The Rosary in the Dublin Chester Beatty Library is a small prayer book which is notable for several reasons, not least for the high artistic quality of its 33 full page miniatures attributed to the last and greatest Flemish book painter, Simon Bening (1483-1561). The text, however, also merits great attention for a compilation of diverse prayers to God and the Saints as well as to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Although both miniatures and text go back to earlier sources, the individual elements of the Rosary are arranged in such a way that our work constitutes an innovative and unique book of prayer. The reader is surprised at the great number of miniatures illustrating the text and supporting its contents in an ideal manner.
This draws the attention both to the devotional contents of the prayer and the illustration at the same time. The extraordinary beauty of the miniatures at one stage resulted in their having been removed from their binding and sold separately. By a remarkable piece of good fortune, however, they were returned, were bound again with the text pages and have been preserved as a whole book ever since.
Simon Bening – Latest Master of Flemish Book Painting
The Beatty Rosary was probably made in around 1530 and constitutes one of the last masterworks in the 1000 year old tradition of book illumination. It is very rare that a prayer book holding a cycle of miniatures was executed exclusively by a single hand, in our case, Simon Bening’s.
This illuminator continuously followed the work of his colleagues. His creations are based on a wealth of earlier compositions and composition details that he assembled during his active life and used plentiful in countless variations. This presents him not as eclectic, but rather as a genuine, creative artist.
A "Rose Garden" of Devotional Prayers
In the Middle Ages, the term of Rosarium, which in classical Latin signifies rose garden, acquired the meaning of a text collection which we would today call an anthology. In the 14th century, however, the word was widely used as a title for prayer books on the Blessed Virgin Mary, undoubtedly because the rose was a very popular symbol of the Virgin.
In the Christian Middle Ages, people liked to look at a picture while reading a text, and to meditate on it. The Beatty Rosary seems to have been very appropriate in this respect, as the full page miniatures facing the text were particularly suited to this devotional practice.
With the exception of the first 16 text pages, each text page is faced by a miniature, enabling the person in prayer to sink in meditation before the picture while reading the text.
The Rosary was compiled by Simon Bening who chose passages from well-known religious texts and matched them in an unusual manner with miniatures which fascinate in the luminosity of their colours, fine details, representation of space, landscape painting and emotional expression.
A Prayer Book for a Spanish King
Although there are only indirect indications as to the identity of the first owner of the manuscript, some stylistic elements of script and the addition of a guard-sheet with Spanish text suggest a Spanish patron.
With its combination of Flemish miniatures and Spanish script, the Rosary widens our current knowledge on artistic links between Spain and Flanders in the 16th century.
Moreover, two flyleaves containing inscriptions refer to its former owners and inform us on the provenance of the work, one of them making us assume that the book once belonged to Philip II of Spain.