The Rothschild Prayer Book

The Rothschild Prayer Book –

on display in Canberra

Recently I had to attend a meeting in Canberra. I decided that if I have to travel all the way to the Nation’s Capital, I might just as well combine the duty with a bit of pleasure. Don’t get me wrong though, I really do like Canberra!

So on a nice crisp winter morning, I set off for the pleasure part of my trip. My first stop was the National Library of Australia, where at present the Rothschild Prayer Book is on display (22 May to 9 August 2015). [1]

The Rothschild Prayer Book

The National Library of Australia, Canberra

The manuscript is a book of hours [2], made c. 1500–20. There are many gaps in the history of the book. In the book there are no hints as to its original owner, though he or she must have been very wealthy, as at that time cheaper print books of hours were available. It has been suggested that it was made for a member of the imperial court in the Netherlands. Then in the later 16th century it belonged to the Wittelsbach family, who ruled in various German states. It ceases to be recorded in their collection in 1623. It next appears in the later 19th century, when it belonged to Anselm von Rothschild (1803-1874) in Vienna.

From then on it stayed in the family until 1938. After Austria was annexed by the Nazis, it was confiscated as part of an extensive art collection. It was first stored, like many other confiscated works of art, in a disused salt mine. However, in 1942 it was placed in the Austrian National Library. The short film shown at the National Library in Canberra suggests that Adolf Hitler wanted it in the library in his home country in order to keep it out of the acquisitive hands of some of the other top Nazis like Hermann Göring.

After the war, the new Austrian government refused to return confiscated art to the families to whom the pieces originally belonged. They even passed a law forbidding the export of culturally significant works of art. This ban was lifted 1999 and the works were restituted to the Rothschild family and then sold at auction at Christie’s in London. In early 2014, it came up for sale again, this time at Christie’s in New York. It was bought by Australian businessman Kerry Stokes for Aus $15.5 million. [3] The Rothschild Prayer Book will be normally in Perth, so to have an opportunity to see it considerably closer to home was wonderful.

The Rothschild Prayer Book

Calendar pages of the Rothschild Prayer Book

The Rothschild Prayer Book is written in Latin on vellum. In the beginning, there are twelve calendar pages with borders and miniatures reflecting the occupations of the month. There are 67 full-page miniatures with surrounding borders, also on the pages opposite. 140 pages, more than half of the whole book, have significant decoration outside the text.

While the large pictures depict saints and stories from the Bible, there are also many delightful scenes from everyday life in a Dutch village of the time. These are framed by flowers, birds, insects and even jewels of the time in stunning borders of gold.

The Rothschild Prayer Book

Village scene

The miniatures were painted by various artists from the Ghent-Bruges school of Flemish illumination. Some of the artists could be identified. The majority is attributed to the ‘Master of the First Prayerbook of Maximilian’. His real name is not certain, it has been suggested that he was Alexander Bening (died in 1519). He is famous for his work in the earliest of the devotional manuscripts made for Maximilian, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1459-1519).

Another major contributor was Gerard Horenbout, who worked for James IV of Scotland and Margaret of Austria. Other artists have been identified as Gerard David and Simon Bening (c.1483-1561), the son of Alexander. [4] There are also illustrations of which the artist has not yet been identified.

The Rothschild Prayer book is displayed in the Treasures Gallery in the National Library in a specially made glass case as part of an exhibition including more than 20 of the National Library’s own rare medieval and Renaissance treasures.

The Rothschild Prayer Book

This was my favourite miniature

While it is stunning to see the book and the other items in the dimmed light of the exhibition, visitors are not allowed to take photographs. However, a special treat awaits the visitor upstairs in a far more practical environment. Here you can see a facsimile of the Prayer Book, page through it (after putting on gloves) and take photographs.

We can only wish that a similar option could be made available of the Book of Hours of Richard III. Wherever you might see it, whether at its home at Lambeth Palace Library or somewhere else, photography is not permitted. And you can only see the one page, which the exhibitors decide to show. However, handling a book and seeing it in its entirety is a completely different, much more immediate experience.

Some of the pictures are available in high resolution from the Media Kit section of the National Library at



1. The background information is based on ‘The Rothschild Prayerbook’, Artist Profile (14 Nov. 2014). URL: [last accessed 3 June 2015] and ‘The Rothschild Prayerbook, a Book of Hours, Use of Rome, in Latin, Illuminated Manuscript on Vellum’, Christie’s. URL: [last accessed 21 June 2015]

2. Not to be confused with the so-called ‘London Rothschild Hours’ held by the British Library.

3. ‘Rothschild Prayer Book, worth $15.5m, goes on show at National Library in Canberra’, ABC (21 May 2015). URL: [last accessed 3 June 2015]

4. More information on these artists: ‘Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian’, The J Paul Getty Museum. URL: [last accessed 21 June 2015]; ‘Gerard Horenbout’, The J Paul Getty Museum. URL: [last accessed 21 June 2015]; Meagher, J., ‘Gerard David (born about 1455, died 1523)’, in: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, available online (June 2009) from URL: [last accessed 21 June 2015] and ‘Simon Bening’, The J. Paul Getty Museum. URL: [last accessed 21 June 2015]

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