in 1947 Baroness Clarisse von Rothschild, she was the daughter.. No, the widow of Alphonse ... she went back to Vienna with her daughter, Bettina, and brother-in-law Louis. Although the Austrian government agreed to her ownership of the works they refused to grant her export licences to remove them from the country and they evoked a World War 1 cultural property law to forbid her taking them out of the country. The manuscripts were returned to Alphonse’s widow and according to De Hamel it is said that she invited the National Library of Austria to choose one manuscript as a gift in recognition of the fact that the library kept the collection together and safe in Austria. The National Library selected the Rothschild Prayer Book. The other books were sent back to the Rothschild family and she left one manuscript there on indefinite loan. This confirms previous accounts that the Austrian authorities would not prevent export permits for the returned manuscripts in exchange for other books being left in the care of the Library. In order for her to receive export licences for the bulk of the collection Clarisse was forced to donate 250 works to Austria and these were eventually disbursed to a number of museums throughout the country.
Sadly the historical heritage of the Austrian National Library, and here we have an image of the library, is not free from injustice and guilt. The library was an active participant in a grand scale in a systematic robbing in the first place of Jewish citizens but also other victims of the Nazi regime. Despite considerable restitution in the post war year’s major portions of the looted collections remained in the library. Since the Federal law on the restitution of art objects was introduced in 1998 and following careful examination of their holdings the library since 2003 has restored to their original owners 32,927 objects.
In 1998 however Austria made a complete about-face as a direct result of a court case in the United States which was called United States versus Portrait of Wally in which the New York officials seized Egon Scherschel painting on loan to MOMA, Museum of Modern Art, from Vienna’s Leopold Museum after an heir to its pre-war owner claimed it had been looted by the Nazis. The negative publicity surrounding the seizure of this painting was followed by several investigative reports by Austrian journalists revealing the vast number of Nazi-looted works that still remained in Austria. In late 1998 the Austrian parliament passed this Act requiring Austrian national museums to investigate their holdings and return to their rightful owners all works found to be looted or otherwise misappropriated during Nazi rule. The Act carved out an exemption to Austria’s 1918 cultural property law which I referred to earlier on and that was basically withdrawn and so works could be taken out of the country. And then on the heels of this new Austrian legislation Baroness Bettina, who was the daughter of Alphonse, came to Austria and she sought the return of roughly 250 works that her mother was forced to donate to the Austrian government. In February 1999 Austria returned the works housed in at last a dozen different museums to Bettina and her family. In addition to paintings the works included illuminated manuscripts, Persian carpets, antique furniture, silver, porcelain, musical instruments and it goes on and on and on.
In February 1999 the Austrian government announced formally that these works had been stolen by the Nazis and had been returned to the Rothschild family. The Austrian government released the prayer book to Bettina. With many other works of art from the collections of the Viennese Rothschilds the prayer book was sold at auction at Christie’s in London on the 8th of July 1999 and this is the auction catalogue. Lovely to have an image from the Rothschild Prayer Book on the cover. At that auction the Rothschild heirs basically sold more than 200 works that had been recovered bringing in a total of $90m, US dollars. At the time of the Christie’s auction the New York Times reported that the sale was ... jammed Christie’s great hall to overflowing with many members of the other branches of the Rothschild family present and bidding. At this auction virtually every item sold, most far more than their estimated prices. During the auction 10 records were set and among these was the Rothschild Prayer Book. It was reported that five people tried to buy the work but it sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $US13.3m in 1999 whereas the estimate was just 3.3 to 4.9. A huge record.
So people asked the question how did the Rothschild Prayer Book come into the Kerry Stokes collection? And I’m going to do a bit of reminiscing here. It was the week leading put to Christmas in 2013 and myself and the staff in the Kerry Stokes collection of which there are six, were preparing for Christmas and the new year holidays and as is tradition we always get copies of auction catalogues and we received a copy of the Christies’ catalogue through their upcoming renaissance auction which was to be held in New York on the 29th of January. Going through the catalogue I saw the entry for the Rothschild Prayer Book. Here is the cover that Christie’s had in their catalogue and this was one of the images that they had in the catalogue and myself and my staff were just intrigued by the quality of the reprodu ... of the images. Margaret Manion had also written to me about the auction drawing my attention to this particular book which was lot 157. In the office we all looked at the exquisite miniatures reproduced in the catalogue and we agreed this would be a prestigious illuminated manuscript for the collection however when we saw the reserve we thought ah-ah, there’s no way Mr Stokes will go for this. We all secretly hoped.
