August 25, 2006

Faust in Prague

A few weeks ago I acquired a fascinating book entitled Opus Magnum (‘The Book of Sacred Geometry, Alchemy, Magic, Astrology, the Kabbala, and Secret Societies in Bohemia’). It was published in Prague in 1997 to accompany a major exhibition devoted to these esoteric subjects—the first event of its kind ever staged in the Czech Republic. The book comprises numerous richly-illustrated essays (in Czech, but with English translations in an Appendix), one of which, by D.Ž. Bor, is concerned with the several ways in which the Faust legend is connected with the city of Prague. Bor explains that one tradition asserts that the handbook used by Faust to conjure spirits was first published in Prague in 1509, a legend that was belatedly and fraudulently substantiated by a number of books and manuscripts purporting such an origin, and bearing titles such as Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Höllenzwang…

First of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'


Second of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'

One such manuscript, dating from the eighteenth century, and now in the collection of the library of the National Museum in Prague, is the source of the present images. This manuscript, writes Bor, has a ‘peculiar atmosphere radiating from the text written in white on a black ground and from the naïve illustrations accompanying it.’ Pseudo-Faustian Höllenzwangs had been appearing since the early seventeenth century, and continued to exert a lasting fascination through the Age of Reason and beyond, as is indicated by a contributor to Notes & Queries in 1850:

Scheible, of Stuttgart, […] has just commenced a new Library of Magic, &c., or Bibliothek der Zanber-Geheimnisse-und Offenbarungs-Bucher. The first volume of it is devoted to a work ascribed to that prince of magicians, our old familiar, Dr. Faustus…
Third of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'


Fourth of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'
…and bears the imposing title Doktor Johannes Faust’s Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis, oder Dreifacher Höllenzwang, leiztes Testament und Siegelkunst. It is taken from a manuscript of the last century, filled with magical drawings and devices enough to summon back again from the Red Sea all the spirits that ever were laid in it. It is certainly a curious book to publish in the middle of the nineteenth century.

And, even today, one may purchase a dreifacher Höllenzwang, courtesy of Amazon! The earliest printed accounts (ca. 1587) of Doctor Faustus’s ‘damnable life and deserved death’ included mention of the doomed Doctor having visited Prague:

Fifth of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'


Sixth of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'
From [Vienna], hee went unto Prage, the chiefe Citie in Bohemia, this is devided into three partes, that is, olde Prage, new Prage, and little Prage. Little Prage is the place where the Emperours Court is placed upon an exceeding high mountaine: there is a Castle, wherein are two fayre Churches, in the one he found a monument, which might well have been a mirror to himselfe, and that was the Sepulchre of a notable Conjurer, which by his Magick had so inchanted his Sepulchre, that who so ever set foote thereon, should be sure never to dye in their beds. From the Castell he came downe, and went over the Bridge. This Bridge hath twentie and foure Arches. In the middle of this Bridge stands a very fayre monument, being a Crosse builded of stone, and most artificially carved.
Seventh of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'


Eighth of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'
From thence, he came into the olde Prage, the which is separated from the new Prage, with an exceeding deepe ditch, and round about inclosed with a wall of Bricke. Unto this is adjoyning the Jewes Towne, wherein are thirteene thousand men, women, and Children, all Jewes. There he viewed the Colledge and the Garden, where all manner of savage Beasts are kept; and from thence, he set a compasse rounde about the three townes, whereat he wondred greatly, to see so mighty a Citie to stand all within the walles.

There was a folk tradition that Faust owned several houses in Prague: in time this association came to be transferred on to a building on Charles Square, still known as Faustův dům (‘Faust’s House’), which is currently used by Charles University’s Faculty of Medicine, and which stands on a site that had, at one time, been associated with the notorious charlatan Edward Kelley.

Ninth of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'


Last of ten spreads from an anonymous 18th-century Czech manuscript 'Höllenzwang.'

