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The Older Prayer Book of Emperor Maximilian I
A personal prayer book from the “Last Knight”
Vienna, Austrian National Library, Cod. Vindob. 1907, Bruges, after 1486


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Maximilian I is the only regal personality in European history we know of who has owned books during all periods of his life, books which have come down to us and raise the interest of art historians, not only for their decoration but also for their contents. This makes them important documents of the life and personality of the great sovereign. The Older Prayer Book of Maximilian holds a special position in that it represents a unique document about the Emperor’s religious life.
The imaginative decoration of the Prayer Book is an excellent example of the outstanding art of Flemish miniaturists. The five colourful full-page miniatures are set in imaginative frames, their facing text pages being equally ornate with sumptuously decorated frames. The same hand that created the full-page miniatures also made the three initials on golden ground, which are formed from delicate vines and filled with elaborate miniatures. The remaining pages are decorated throughout with simple initials.
The Older Prayer Book was made during Maximilian’s stay in the Low Countries, where he was partly involved in heavy fighting over territorial issues. At this time he commissioned a prayer book whose textual design he greatly influenced himself. It shows numerous marks of use, thus making us assume that Maximilian used it over a long period of time as a prayer book for private devotion.

A solemn testimony to Flemish book illumination

The decorative apparatus of Maximilian’s Prayer Book is from the hand of an anonymous Flemish master who was active in a workshop in Bruges. The miniature, which attract the attention of the beholder, all follow one style and show the artistic perfection of the master. Their large decorated frames and the wide variety of inserted animals and flowers display imagination and playfulness.
The most beautiful and impressive miniature depicts the young Maximilian with crown and long, golden hair (fol. 61v). He kneels in prayer in front of Saint Sebastian, patron of the archers, who is shown as a knight in courtly armour. The coat of arms on the tree shows the royal eagle of Germany, thus alluding to Maximilian’s coronation as King of Germany on February 1486.

The intimate devotional book of a sovereign

The sequence of texts does not correspond to the normal schedule of a book of hours of the 15th century, as the essential Offices, those of the Virgin and the Dead, are missing. The only traditional division in the Prayer Book is the calendar containing a number of fixed feast days. The subsequent prayers encompass a mixture of texts extracted from different sources, regardless of any liturgical or thematic system.
In addition to general prayers, the book contains prayers of a very personal nature. Maximilian undoubtedly had a decisive influence on the selection of texts for his hand-written Older Prayer Book. Rather than a representative work devised for the glory of the sovereign and his dynasty, it was a personal, intimate book of devotion which accompanied the emperor over many years.

A masterpiece of calligraphy

The text was largely written by one hand, in a clearly shaped, regular Burgundian bastarda. The prayers added at a later stage go back to more than one hand and were written in different calligraphic scripts. The language is Latin which was comprehensible to any educated person of the time, although Maximilian did not necessarily have a great knowledge of Latin himself.
A particular feature are the prayers in Flemish, added at a later stage. Maximilian possibly favoured their addition in order to educate himself, to pray in a language with which he was not yet familiar. He must have learned Flemish bit by bit in the Netherlands, as the language generally spoken at the court of Burgundy was, of course, French.

The commentary volume

The facsimile edition comes in a binding with a comprehensive scholarly commentary by Wolfgang Hilger. It provides an introduction to the manuscript and its history, a codicological and textual analysis, and describes the decorative apparatus of the book.

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