Created at the start of the 13th century, the parchment manuscript was considered at the time as the “the eighth wonder of the world,” due to its impressive proportions (92 x 50.5 x 22 cm), its 624 pages and weight of 75 kilos.
“Some 160 donkeys paid for its creation with their skin,” explained Miroslava Hejnova, who is in charge of the historic and musical collection of the national library.
The Stockholm royal library has exceptionally agreed to loan the giant manuscript for an exhibition planned for the start of 2007 in part of the Clementium, the former Jesuit college built from 1653 to 1726 in the heart of ancient Prague.
The masterpiece is the work of one monk alone, at the same time copier, illustrator and graphic designer, from the Podlazice monastery, in the centre of the current Czech Republic. The monastery was destroyed in the religious wars of the 15th century.
The manuscript includes the old and new testaments, as well as historic texts such as the “Chronica Boemorum,” (Chronicle of the Czechs) written in Latin in the 12th century and the work of the historian Flavius Josephe (between 37-100 AD).
According to legend, the creator of the “Codex Gigas” was condemned to be walled up alive for a serious crime. The manuscript was, it is said, the fruit of one single night’s work aimed at atoning for the crime and creating something that would glorify the monastery forever.
But to achieve such a feat, the monk had to get the devil’s help. Once the masterpiece was complete, the monk slipped a portrait of his “helper” in the manuscript as recognition of the aid.
At the Stockholm royal library, visitors have the chance to see the 50-centimetre high illustration of the devil. “To tell the truth, he seems to have a cute appearance, of someone in a very good mood,” smiled Heynova.
In Prague, the manuscript, only protected by a wood cover, will be on show alongside other documents from the Middle Ages.
“It is sometimes disappointing when displaying a manuscript. In fact, you cannot let everyone finger through it, you have to select just two pages,” explained the director of the national library, Vlastimil Jezek, who hopes to attract at least 50,000 visitors for the exhibition.
Like many other priceless objects, the manuscript was taken as war booty at the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) by soldiers under the Swedish general Königsmark from the famous Prague collection of the Hapsburg emperor and arts patron, Rudolf II (1552-1612).
“They took the most valuable objects of the collection,” said Hejnova. Soldiers also carried off the “Codex Argenteus,” written in silver and gold letters around 750 and today housed in Uppsala, central Sweden.
Since the 17th century, the “Codex Gigas” has only left Sweden twice, to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1970 and in Berlin eight years ago.
The brief return of the “Codex Gigas” to its country of origin was raised by Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek during his visit to Sweden at the start of October. He was careful to underline that the manuscript was being loaned and not returned.
At the start of the 1990s, former president Vaclav Havel attempted in vain to persuade Stockholm to return some objects historically linked with Bohemia, said the director of the national library. And given that the request had no legal foundation, “if Vaclav Havel did not succeed then no-one will succeed,” admitted Jezek.
The only consolation for the Czechs is that they hope to include a right to reproduce the manuscript in the loan contract. The national library in Prague could then reproduce and publish on the Internet a digital version of the “Codex Gigas” already undertaken by the Swedes.