Prior to 19 ... to 2013 Mr Stokes had already acquired 10 illuminated manuscripts in 2006, one in 2007 and three in 2011. Then in 2013 in association with the New Norcia Museum and Art Gallery in Western Australia we worked with Margaret Manion and Charles Zeeka from the University of Melbourne to develop an exhibition on our small illuminated manuscript collection. The exhibition did very well and we sold out of the catalogue. We like to this ... this is us in the art department ... that this small exhibition rekindled Mr Stokes’ interest in illuminated manuscripts and his purchase of the Rothschild Prayer Book and subsequently additional illuminated manuscripts. Then several weeks after returning to work in the New Year I received an email from Mr Stokes regarding the 29 January auction. For a number of years Mr Stokes has been looking for what he terms as a destination piece for his collection. The Rothschild Prayer Book certainly fell within this category then two days before the auction we knew he was thinking about bidding but nothing was definite and then just one day before the auction we received an email, yes, he’s bidding. The auction commenced at 2pm on Wednesday, the 29th of January in New York and early on the morning of Thursday, the 30th of January Margaret Manion and I received early ... very early morning telephone calls from an excited Mr and Mrs Stokes advising that they had been successful and acquired the Rothschild Prayer Book. I recall coming into the office that morning and announcing the acquisition to the art department staff who were all in disbelief yet excitement ... that such valuable and acknowledged masterpiece of Flemish renaissance was heading for Australia and for Western Australia.
Artists of illuminated manuscripts do not sign their works, there is no ... there is some speculation on who the artists were who created these wonderful miniatures and the four artists to which we can attribute some of these are Gerard Horenbort, Gerard David, Alexander and Simon Benning. Horenbort was also known as the master of James the 4th of Scotland and he worked for wealthy and international clients. He spent his early career in Flanders. I’ll just sort of shorten some of this. Horenbort’s work is characterised by spatial, complex and intellectually sophisticated images. Some of Horenbort’s works can be found in the first sequence of devotion of masses for the days of the week. These liturgical services are some of my personal favourite images in the Prayer Book. They provide a fascinating record of the liturgical practice ... I’ll just show ... you can see some of these images ... and setting and are remarkable examples of Flemish miniatures with their detailed description of the fabrics and vestments and the integration of the figures within architectural space. Each miniature projects a del ... a detailed delicacy which results in an extraordinary sense of realism. This one is one of my favourites because I ... hope you can see ... the gentleman’s wearing glasses, the priest kneeling is wearing glasses. Horenbort along with Simon Benning, another artist we can identify as working on the miniatures are both recognised as the leading Flemish illuminators of the first half of the 1500s.
Simon Benning lived around 1483 to 1561 and specialised in books of hours and he’s also known to have received commissions for painted geological tables and altar pieces on parchment. And this is actually a lovely ... oh that’s a detail, you can see the priest wearing glasses there. This is a self-portrait of Simon Benning. Benning’s art continued in the Flemish tradition of skilfully representing the muted natural lights and also nocturnal scenes. His work also contributed to the new Flemish painting of poetic landscape, vistas and the modelling of flesh and I’ll just show you some of the works ... you can see some of these landscapes in the background. The landscapes in the miniatures are just exquisite and so detail. Okay, that’s another one. His father, Alexander Benning, lived in Genton, Bruges in the early 1400s until his death in 1519. A new Gent Bruges school of manuscript illuminators and scribes was active during the last quarter of the 15th and the first part of the 16th centuries. Their main contribution to illuminated manuscripts was in the handling of borders. The previous style of the border was a 2D rendering of objects on a flat plane. We now see the border decorations treated in a more three-dimensional illusionist way. By using trump loy the role of the border has now changed, it becomes real and the central image is a picture, flowers, vines, insects and berries are manipulated in a way that makes them appear real and this revolutionary technique of trump lay becomes affiliated with the Gent Bruges school. Here we go, some of the vines ... you can see the three-dimensional quality with the shadowing, the beautiful flowers, I know ... and there are some images that have insects in them too and they’re just exquisite.
It has been established that Gerard David, what was one of the artists who also contributed to the Rothschild Prayer Book. He was active in 1485 and died in 1523. David worked in a more refined style with graceful poses and attitudes to his ... in his figures with subtle modelling of their faces. He worked within the tradition of realism founded at the time by van Eyck. He also worked closely with the leading manuscript illuminators of the day and it appears he was oft ... sometimes bought [brought] in to paint important miniatures himself and the one example we have of his work in this prayer book is this magnificent image of the virgin and child on a crescent moon. But before I show you that image this is a panel painting that he did, circa 1510, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Take note with the iconography. And this is his painting in the Rothschild Prayer Book and here we have a detail. It’s the most beautiful rendering of Mary and the Christ child.
