The Devil’s Portrait: Codex Gigas
Codex Gigas (‘the giant book’) is the popular name for Stockholm Royal Library MS A 148. The manuscript was made from 310 calf skins, measures a whopping 89 x 49 x 22cm, and weighs in at around 75 kilos. Beyond its size, it is a fairly unremarkable medieval manuscript. It contains the Bible, Josephus Flavius’s historical works, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, a medical textbook, and the Bohemian Chronicle of Cosmas of Prague, along with a few shorter texts on penitence and evil spirits. Codex Gigas, in the modern world, is notorious for folio 290r: a huge portrait of The Devil.
The portrait (above) has given rise to a legend about the early-13th-century manuscript’s creation. A monk in a Bohemian monastery committed a terrible crime, and was walled-up alive as punishment. However, he would be released if he could create a book containing the sum of human knowledge in a single night. As midnight approached, he realised the task was impossible, and prayed to Lucifer for help. The Devil finished the manuscript in exchange for the monk’s soul, and asked him to take his portrait, resulting in the famous image. The manuscript is consequently also known as ‘The Devil’s Bible’.
In truth, it would have taken 5 years of non-stop writing to complete Codex Gigas. The portrait of The Devil is certainly arresting, but not remarkable. Devils and demons were frequently depicted in medieval art and manuscripts, and fear of damnation was an important part of piety. The portrait is also located on the opposite page to a depiction of heaven, a common technique of binary contrast that simply communicated the need to love and obey God, or else. The Codex Gigas Devil is not even especially skilfully-rendered, paling in comparison to other 13th-century examples. Still, what a story!