I have Anika Burgess and Vittoria Traverso of Atlas Obscura to thank for the beautiful images you can enjoy below and for the fascinating tale of the Luneborch manuscript; a long-lost 15-century prayer book that had been missing for some 40 years.
The Luneborch Manuscript
One day in 2012, the rare books assistant at the George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, opened a package that had been delivered to the library’s mailbox. Inside was a long-lost 15th-century illuminated prayer book.
The manuscript is one of the rare examples of vernacular spirituality—meaning it was for personal use, not in a church—from early Renaissance Germany. Known as the Prayer Book of Hans Luneborch, it had been commissioned in 1492. The book had been donated to the Peabody in 1909 by a European art collector. But sometime between then and the 1970s it had disappeared. According to the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, the Luneborch Prayer Book, containing 44 illuminated pages, was at the Peabody. But all attempts to locate it were in vain and in 1970, after many inquiries from academics, the Peabody wrote off the Luneborch manuscript as “lost.”
Then, the Peabody Library received an anonymous envelope, with no return address, containing the long-lost Luneborch Prayer Book. The operating theory is that someone from the thief’s family found it and decided to return it to its rightful place. Strangely enough, for 40 years there is no record of anyone trying to sell the book.
The Dutch artists who illustrated its pages are known the Masters of Dark Eyes, one of the most prolific groups of illuminators from Renaissance Holland, known for the dark, heavy shadows around the eyes of their figures. The manuscript came from Lübeck, in northern Germany, which in the 15th century was the most important harbor of the Hanseatic League, a trading bloc that stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea. Beyond its indisputable value as a work of art, the book indicates that a German, Hans Luneborch, had appointed a Dutch master to illustrate his personal prayer book. This was news to art historians. At the time, German and Dutch cities were competing, and so far we did not have much evidence of illumination art trade between them.
The Luneborch Prayer Book, however, is far from the only stunning example of Medieval and Renaissance art. In the medieval period, monks usually produced books. In rare occastions, these included treasure binding: metalworkers were employed to emboss patterns of silver and gold and set precious stones. Either the very wealthy or the very pious (or both) commissioned the books.
One particularly notable example is the Lindau Gospels, dating to ninth-century France. The intricate metalwork on the back cover only hints at the extravagance of the front cover, which was made nearly a century later. Jewels line the edges and sit on raised clawed legs around a repoussé (metal worked on the reverse side to create an image in relief) figure of Christ. The elevation of the jewel clusters has a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one; it protects the rest of the cover when the book is open.
A handful of libraries around the world hold such books, but not many treasure-bound manuscripts have survived the centuries. If you are in New York, you can visit Magnificent Gems: Medieval Treasure Bindings — a unique exhibition running through January 7, 2018. Organized by the Morgan Library and Museum, the exhibition includes illustrations of jewels and gemstones from inside the manuscripts.