The Rothschild Prayer Book was created in a changing world. Europe in the late 1400s and early 1500s saw the foundations of the modern world’s view of today. Overseas exploration was beginning to widen European horizons cultivating a spirit of discovery. Columbus had founded America in 1492, in 1498 Vasco de Gama reached India and in 1510 Goa became the centre of the Portuguese empire in Southeast Asia bringing in new goods and spices. Leonardo de Vinci had completed The Last Supper and in 1503 he was commissioned to paint The Mona Lisa. Copernicus explained the solar system in 1507. Republicanism and revolutionary ideas were slowly germinating yet some of Europe’s most powerful and restrained monarchs were active during this period. We have Henry the 8th, Habsburg’s Charles the 5th in Austria and elsewhere we have Akbar the Great in India and the Ming Emperor Wung Li in China.
In Europe these changes were initially encouraged by some monarchs and church leaders until they found that renaissance ideas questioned and threatened their positions. Their eventual opposition did not suppress the driving flurry of new renaissance ideas; it sharpened them and made them more urgent. What was considered once a heresy was now becoming a mainstream normality. By the end of the 1400s printing technology was rapidly spreading throughout the world making access to books cost-effective. Guttenberg is credited with being the first European to use moveable type printing around 1493. His wooden printing press allowed for the mass production of books using moveable type and oil-based ink. For Germany in the 1450s printing spread quickly through Europe but Guttenberg fuelled what had already begun, a sizeable expansion of handwritten and manuscript books produced, sold and owned together with a growth in literacy.
By the end of the 15th century with the rise of the printed book the craft of manuscript illumination was becoming increasingly specialised and rare. And because of the costs and time it took to produce these they were primarily confined as luxury items for the wealthiest class of patrons. We have seen how this exquisite example of manuscript illumination survived a changing world and finally war. At the same time we can celebrate the fact this manuscript has survived and we are able to step back into another world when we pause to study these detailed and delicate miniatures. We must also stop to reflect how many other magnificent manuscripts and works of art did not survive and we as citizens of a global community all have an obligation to protect our cultural heritage so that future generations can enjoy what we today enjoy when we stand there and view something as magnificent as the Rothschild Prayer Book.
I would like to conclude with a quote which I hope ... I thought I had left it at home for a minute, the last page ... will reflect on wh .. you will reflect on when you leave here this evening. In 1995 Lynn Nicholas published which is considered the ground-breaking book called the Rape of Europa, the Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. And she ... I’m reading from her book now, she says it has been 60 years since the Nazi whirlwind took hold sweeping the lives of millions before it. Never had works of art been so important to a political movement and never had they moved about on such a vast scale, pawns in a cynical and desperate game of ideology, greed and survival. Many were lost and many are still hiding. Thank you very much for your time. Thank you.
Margaret Manion: Thank you, is that better? Yeah, thank you very much, Brendan. Thank you for the very warm introduction and thank you, Erica, for such a wonderful account of art and life. Erica has impressively demonstrated why this splendid manuscript recently acquired by Kerry Stokes will justifiably continue to be called after its first known of a member of the Rothschild family. They were great collectors of many branches of art including illuminated manuscripts. And it has also been observed that this work has been called in most catalogues and exhibitions a prayer book which accurately refers to its textual content. At the same time however it is a striking example of a particular kind of prayer book, namely the book of hours. Its splendid and abundant pages in excellent condition are expressive of this genre at its height and indeed in several ways it can be said to surpass it. Certainly appearing at the same time as the printed book it demonstrates a destiny to supersede the handwritten illuminated manuscript and there is reason to wonder at this book’s place in the history and nature of its future in a world and a culture so different from that in which it was produced. It seems to be one of those objects that can survive and now will survive at the other end of the world from which it was created. That’s the way its collector and present owner sees it.
