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Books for Devotion: Vernacular Prayer Books

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Vernacular Prayer Books

Whereas Books of Hours were almost always produced in Latin, vernacular prayer books were especially popular in Germany and Holland prior to the Reformation. Highly varied in their contents, such prayer books are exemplified in the exhibition by a tiny, attractively illuminated fifteenth-century manuscript containing German prayers for nuns (preserved in its original calfskin binding); a Dutch manuscript of c. 1500 consisting entirely of prayers dedicated to St. Anne; the rare "Psalter of St. Bernard," printed in Antwerp in 1491, which contains prayers in Dutch verse honoring the Virgin Mary; and an illustrated collection of prayers on the theme of Mary’s joyful experiences during the Infancy of Christ, written by St. Bridget of Sweden (1515). Two printed editions of the "Little Clock (Horologium) of the Life and Passion of Christ" by the German Dominican Bertholdus, one in German (1492) and one in Latin (1498), reminded readers of Christ’s sufferings by means of hourly prayers illustrated with devotional woodcuts.

Later vernacular prayer books include the only known copy of a simple booklet printed at Cremona in 1579 containing Italian prayers to be recited just prior to death, either by one’s self or by friends or family. In contrast, two highly decorated seventeenth-century French prayer books were printed not with moveable type, but with copper plates engraved with calligraphic text. Also exhibited are three eighteenth-century German Catholic prayer books: the Perlen-Schmuck ("Pearl Jewelry"), bound in green velvet for a noble lady (c. 1724); a home-made calligraphic manuscript compiled for a family’s private use (c. 1750); and a book of daily devotions printed in Vienna (c. 1770) in honor of Empress Maria Theresa, provided with a magnificent gilt binding housed inside a matching case.