This week, Prague citizens have the rare opportunity to take a close look at and even leaf through a priceless medieval illustrated Bible. Not the original manuscript, of course, but a life-size colour replica of the 14th-century Velislav Picture Bible. The book, containing selected passages from the Bible along with two legends about the Bohemian patron saints Ludmila and Wenceslas, is one of the largest medieval pictorial books made in Central Europe.
Velislav, or Velislaus in Latin, was a high-ranking priest and a notary at the court of Czech king John of Luxembourg and later his son Emperor Charles IV. All we know is that the well-travelled man commissioned the manuscript but the artist of the coloured pen drawings remains anonymous. Of the original 200 pages, 188 have preserved complete with almost 750 illustrations with Latin captions. The facsimile preserving the original colours has been published by the Archa 90 publishing house. Its director Rudolf Kalovský told me what had led them to take up such a difficult task.
“The first reason was that the Velislav Bible has not been published before in this form. So this is the first time the public can see the Bible in full colour printing. Another reason was to show the world what Czechs were capable of in the 13th and 14th centuries.”
The leather-bound replica of the Velislav Bible has been printed in a limited series of 200 numbered copies. The very first one was presented to President Václav Klaus. The original text is written in Latin so each copy is supplemented with a translation. Rudolf Kalovský says a dozen language versions are available.
“We have translated the text into thirteen languages and at the moment we are distributing the book supplemented with the Czech and English translations.”
The digital images of the medieval original were provided by the Czech National Library which has been digitising its rare prints and manuscripts for more than a decade. The Velislav Bible is the third most precious manuscript in the National Library collections and is very rarely exhibited. If you can’t make it to Prague this week to see the facsimile or you don’t feel like paying 20,000 crowns (or 1000 USD) for the replica, you can obtain a digital version of the Velisav Bible from the Czech National Library for a fraction of that price.