The Rothschild Prayerbook

KERRY STOKES RECENTLY made worldwide headlines with the purchase of the world’s most expensive book, the Rothschild Prayerbook. This is an important cultural artefact, the Flemish illuminated manuscript ‘book of hours’, which was illustrated over the period c. 1500–20 by a number of important artists from that era.


Most believed that the legendary Rothschild Prayerbook – sold at Christie’s in early 2014 – had been snapped up by a European collector, but it was secretly bought by Mr Stokes and shipped to Perth. It’s great to see such an important cultural artefact like this to be housed in Australia and hopefully this will spur other generous philanthropists to follow suit with such inspiring and visionary artistic initiatives as this one. “I feel a great responsibility,” Mr Stokes said, describing the book as the most important piece in his private art collection.

The 500-year-old book of prayers is the most expensive illuminated manuscript in history and is considered one of the most important books in existence.

These types of manuscripts were created in monasteries and used by priests and monks for liturgical purposes. From an established edition a scribe would copy the text and then artists would embellish it with illustrations, ornaments and decorated initials in the margins. They were often commissioned by people of means such as emperors and princes, and in the 13th and 14th Centuries private persons bought and used ‘books of hours’, which contained prayers to be recited throughout the day. The new National Gallery of Australia director Gerard Vaughan says it is possibly the most important piece of art to come to Australia. The book, considered to be a renaissance masterpiece, has been hidden or locked away for much of its five centuries, which included time in the possession of the Rothschild dynasty from whom it was stolen by the Nazis.

Mr Stokes said he planned to put the book on show and believes it would become a “destination piece”. “Hopefully this book is one of the reasons in the future people will come to Australia,” he said recently. “They will come to us and see the various offerings that we have culturally and commercially. But we will have something else to offer that nobody else has and that’s the Rothschild Prayerbook.”

Although Perth will be its permanent home, the Rothschild Prayerbook will be lent in 2015 to the National Library in Canberra, followed by the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne.

Inside these hallowed pages are works by several leading miniaturists from the Ghent-Bruges school of Flemish illumination, an area that was known for the development and advancement of painting in the Middle Ages. Most of the 67 large miniatures are by the “Master of the First Prayerbook of Maximilian”, an older artist, and Gerard Horenbout. Other miniatures are by Gerard David, better known as a panel painter, two miniatures by Simon Bening, and other work is by further masters.

There are wide borders; many with flowers and other objects. Borders frame the miniatures with illusionistic painted wooden tracery. Some pages follow the fashion of showing one scene as a framed inset within another larger one. In total 140 pages, over half of the whole book, have significant decoration outside the text.

The early history of the book is obscure, and the original owner is unknown, though he or she would clearly have been an incredibly wealthy person. The manuscript belonged to the princely Wittelsbach family in the 16th Century, and then to the library of the Counts Palatine in Heidelberg, leaving that collection before 1623. Its history is then unknown until it reappeared in the collection of the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family in the late 19th Century.

It was later confiscated from Louis Nathaniel von Rothschild immediately after the March 1938 German annexation of Austria. After the end of World War II, the new Austrian government used legislation forbidding the export of culturally significant works of art in part to pressure the Rothschilds into “donating” a large number of works to Austrian museums, including the prayerbook, which went to the National Library. The government of Austria returned the book and other works of art to the Rothschild family in 1999.

Kerry Stokes is interested in illustrated manuscripts because he sees them as amongst the earliest of art forms. They are treasured as works of art and as symbols of enduring knowledge. An avid art collector, he speaks of his passion for the works: “Illuminated manuscripts in most of their forms are an artistic and religious interpretation of their time. They are amongst the earliest art forms and by their very nature are an intricate fingerprint of a culture of their time. These handmade books can be seen as a portal to a lost world, a combination of art and religion that reflects our history.”

“For me, the most important and enduring quality they share is the creation of splendid illustrations and ornamental decoration. Each and every one of them was individually and personally crafted, and in some cases we are able to recognise the workmanship of the scribe and artist.

For further information on illuminated manuscripts:
Celebrating Word and Image 1250–1600: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Kerry Stokes Collection, New Norcia Museum and Art Gallery



Image 1: Gerard David, Virgin and Child on a Crescent Moon, f.197v.
All images: The Rothschild Prayerbook, Book of Hours, use of Rome, in Latin, Illuminated Manuscript on Vellum, Ghent or Bruges, c.1505-1510, 23 x 16cm, 252 leaves
Courtesy the Kerry Stokes Collection

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  1. By The Rothschild Prayer Book | Dottie Tales on June 23, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    […] information is based on ‘The Rothschild Prayerbook’, Artist Profile (14 Nov. 2014). URL: [accessed 3 June 2015] and ‘The Rothschild Prayerbook, a Book of Hours, Use of Rome, in Latin, […]

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