The wondrous Codex Gigas - aka. the Devil's Bible - goes on display in Prague
Exhibitions like this one are once in a lifetime: the loan of a famous Bohemian tome officially known as the Codex Gigas (but also as the Devil's Bible) to Prague. According to historians, the book, one of the largest medieval manuscripts in the world (almost a metre tall and half a metre wide), was completed some time in the 13th century at a Bendectine monastery in east Bohemia. The tome, once considered to be the eighth wonder of the world, is the oldest Czech chronicle written in Latin. Despite its devilish moniker, the Codex is by no means a satanic bible: the name comes from an accompanying legend and a famous depiction of the devil inside. It contains transcripts of the Old and New Testaments as well as a number of other medieval documents.
"The giant illumination of the devil and the way he is depicted is certainly unusual but it's necessary to point out the context: he appears at the end of the Penitential, a chapter dealing with personal sin, so there is a logic to his inclusion. And the devil is not alone: he is seen on one page, while across from him one views the city of God. It is a memento that you have to choose between paths to either heaven or hell.
"The bible was admired from the very beginning because of its sheer size. A number of giant bibles were created in the 13th century were at least 20 centimetres shorter. This was a wonder of the world. This bible is different because it also contains other sections, unlike other bibles. We don't know much about who transcribed the bible and created the illuminations but we can say that it was the work of one person."
Legend has it that the bible was the work of a monk who faced severe punishment - being walled up alive - for committing a serious crime. In the hopes of being spared, he promised to create the world's biggest bible over the course of one night. But when he realised that he would not be able to keep his promise he enlisted the help of the devil, of course in exchange for his soul. Historians of course smile over the story, but the fact remains the Gigas Codex has never been able to shake off its popular name as the Devil's Bible.
Besides the Old and New Testaments it includes mystical medical formulae as well as a copy of the Bohemian Chronicle, Chronica Boherum. The last pages then list the days on which Easter falls in coming years. The manuscript is a masterpiece and already the exhibition has already stirred enormous interest among the Czech public, with tickets selling fast. But for those not able to see the exhibition there is at least an alternative: viewing the bible in digital form on the English web pages of the Swedish Royal Library: www.kb.se/ENG/kbstart.htm.
Most, including the Czech Ambassador to Stockholm Marie Chatardova, expect the exhibition to be a rousing success.
"When I first came to Sweden in 2002 it's true that the topic of the Devil's Bible was one that the Swedes were a bit reluctant to take up. But when it became clear it would only be a loan and that the bible would be digitised it became much more open. But the more and more I travel around the country I have often visited local libraries and I think that historical looting from the period of the Thirty Years War is no longer a 'taboo' subject. The lending of the bible is an important precedent: if the exhibition turns out to be a success, and it should, than it may even be possible to borrow other works."
The Devil's Bible will be on display in Prague from now until early next January after which will be returned to Sweden. More information is available at www.klementinum.cz