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The Older Prayer Book of Emperor Charles V
76 miniatures from the Gent-Bruges School
Vienna, Austrian National Library, Cod. Vindob. 1859, 1516-19

CODICES SELECTI, Vol. LVII

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Further Pictures

 

As king of Spain but before his coronation as emperor, in the years from 1516 to 1519, young Charles was given a prayer book that he was to use with great zeal, judging by the wear and tear still visible today. Because of its outstandingly beautiful decoration, this prayer book seems to be well worthy of a sovereign who was to become the famous emperor in whose realm the sun never set.
The artistic decoration is based on 76 miniatures whose format is essentially defined by the frame and further enriched with graphical ornament, colourful initials dispersed throughout the text, as well as line endings on the painted pages matching the colour of the frames. The 24 calendar pages introducing the text are decorated throughout with initials, ornamental borders and alternating red and black script, all constituting elaborate works of art in their own right, even without figural decoration.
The artist, however, avoided opulent splendour which might have prevented the devout from concentrating on the contents of the book. On the contrary, the ascetic simplicity of the frames further enhances the organic unity of text and decoration, making the book not only a precious showpiece but also an object of devotion much used by the young king and later emperor.

The decorative apparatus

Although the prayer book is in line with the well established tradition of the livres d’heures, its individual layout and decorative concept still differ from other numerous examples of this genre. It belongs to the last generation of this type of books which flourished up to the second decade of the 16th century, but start declining in the third. Rather than representing a transitional phase, it marks the finale of a great tradition.
The invaluable miniatures are the work of an anonymous master. An important feature are the delicate colours whose beauty defines the artistic effect of this book, lending the landscapes in the background a soft, vaporous tone, and skimming the details. While the artist masters landscape perspectives with great perfection, the architectural elements in the foreground remain rather simple and plain. The painter particularly enjoys representing fashion details, especially of female clothing.
The Elder Prayer Book of Charles V has opted for simple but effectful framing, without exaggerating pomp. Moreover, the initials deserve particular mention as ornamental elements. They are the work of one master who created them in close co-operation with the scribe and the miniaturist. He also made the numerous line endings with delicate multi-colour ornamental bands conferring a joyful, colourful aspect especially to the pages of the Calendar.

A priceless jewel for pious devotion

The book is written in Latin, a language comprehensible to any educated person of this period. Only a small number of prayers, some rubrics, and inserted instructions, are in French. The codex was written by a single hand following a specially devised plan, in a very diligent and delicate Burgundian bastarda. The noble simplicity of the script befits this precious object of private devotion.
The outstanding value of this small format prayer book is further demonstrated by the use of the finest virgin vellum. The royal owner and zealous user of the manuscript, Charles V, is depicted on fol. 213v. On this page as well as the following one (fol. 214r) which represent the prayer to his own guardian angel, the text is nearly illegible due to soiling through excessive use.
This prayer book, whose outward form reflected the dignity of its royal owner, served as a book of edification for the young sovereign who sank in devotion before it, over and over again.

The commentary volume

The comprehensive scholarly commentary was written by Heinrich Karl von Liechtenstein and provides a codicological and art historical introduction to the Elder Prayer Book of Charles V. Furthermore, it deals with the textual contents of the book in a comprehensible way and describes the decorative apparatus with numerous comparative figures.

   
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