Now my objective this evening is very briefly to speak about this manuscript as a book of hours, a genre which no longer exists in its original form but which still speaks movingly to us today. At the same time I wish at least to suggest that this book transcends any particular genre and that Australia is indeed fortunate to have access to such a treasure. Now the book of hours derives from a monastic tradition according to which members of religious communities were required to recite or sing prayers in praise of God at certain hours of the day. Matins or Morning Prayer might begin around midnight. Lauds, which consisted mainly of songs of praise, hence the word lords followed straight after then during the day came the four short or little hours of prayer, prime, terce, sext and none called after the Roman division of the day into the first, third, sixth and night watch. In the evening there were vespers which survives in our evensong and finally the short hour of compline which signifies the completion of the day and the trustful commitment of the night to one’s creator. This public formal worship of God goes back to the early days of the church and indeed beyond it because it is based on the psalms, the 150 songs of praise that are threaded through the books of the Bible and are part of Jewish tradition. In the Christian churches’ tradition the mass or Eucharist which commemorates Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is also related to the divine office or celebration of the psalms and the mass in those days was usually recited in the morning.
In the early Middle Ages the laity, that is Christians who were not monastic, not clerical or religious, would recite the psalms and very beautiful illuminated books of the psalms called psalters were produced for that purpose and many survive today. But in the late 13th century a new development took place in the prayer practices of lay people. In this they were probably guided by missionary spirited priests or brothers especially those from the new religious orders of the friars such as Franciscans and Dominicans who were much more mobile. The name of this prayer book, the hours or the book of hours, may be traced to the fact that while there was a considerable variety of prayers in such manuals the most popular of them were shorter versions of particular offices or services taken from the divine office or formal liturgy of the church so that people at large might share in the formal prayer of the church. The most sought after of these prayers was the little office or hours of the virgin and that is what gave the book its name. Other popular prayers or offices were those in honour of the passion and cross of Christ and the hours of the Holy Spirit and I’ve just put there a list of the prayers or offices that you would often find in a book of hours. The interesting thing of course about such books is that there’s not one that is identical with another, they are all different and they all reflect either the interests of the individual owner or the customs of the people who made them.
But here we have the basic contents of a book of hours and our book, our very splendid book of hours, relates quite closely to that list and I’ll briefly illustrate that. First of all there’s a calendar and the calendar’s very important in church prayer because one is tracing through time every year with feasts such as the seasonal feasts of Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. There is a rhythm about the Christians’ way of living and the calendar reflects that. I think it’s also fascinating to realise particularly in this example that there is a second cycle going around at the same time and it’s far more individual, it is the saints. You all have your birthdays and some of you will have your saints’ days and that is part of this tradition. There’s a splendid catalogue, calendar in the Rothschild Prayer Book and you see a page there from January. I’ll just point out some of the elements. One of them is the ... we’re going a bit dashed off there but one of them is the ... the page where the saints’ feasts or the temporal seasonal feasts are written in either black now faded to brown ink or red ink and the red ink are the red letter days which we still use. And the important saints for that diocese or that part of the Christian community are picked out in these medallions at the side. And below we have the activities for each month.
Now that was an ancient tradition in the earlier books too so here for example in January one of the activities is feasting, was cold and they depict feasting, a woman is setting the table and behind her the ... presumably the head of the house is warming himself at a fire. That goes on in January or February and somebody is daring to go outside. Twelve beautiful pictures of that kind. May is one in which the figures below engage in music-making and sometimes lovemaking. There they are. The difference in this calendar from earlier books of hours ... remember we’ve got them from a couple of hundred years ... is that often these activities are very schematised and they’re really almost diagrammatic but these have a sense of the actual activities of the people around. The next element that we find in a book of hours often in this order but not always is a section from the four gospels written by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John so that the owner of the book had actually in their possession the story of the life of Christ and it was divided up into sections that these evangelists could span.
Now this is St Luke and one of the interesting things about St Luke is that there was a legend or a story that he was a painter as well as a writer and that many of the early icons or early images of Mary are attached to his name. And if you look here he’s sitting next to his traditional symbol which is the ox and he was almost sitting on the ox but beside him you actually have an easel with a tiny little painting beautifully delineated if you get your magnifying glass to it and it’s of Mary clad in blue with the baby so it’s Luke in his study writing dutifully and inspirationally the gospel but at the same time shown as a painter. And look at the border in which you have the words, first words of Luke’s gospel. There he is and there you can just see the little blue I think figure on the easel.
Now the most important part of a book of hours was the hours of the virgin, the little office. That’s where often the most beautiful colours are used and distinctions made and the hours I’ve explained to you, there was a pretty strong tradition of accompanying each of those hours with a scene that included both Mary as the mother of Christ and therefore the infancy cycle with what happens to her and to Christ in his youth. And then it finishes with a scene in honour of Mary at the end of her life, either her death at compline or advent of the hours of the coronation. Now I’ll just show you a couple of those, how they work. Here is matins which is the most lengthy and important hour and Mary is shown at the annunciation with the angel visiting her and telling her the good news. And here’s a detail in which you see the wonderful artistry and I think the amazing quality of survival. It looks as if these works were done yesterday or perhaps today.
