The Rothschild Prayer Book is a beautiful thing. Now on display in the National Library of Australia’s Treasures Gallery on loan from its ‘current’ – you never know with things like this - owner Kerry Stokes who stunned the art world and probably himself acquiring it for the sumptuous sum of $15.5 million. And that he has allowed it to be displayed is to be commended, because I don’t think he bought it to have on his bedside table for a little Latin prayer before sleep, but instead to add to his formidable private collection of things you and I can only covet.
A treasure it is; a finely crafted prayer book on animal skin parchment with clear colours and detail, Latin text and perfect gold detailing on the clasps with just a hint of fading on the blue velvet edges that for whomever it was created must have been a gift of the finest craftsmanship of the time. But we don’t know its provenance, so the secrets of this little book will remain forever a mystery unless hidden in a vault somewhere the history is secreted to be discovered one day. But that’s the stuff of movies.
Launching the exhibition for the media before the official opening Ryan Stokes in his capacity as Chairman of the NLA Council was happy to explain as much of the detail as is known but for we who love the touch and feel of books, admire the exquisite paintings and would love maybe just a sniff he was not to be swayed.
In more recent times the prayer book was in the hands of the Nazis, purportedly kept in a salt mine and was the subject of a contretemps between Austria and the Rothschilds. Its spent most of its life hidden away which was probably a good thing considering it was created somewhere about 1505-1510, and is now safe and secure in a bullet proof glass case propped on a velvet cushion fitting for a $15.5 million acquisition. Pages of the book have been digitally collated to display in the exhibition and are as close as you’ll get to the book.
So when it goes back to Perth at the end of the exhibition I do wonder where it will be stored. The Prayer Book whatever name it has tagged to it, should be on permanent display. The Rothschilds, the Nazis and the Austrian government were able to hide it away, it shouldn’t happen ever again.