Did you ever wonder what the Devil really looks like? If the legend is to believed, an image in the Codex Gigas, an 800-year-old book, is a portrait painted from life–maybe even a self-portrait by Beelzebub himself.
The giant book was created in a Benedictine Monastery in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the early 13th Century. At three feet tall and 165 pounds, it is the largest illuminated manuscript known–codex gigas means ‘giant book’. The covers are made of wood and metal. The Codex Gigas contains 310 leaves of vellum—believed to be made from the skins of approximately 160 donkeys or calfskin. They are so large, a single calf would provide enough skin for only two pages. Scholars say the handwriting indicates something fascinating about the Codex Gigas. Through the usage of modern forensic science, it was confirmed that a single person crafted the manuscript. The ink and penmanship indicate that only one person could have written out all 310 pages.
The Codex Gigas includes the entire Latin Bible, as well as many other popular writings of the time, also in Latin, including further religious writings, reference books, and medical texts. It seems to be an early encyclopedia—an attempt to collect all the world’s knowledge between two covers. It initially held about 320 pages, but some were removed. No one knows who removed the pages, or why. However, according to popular myth, the missing pages actually contained an apocalyptic text known as “The Devil’s Prayer”, which was intentionally removed to avoid destruction.
The manuscript is sectioned off into different parts, about half of which focuses on the Latin Bible. It then continues to the history of the Jews, recounting the Genesis creation, including illustrations of Heaven and Earth on the margins. The Codex Gigas also incorporates the New Testament and pages of common prayers and conjurations.
Despite covering plenty of texts, the Codex Gigas also has many elaborate illustrations. The Codex Gigas contains illustrations and calligraphy in red, blue, yellow, green, and gold. The first page has two Hebrew alphabets with a few additional touches throughout: Church Slavic and Glagolitic alphabets, and Greek alphabets. All the illuminations display geometrical designs or plant-based forms, except for 3: the portraits of the devil and the author—Josephus—and a squirrel.
But the most remarkable thing about the book is the full-page image of Lucifer, the Fallen Angel, at page 290. That page gives the book its nickname and its sinister reputation. The Devil is shown crouching, as if ready to jump out of the page. He has a green face, small red eyes, red horns, red claws, and two red tongues.
The legend of the Codex Gigas goes back as far as the book itself. According to that legend, a monk who broke his vows was sentenced to be walled up alive. To avoid this horrible death, he promised to create, in a single night, a book containing all human knowledge. The book would bring glory to his monastery. But as midnight approached, the monk realized he could not complete the task.
Indeed, modern research has shown it would take five years of non-stop writing just to create the text, not even including the numerous illustrations.
The monk succeeded by enlisting the help of the Devil, offering his soul in exchange. The story says the monk included the Devil’s portrait as thanks. Other versions of the legend say it was Devil himself who painted the portrait. During the medieval era, art often depicted the devil–but none did so like the Codex Gigas. The portrait of the devil takes up the whole page and he stands unaccompanied.
The following pages consist of writings on exorcism and magic spells including two magic spells on how to identify and catch a thief. During medieval times many illnesses were associated with possession by demons, so the Codex Gigas also includes instructions on how to perform a proper exorcism. Because the church held specific rituals to exorcise evil spirits, the instructions were made in the name of Jesus Christ. At the time, the church believed that Jesus gave his disciplines the power to cast out evil, so the focus on exorcism was not out of place.
After the end of Thirty Years War, Sweden took the entirety of Emperor Rudolf II’s collection, which included the Codex Gigas. From 1649 to 2007, it was displayed at the Swedish Royal Library until it was briefly loaned back to Prague and displayed at the Czech National Library from 2007 to 2008.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photo: National Library of Sweden