Housed within the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm is a mysterious religious text with a wicked reputation. The Codex Gigas is believed to be the largest surviving medieval manuscript in the world. Contained within its pages are numerous Christian writings – including a complete version of the Vulgate Bible, which later became the Catholic Church’s official Latin translation.
The book’s most intriguing entry, however, is a menacing full-page color illustration of the Devil. It is this drawing that earned the text its nickname of the Devil’s Bible – and convinced many that its pages are cursed by the sinister power of the dark prince.
Historians believe the text originated in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice, Czech Republic in the early 13th century. It measures 36 inches tall by 20 inches wide and is nearly 9 inches thick, requiring two people to lift all 165 pounds of its leather binding, metal trim, and vellum pages. Its name means “Giant Book” in Latin, yet much of the manuscript’s mystique lies in the legend of its creation.
The ancient tale tells of a monk from the Middle Ages who, after breaking his monastic vows, was sentenced to the particularly cruel death of being walled up alive. In a desperate attempt to avoid his harsh punishment, the monk promised to write – in a single night – a book that glorified the monastery and contained all human knowledge.
The monastic order agreed to his plea. Yet as midnight approached, the doomed monk knew he would not be able to complete the book unaided. So he bowed in prayer and begged for help.
Instead of addressing God, however, he turned his eyes downward to fallen angel Lucifer, offering his soul in exchange for a finished book.
The dark prince heard the monk’s prayer and gladly accepted his offer; with a snap of his clawed fingers, the massive text was done. The monk added the full-page portrait of the Devil as a token of his gratitude – other versions suggest that Lucifer himself signed his work by adding the self-portrait.
Extensive handwriting analysis indicates that one scribe did indeed compose the entire manuscript. Historians point to a signature within the text – “hermann inclusis” (“Herman the Recluse”) – as evidence of its solitary author. Tests to recreate the calligraphy of the Devil’s Bible suggest it would take five years of nonstop writing to create it – and that’s not including the intricate illustrations and ornate illuminations found throughout its pages.
Clearly, the author of this massive tome was possessed by something to create such a masterwork. Whether it was the power of light or darkness, is lost to time.
Photo: Kungl.biblioteket / Wikimedia Commons; National Library of Sweden