Christianity and art have long between intertwined and this week a new exhibition has opened in Melbourne celebrating that connection.

Centred on the 500-year-old Rothschild Prayer Book, the exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art features more than 60 works from medieval and Renaissance Europe, all of which form part of the collection of Australian businessman, Kerry Stokes.

A WINDOW INTO ANOTHER AGE: Top - St Helen; Middle - Burial in a Flemish churchyard, Office of the Dead; Bottom - King David in Penitence, Penitential Psalms. All images from the Rothschild Prayer Book PICTURES: Kerry Stokes Collection

THE ROTHSCHILD PRAYER BOOK

Created in around 1505 by Flemish artists possibly based in Ghent and perhaps Bruges, it isn’t known whether the book, described as a ‘Book of Hours’, was made for a specific individual or for the market more generally.

While it’s unknown when it was acquired by the wealthy European Jewish Rothschild banking family it first appeared as part of their collection of art and antiquities in the 19th century.

In 1938, Adolf Hitler, following the annexation of Austria, seized the Rothchild's collection of art, including the prayer book, from Vienna. 

Hitler subsequently agreed that a certain number of illuminated manuscripts, including the prayer book, could be cared for by the Austria's national library in Vienna and so that’s where it remained until eventually the books were returned to the family by the Austrian Government in 1999.

The family sold the book, along with a number of other works of art, only a few months after its return and it passed into the hands of a private collector until it reappeared in January, 2014, when Mr Stokes purchased it.

Mr Stokes purchased the illuminated prayer book – which was produced in about 1505 by unknown Flemish artists - for a figure believed to be around $15.5 million, although it was some months before his identity as buyer was revealed. This is only the second time the book – which is the only one of its kind in private hands - has been on public display in Australia since its purchase.

Margaret Manion, medieval and Renaissance art historian and professor emeritus at the University of Melbourne, says the manuscript – which contains 67 full page miniature paintings -  is a “very beautiful piece of work of art” that, despite being made more than 500 years ago, “looks as though it was done yesterday”.

“It was produced in the Netherlands, probably in Ghent, where they had very successful, flourishing workshops...” says Professor Manion.

While such books were usually commissioned by wealthy and noble patrons, the Rothschild Prayer Book gives no indication of who may have done so and there is a suggestion, supported by the book’s almost pristine condition, that it may have been produced “on spec” to show the quality of the artist’s work rather than for a specific buyer.

“We don’t know anything about who ordered this book, we don’t even know whether they may have made it just for the market at this time,” says Professor Manion. “We do know something by comparing the works of art here about the artists and what other books they were involved with.”

These include books currently in the collections of the British Library in London and the Getty Museum in New York. “The one that is now in the hands of Australian collector Kerry Stokes is of the very finest quality – top notch of all the ones that, really, still exist," notes Professor Manion.

While the book was contemporary with the advent of early mass printing methods, it was completely produced by hand. Designed for private use, it features a series of traditional prayers written in Latin and accompanied by fine paintings and borders - with the latter featuring both religious and secular themes in what Professor Manion calls the “visual, decorative language of the day”. 

“(It’s) by no means all religious,” she adds, noting that of one of the pages, for example, features someone trying to catch birds while playing a mouth organ. “So there’s all sorts of things going on in their prayer book. I think we have to register that it was a different kind of religious context.”

Among the other works featured in the exhibition, which spans the period from about 1280 to about 1685 and is spread over three rooms, is Pieter Breughel the Younger’s painting Calvary, which dates from 1615.  As well as other paintings, there are also further religious and secular texts and examples of stained glass, statuary and furnishings.

Kelly Gellatly, director of the museum, says the museum is “delighted” to be able to share such a unique selection of medieval and Renaissance art works with the public for the first time. 

While she describes the prayer book as a “jewel-like object of extraordinary beauty” she says that it’s the human scale of the book – “the fact that it is an object that was made to be used” which forms part of its appeal.

“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.”

An Illumination: the Rothschild Prayer Book  & other works from the Kerry Stokes Collection c1280-1685 runs at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne until 15th November. Entry is free. A series of public lectures and floor talks accompanies the exhibition. For more, see  www.unimelb.edu.au/illumination.