Friday, September 12, 2008

A 13th century Bible once claimed to have been written with the aid of the Devil has been returned to Prague after 350 years.

At 92 cm tall, 50 cm wide and 22 cm thick, the Codex Gigas ("Giant Book") is the largest extant Medieval document in the world. It was created in a Bohemian monastery in the early 13th century. Legend has it that a monk was sentenced to death by being walled up in the monastery. To escape punishment, he vowed to create something which would glorify the monastery for eternity. He is said to have sold his soul to the Devil, who helped him create the 75kg book in a single night.

It contains the entire Bible as well as various Medieval chronicles, a calendar and magic formulae.

The Devil's involvement in the creation of the Codex is marked by the illustration on page 290 (reproduced above).

The "Devil's Bible" was looted from Prague by Swedish soldiers at the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. It was the prize exhibit in Stockholm's Royal library, despite calls from the Czechs for its return. Sweden feared that the Czechs viewed the Codex as stolen property and would not return it if it was lent to a Prague museum. However, the disagreement seems to have ironed out to everyone's satisfaction and the Codex will be on display in Prague until early next year.

It's just one of the many complex issues of who-owns-what in Europe, fired by ancient or modern wars, expansion and the activities of early art collectors. Greeks believe that the British should return their "national treasure", the Parthenon frieze or Elgin Marbles, removed from their original site in Athens in 1806. The Mona Lisa, which is owned by the French state and resides in the Louvre, was stolen in 1911 by an Italian patriot who believed that the masterpiece, created by a great Italian, should be returned to Italy. While the painting was returned to Paris two years later, it was exhibited all over Italy prior to this and the thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, was hailed as a hero by some.

The existence of art looted by Nazis in some European museums is another controversial issue.

The Devil’s Bible - Codex Gigas [pdf]


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