Other stories claimed that Faust had, in fact, been of Czech origin: that he came from the Bohemian mining town of Kutná Hora, and that his given name was Šťastný (literally ‘fortunate, happy’ i.e. synonymous with the Latin Faustus). According to these narratives, Šťastný had been obliged to flee Bohemia during the Hussite riots of the 1420s, travelling to Germany, where he first began to sign his name as Faustus. Some of the exploits attributed to Faust, (writes Bor), had previously been associated with a legendary Czech magician named Žito, (quite likely the ‘notable conjuror’ mentioned above) who lived at the court of the Czech king Wenceslas IV. Click on the images above to see them enlarged, and click here to see the title-page of this particular Dreifacher Höllenzwang.

Posted by misteraitch at August 25, 2006 02:05 PM

Beautiful. Manuscripts penned on coloured background are relatively rare (a great example is the fifth century Codex Purpureus Rossanensis) but it’s the incompetent drawings that take this one to the next level. It looks so evil! I want to start a black metal band right now just so that I can use a facsimile of this work as CD booklet. Where do you find all this great stuff?

Posted by: Michelangelo on August 25, 2006 05:50 PM

I’m obliged to peacay for pointing out that the original Opus Magnum exhibition’s website is preserved at, giving a fuller outline description of the exhibition itself, and a list of the contents of the accompanying book. I notice that the exhibition layout was courtesy of Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerova. Švankmajer, of course, as I neglected to mention above, created his own vision of the Faust legend.

Posted by: misteraitch on August 26, 2006 09:35 AM

These images and characters recall me the Voynich manuscript, that strange riddle also connected with Prague and Edward Kelley.

Posted by: C. Rancio on August 26, 2006 01:47 PM

There is something odd about the technique too. Too bad the original site does not provide any technical information. The abundance of smears and stains, the muted palette… it is as if the scribe chose his materials for their magical significance (Coal? Blood? Earth?) instead of using the standard amanuensis toolkit. I am probably reading too much into it. Or maybe these were made by Jan and Eva and the czechs are taking us for a ride.

Posted by: Michelangelo on August 26, 2006 09:49 PM

Michelangelo—nor, frustratingly, does the Opus Magnum book offer any specific information about the manuscript’s media (or even its dimensions). On the other hand, a shelf-mark (‘XI F 27,’ in the Department of Manuscripts and Old Prints at the National Museum Library) is given… so at least one could potentially arrange to take a look at it, if ever in Prague.

Posted by: misteraitch on August 26, 2006 11:01 PM

Your Höllenzwang reminded me of the books Greenaway created for his Prospero's Books film. Just a hunch, though.

Posted by: Loxias on August 29, 2006 09:24 PM

I had the same immediate reaction as Michelangelo--that the pictures were daubed and smeared in charcoal, blood, and earth. The text is creepy, too, like an evil chalkboard.

Posted by: marlyat2 on August 30, 2006 06:02 PM

They seem animated also by the undead sprite of Hieronymus Bosch.

Wonderful work. One of the big museums (the Met, or the British Museum) should do a massive show called "The Devil in Europe, 1400-1900." It's such an inviting theme.

Posted by: Teju on August 30, 2006 10:52 PM


i tried to follow the links you provided to the opus magnum site in an attempt to track down this publication. i see the publisher's info but it doesn't seem like they are selling it through any direct online link. i was just wondering if you could tell me where your procured this?

i will actually be in the czech republic later this year. do you know if i can't get it online, if i can get it there somewhere? thanks.

Posted by: james k. on September 13, 2006 06:31 AM

James: The book was apparently produced in a limited edition of 2000 copies, so it’s not the easiest of volumes to find. I bought my copy via—I searched on Opus Magnum as the title with Trigon (the publisher) as an additional keyword. This search turned up just a single result… The same search is currently turning up another (single) copy, although the asking price is quite steep… You might get a better deal if you make some inquiries at Czech bookstores during your upcoming visit.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 13, 2006 12:04 PM

tu blog muy inspirador.
por favor enviame tus actualizaciones

el libro,genera asombro y activa el misterio
fuente de la actividad poética
la letra blanca surgiendo de la negra tierra

aqui hay algunas letras arabescas recientes.

Posted by: ruben grau on June 7, 2007 04:15 PM
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