An Illumination: The Rothschild Prayer Book

This weekend our sub-editors Shannon, Danielle and Aisling had the privilege of attending a breakfast as a part of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, before going to a lecture focusing on The Rothschild Prayer Book. 

When we arrived at the venue (Cumulus Up on Flinders Lane), we were greeted by a beautifully lit café and someone who automatically asked us if he could get us each a coffee. The coffee was free, guys!! We definitely made the most of that and it’s safe to say all three of us had a tricky time sitting still during the lecture.

Photo: Shannon
Photo: Shannon

We also had the pleasure of meeting Philip Kent, who is the University Librarian and very kindly gave us the opportunity to attend the breakfast and lecture. He was very keen to tell us how much he loves Unimelb Adventures!

Once we sat down, we spent a few minutes deciding which menu item was the most appealing until we realised we were getting everything – we could hardly contain our excitement. First we enjoyed an orange, date and pomegranate salad, followed by crumpets with whipped ricotta and honey, compté and braised green toasted sandwiches and smoked bacon in bread. Everything was delicious and we certainly didn’t hold back from making the most of it. 

Photo: Shannon

After we’d finished eating, we headed downstairs to attend the lecture. The lecture was moderated by former journalist and politician Maxine McKew, with Dr Kate Challis and Bronwyn Stocks discussing the manuscript. We heard about the painstaking work involved in creating the Rothschild Prayer Book in the 16th century and the meanings of the various images, as well as the experiences of the women researching in the libraries and archives of Europe.

Likely made for someone with the status of a wealthy merchant or someone from the royal family, we learnt that the manuscript would have taken up to a year to create and many would have been involved in its production. At this time, the printing press was relatively new and would be used to create more generic prayer books for the masses. Even the decorative borders were elaborate, with depictions of flowers, skulls and even flies. While it would have been used to say prayers at regular hours, images carried significant personal meaning and often contained references to secular, daily life.

The Prayer Book belonged to the Rothschild Family art collection for hundreds of years, before being seized by Hitler after Austria was invaded in 1938. It was only in 1999 that the book was returned to the family, and was bought last year by Kerry Stokes for $15.5 million, who has now loaned it to the Illumination Exhibition.

Photo: Danielle
Photo: Danielle

If you would like to get a glimpse of the Rothschild Prayer Book as it makes it Australian debut, you can head down to The Ian Potter Museum of Art, located next to the Potter Café on campus (coffee and culture?!). The entire An Illumination collection including the Rothschild Prayer Book from the Kerry Stokes Collection will be on display until Sunday November 15th.

Even if an exhibition like this has no relevance to what you are studying or your general interests, it is definitely insightful taking a glimpse into someone else’s world. Saturday’s panel of speakers made this clear as they explained their love of art, history and the quest to try and preserve what we have left over from previous generations.

Along with the Rothschild Prayer Book, An Illumination contains 40 other manuscripts and decorated books, pamphlets, a variety of other printed documents and a selection of paintings and sculptures (portraits, panels, crafted furniture and stained-glass pieces). Accompanying the exhibition, The University of Melbourne is offering a series of free public lectures and discussions open to all. For a full list of these upcoming events and to book your spot, you can visit:

– Aisling, Danielle and Shannon

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