The wondrous Codex Gigas - aka. the Devil's Bible - goes on display in Prague

21-09-2007

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.

Carl Bildt, Pavel Bem, Sweden's Princess Christina, Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTKCarl Bildt, Pavel Bem, Sweden's Princess Christina, Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK Until this week, the Devil's Bible had not returned to Bohemia for more than 350 years, after being stolen by the Swedes at the end of the Thirty Years War. Since then, the Codex Gigas has remained in Sweden - only twice being exhibited abroad: in New York and in Berlin. The exhibition in Prague is being considered a major event in the Czech cultural calendar: the opening ceremony was attended by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, Sweden's Princess Christina, the ambassadors to Sweden and the Czech Republic, and many other public Czech and Swedish officials and representatives this week. The head of the Czech National Library Vlastimil Jezek spoke at the opening ceremony:

Vlastimil JezekVlastimil Jezek "Many different people or groups of people are owed thanks for in 2007 being able to realise something that notable Czechs tried to achieve as far back as the end of the 19th century. Among them are politicians and diplomats: the basic question which needed to be answered first at the beginning of talks was 'If we lend it to you, will you return it?'. The National Library always replied 'Yes' as did two Czech prime ministers: Jiri Paroubek and Mirek Topolanek. It was the latter who received the definite answer 'Yes'."

Codex Gigas, photo: CTKCodex Gigas, photo: CTK Conditions for exhibiting the Codex are strict and the state had to guarantee the bible for the amount of 15.1 million US dollars. Viewers can buy time-linked tickets and viewing times are no longer than ten minutes. The book itself is being displayed in a glass case in a guarded room where the temperature has been set for 18 to 20 degrees Celsius and humidity at 45-55 percent. Understandably no photography is allowed. Visitors who view the show will not be able to actually see more than two pages, although they will see the most famous: the bible lies open revealing the image of the devil inside. The Czech National Library's Kamil Boldan:

"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.

When Swedish forces took the bible as booty, the book was among many valuable items never returned, now an equal part of Swedish heritage and history. Once brought to Sweden the history of the bible was vastly less dramatic. Kamil Boldan again:

Codex Gigas, photo: CTKCodex Gigas, photo: CTK "The bible made it to Sweden a year after it was stolen from Prague, in 1649. There its future was much more quiet. It was kept at the royal palace in Stockholm. But in 1697 a fire broke. This is not an easy book to move, even today, and they couldn't get it out. To save it they had to throw it out of a window. The parchment was not damaged but the covers were. They were only repaired much later at the beginning of the 19th century. In the late 19th century the book was then moved to the Swedish Royal library."

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

21-09-2007