Visita ... lords, you see Mary on her way to meet Elizabeth, her cousin who has also conceived and they’re meeting. I’ll come back and mention that in another context. Prime is Christmas, nativity and you have the birth of Christ. Don’t miss the little subscenes, favourites of this time and on the left you have Joseph and Mary being turned away from the inn. Bit of a detail there and you can see the other scenes that have broken through the frame of the border. The annunciation to the shepherds and I love the woman in the front with that hat, she looks ... she doesn’t look so you know removed from it, really, and they do have shepherdesses as well as shepherds which really reflects the period in which these books are done rather than being historically accurate. The contrast from the country shepherds to the adoration of the magi and then the presentation in the temple. I just have to give you a run-through to see the sequence.
The flight into Egypt and she’s all wrapped up with that hat and scarf too and the donkey has his ears pricked up to the dangers on the way. Vespers shows the ... no, vespers was the flight into Egypt. Compline, compline, the end, shows the death of the virgin. It’s very anachronistic because she’s actually receiving the last rites from St Peter in a very Christian-type deathbed scene and she holds a blessed candle. What is nice is that they have a variation of the hours of the virgin in this particular text at ... during advent leading up to Christmas and they decorate that scene with the coronation of the virgin, she goes through death like everybody else but then she rises with her son. And you’ve got these wonderful little figures that are praying down the bottom of the image of the miniature and they have these great I suppose tapers you call them which are these lights of the one in the centre who’s reading an ancient scroll from its light and there’s another one accompanying the candle on the right. The treatment of space that Erica has mentioned is also quite remarkable very sophisticated at this time. You’ve broken through the borders and almost the frame floats in a common space shared by the people praying below.
What do you do after the hours of the virgin? Well we have the seven penitential psalms, psalms that were recognised in the very early Christian church as having a theme of repentance and sorrow for sin and the faithful were encouraged to say those prayers at certain times particularly for example during lent which was a penitential time or for ... on other occasions. And the way in which that is illustrated often is by an image of David, the gen ... the attributed author of the psalms but he couldn’t have made up all of the psalms ‘cause they go through centuries but he probably was the author of some of the songs, beautiful songs of the psalter. And here we have a very moving image of his looking up to God in the heavens who’s threatening him with all sorts of things because of his wickedness and wicked indeed he was and yet becomes the ancestor of Christ. And look at his curls; I love the curls coming down the back of his neck. And his little hat. We’ve already seen an image of this burial scene, it fits in here, it is the office of the dead and the medievalist was very concerned about their family dead, they prayed for them regularly and they have very solemn and very elaborate burials and funerals but what is imaginative are the decorative elements of the skulls around the text. And that’s just a detail showing you the almost I think melee and mix and confusion going on in the actual active burial.
Now Erica mentioned the weekly masses and hours and they’re interesting because they’re rather exceptional to the typical type of book of hours. Instead of having a short office of the holy spirit and a short office of the cross they have offices for every day of the week, the cross, the trinity, the eucharist on a Thursday. Each of those days was in some way like the calendar itself dedicated to a mystery of Christ’s coming and living amongst his people. And for example Friday was a day commemorating his death on the cross. And so they had something in a way new to illustrate because it wasn’t just one image representing a story of the holy spirit or of the cross and what they did was choose to focus on parts of the mass, not merely relevant to whatever mystery they were looking at but rather this is the prayers of the foot of the altar. However, you see this blue oval over on the left? It actually refers to the mystery for that particular day which is the Holy Spirit and then you’ve got another one here. There’s a preparation of the thurible and you’ve got the other genuine sort of mystery or feast in the blue above.
And there’s a detail with the actual loading up the thurible to use as the censer. And the office of the hour of the cross and these lovely red vestments and as Erica pointed out a pancine type of spectacles on the figure on the left. And here for Friday the crucifixion, that the office going with the hour. Now I haven’t got many minutes but the suffrages is the name really for prayers in honour of the saints and just like I said with that calendar this book has 36 or 37 images of the saints and it could go on, their people were special, they looked towards the saints to help them and here ... that was St John, the evangelist. Here is St Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata with this great exultation expressed in peacock feathers which were a symbol; the peacock was a symbol of eternity. So the teaching comes in and the images relieve the text. You might say well how did they understand the text? It was in Latin, what languages were they actually speaking and reading? Well I think it was a mix but there was a lot of Latin when they went to church on Sunday, when they looked at these books and they knew enough, they knew enough to know what was about, you didn’t have to understand a language in the way we do and the images helped. I’m minded of a poem of Browning’s who talks about the bishop orders his tomb and he’s thinking of a renaissance bishop, very self-centredly, going to have a beautiful tomb in say like a Florentine church and he says I will lie in state during the ages and here’s the phrase, and hear the blessed mutter of the mass. And you know he’s caught something of that element of their prayer which was in a foreign language still but softened and sanctioned around the edges.
