Digitizing the Devil’s Bible

Written by Fredrik Franzén on . Posted in Videos

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©Per Adolphson

Its real name is Codex Gigas, but it’s better known as The Devil’s Bible. Weighing 74.8 kg, measuring 1 m² and intricately detailed throughout its 720 pages, it is the world’s largest and most mysterious medieval manuscript.

Contrary to what one might think, The Devil’s Bible is not a satanic text. It’s a bible. A very special bible, but a bible nevertheless. The strange nickname has two explanations. First of all, the bible contains a spectacular drawing of the devil. Secondly, the entire bible was supposedly written in one night by a possessed monk, who had made a deal with the Prince of Darkness himself. The latter’s involvement is obviously hard to verify, but modern scientists are fairly certain that the bible was indeed written and lavishly illustrated by a single person.

“I met an English medieval handwriting expert,” says photographer Per Adolphson. “He said that it must have taken somewhere between 20 and 30 years to create Gigas. The fact that it’s so beautifully written means that the author was experienced and most likely well into his twenties when he began, and that just makes it even more weird, giving the fact that people didn’t live much older than 35-40 at the time!”

©Per Adolphson

©Per Adolphson

©Per Adolphson

The monk who wrote The Devil’s Bible lived during the early 13th century in what is now the Czech Republic, but in 1648 the bible was stolen by invading Swedes, who have kept it in their possession ever since. Today it is stored in a culvert 12 floors beneath the National Library in Stockholm.

In 2006, it was decided that The Devil’s Bible was to be digitized. One reason was that the library wanted to make it available to the public. Another reason was that the Czechs had asked to ‘borrow’ the manuscript, and the library feared that it might not be returned. As a result, the library approached Per and asked him to photograph every single page of the bible as good as technically possible at the time.

Per accepted the job offer, and before he knew it, the dark culvert 12 floors beneath the library had become his new place of work.

“It took 20 seconds just to set down there in the elevator,” says Per. “And I spent seven months there.”

The library had also decided to build a huge metal cage around the bible, just to make sure that it would not be stolen or damaged. Per had to set up his makeshift studio inside this cage.

“The technical part of it was just insane,” laughs Per. “We had to shoot every page 16 times and then merge the images digitally to get the desired results. In the end, each picture filled an entire CD. That’s 700 mb!”

As if that was not enough, Per had to provide not one but two 700 mb images of each page, since the library wanted a neutral image for the scientists, and an image with higher contrast and raking light for the library’s official website.

©Per Adolphson

©Per Adolphson

©Per Adolphson

©Per Adolphson

The fact that every page had to be shot from exactly the same angle and distance – even though the battered old book opened differently on every page – caused quite a headache. Per solved the problem by inventing a unique tripod and a measuring device, which when used together could determine when the camera was positioned at exactly 90° above the page.

“We spent two of the seven months in preparations alone. Once we started shooting, we used a Sinar camera with a Profoto 7-b generator and 4 heads. The Profoto generator was chosen because it provides exactly the same output and color temperature – flash after flash after flash, over thousands of multishots. There wasn’t any other unit that could handle that kind of workload. But in the end, all 1480 pictures got shot at exactly the same angle, with the same scale, color temperature or whatever it may be.”

It was obviously an extraordinary tough assignment, but Per talks about it with tangible warmth in his voice.

“The bible had a life of its own, you know. It might seem strange, but I actually longed to go down there every single morning.”


Read the Devil’s Bible!

Per Adolphson’s website

The Devil’s Bible on Wikipedia

Written by Fredrik Franzén


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