And as many women here I think as men I’m pleased to report are in the saintly brigade but I just picked out a couple to show you here. St Catherine, they often have their attribute of martyrdom where she was beheaded so you’ve got this spear or sword, rather, and many, many of them are reading or have a book in their hands. And I think that’s another symbol or communication of contemplation, thinking, praying. And here’s our figure that’s on the front cover of the book just published and this is an old testament saint, St Susanna, and in the bush behind are the wicked men who accused her of fornication because she wouldn’t cooperate with them and it’s a story from the book of Daniel and Daniel is one of the wise people like Solomon of the old testament. He gets these two accusers and he interviews them privately, one by one and he says to each under what tree did you see this all happening? And of course they can’t come down on the right trees and I can’t remember but one is you know one says an oak and the other says an elm or something like that so Daniel has them and punishes them.
But here is our lovely Susanna getting ready to go into a bath and all she’s done at the moment is taken off her shoes. Here’s St Clare, the contemporary of St Francis of Assisi and here is a co ... they also have these beautiful dignified images threaded through with miracle stories and legends and here’s St Anthony of Padua who was very popular with the animals and this is the story of the miracle of the ass and if you look hard you will see that the ass is kneeling down and worshipping a plate of communion wafers, of the body of Christ. And the story is that he was offered a very hearty meal of chaff and he refused it. And knelt down and worshipped the Eucharist. And St Anthony’s here with his tonsure approving and praying with him. And this is quite a favourite of mine, this is St Margaret. And the story about St Margaret is that she was swallowed by a dragon, a very fierce-looking one there and she was I suppose circumspect enough to have a cross when she entered the dragon and she tickled his throat and he brought her forth again. I have to tell you she is the patron of childbirth. So there we go.
Couple of very beautiful special prayers to the virgin, this one is by St Bernard, great founder or developer of the Cistercian order, reformed Benedictines and his prayer was show yourself a mother which is down the bottom and the virgin is actually feeding the Christ child. Sometimes in cruder versions of this she’s actually expressing milk to Bernard. But here it’s very tasteful and here is the lovely image referred to by David, panel painter, and it’s illustrating the seven joys of the virgin which was another prayer in her honour. But not found regularly or as regularly as those other basic elements. There it details, so delicate. Mr Stokes loved this stradway and one of the ... I think which is mentioned but one of the interviewers of him, the press said are you religious? And he said no but I revere this book and look at this image of mother and child. And it has got a quality of otherness about it.
I’ll just draw this to conclusion by commenting on the various ways you can look at this wonderful book and can read the tradition behind in the painting and in the subject matter; the borders for example show I think great collaboration on the part of the producers of the book. It was a time when they had arrived at a great expertise and they had great workshops in places such as Gent and Bruges. You’ll hear people saying this was done in Bruges and you’ll hear other people saying it was done in Gent. At the moment I think the evidence is Gent but people like Gerard David lived in Bruges and they probably ... they could have even produced the pages or the leaves that were inserted in the book from another district. There was a great deal of collaboration and integration. You see it in the borders, wonderful flower borders and if any of you are interested in flowers and herb you can identify a lot of the actual flowers that are rendered here. This is St James of Compostela and he’s a patron of pilgrimage and the ... on the route, the Camino across the top of Spain and if you look you’ll find that the jewels and the beads on the right are counted on the left with shells, pilgrim shells, he’s got one on his hood and others in that scene. You have sculptured surrounds which we passed by and of course St George and the dragon is there on the right. You can find out by just carefully reading just even the top line of the red rubric here, it says St Georgio. So you can find what things are and here finally is the figure of Mary and her cousin meeting and I draw your attention to the wonderful landscape that is presented with ... you’ve got swans on the left sailing in the water, you’ve got the hills representing the journey from which Mary has come to visit Elizabeth in that place and this really is concentrating as much on the landscape as on their meeting and I have to stop there. Thank you.