Life of Saint Wenceslas

Life of Saint Wenceslas – Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Codex Ser. nov. 2633 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)

Prague (Czech Republic) — 1585

He Christianized Bohemia during the time of Emperor Otto I: the life and martyrdom of the Czech national saint Wenceslas in 23 gold-decorated miniatures

  1. The story of the life and martyrdom of St. Wenceslas (ca. 907–935) is one of the most important in Czech history

  2. The sainted Bohemian duke stood at the center of the Christianization of modern Czechia in the 10th century

  3. His life is commemorated in this 16th century manuscript by Martin Hutský, a master painter from Prague

Life of Saint Wenceslas

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Life of Saint Wenceslas

St. Wenceslas is one of the most important figures in Czech history, and the story of his life and death are indicative of a time of aggressive Christianization. After succeeding his mother Drahomíra as the sovereign ruler of Bohemia in 925, her anti-Christian measures were reversed and Prince Wenceslas set about making Christianity the state religion. Like their mother, his younger brother Boleslaw saw Christianity as a threat to their power and sovereignty and was covetous of his brother’s title. So it was that Wenceslas was martyred while on his way to morning prayers, murdered by his own brother in a plot that involved their mother. Wenceslas is now venerated as a saint and remembered every September 28th, and he is also commemorated in a splendid 16th century manuscript by the great Martin Hutský, a master painter from Prague.

Life of Saint Wenceslas

The triumphal march of Christianity had progressed greatly by the 10th century, but the extensive consequences of Christianization are still not known to us today. Since the only religious-seeming attitude of a ruling house lead inevitably to very worldly conflicts: in reality it was always about power, influence, and dependencies. St. Wenceslas is an ambassador for the devastating effects of Christianization in the then still small principality of Bohemia. He has lost none of his significance for Czechia today.

Resistance to the Christianization of Bohemia

Wenceslas of Bohemia was born ca. 908 and was the oldest son of his father Wratislav I and his wife Drahomíra. His father was a Christian. His mother, on the other hand, was not baptized, as was a large portion of the population of his principality. When Wratislav I died in 922, his mother Drahomíra assumed the reign for the still underage Wenceslas. Wenceslas was handed over to his very Christian grandmother Ludmilla and was educated to that effect. There naturally lay a high potential for conflict in this constellation: above all else, ** in Christianity, Drahomíra saw a loss of power** because Christianization would weaken the independence of the then small principality, in which they must bow to the kings of the Romans. In order to demonstrate her power and to make an example of the Bohemian Christians, Drahomíra took a drastic measure: she had her stepmother Ludmilla murdered and banished all missionaries. In this way, every external influence of a Christian monarch was to be hindered in the principality.

A New Christian Prince

Everything changed when Wenceslas came to power in the year 925. He provided for the return of the missionaries and with inter alia the construction of the so-called St. Veit’s Rotunda – over which the foundation walls of the famous St. Veit’s Cathedral today – made a clear sign to Christendom. Wenceslas' goal was the implementation of Christianity as the state religion within his realm. With his efforts, the young prince reversed the machinations of his mother. Now Boleslaw, the younger brother of Wenceslas, came into play: he too was suspicious of the new religion. To that effect, he wanted to take the place of his brother as sovereign, and so he forged a murder plot with his mother Drahomíra: he would be invited to Altbunzlau under the pretense of a family gathering, since Wenceslas was unassailable in Prague. On the way to morning prayers on September 28th in either 929 or 935, Wenceslas was killed by his brother and his henchmen in a struggle. Boleslaw achieved what he wanted. Nevertheless, he was not able to maintain the independence of his territory in the long run, even though he expanded and consolidated the position of Bohemia. Boleslaw had to submit to King Otto I in 950, and as a result the sought-after independence of the small principality could not be maintained.

Wenceslas the Saint

His brother Wenceslas already had a particular reputation as a Christian during his lifetime. Thus his grave has become a pilgrimage site, and Wenceslas was venerated as a saint shortly after his death. Miracles and cures are supposed to have occurred at his grave. The veneration of Wenceslas has remained unbroken since that time: Prague’s Wenceslas Plaza was used in recent history for special occasions and demonstrations, e.g. in the course of the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of 1989. Today, the 28th of September is solemnized as the official holiday of St. Wenceslas. Wenceslas is depicted as an exemplary Christian in his legends: he baptized children and saw personally to their Christian upbringing; soup kitchens and the freeing of prisoners demonstrate his brotherly love, the healing of the sick is supposed to indicate a particular proximity to God already during his lifetime. Historically documented military victories were justified in the legends by the appearance of angels. Wenceslas dispensed with the subjugation of his enemies. He left them with kind gestures and saw the true victory in the conversion of the opponents of Christianity.

The Manuscript

In 1585, Martin Hutský, Prague’s master of painting, dedicated this manuscript to his sponsor and patron Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol. The Archduke’s incredible, splendidly colored and designed escutcheon on fol. 1 introduces the manuscript. It is followed by a two-page dedication by Hutský to his patron. The historic life story of Wenceslas was written down before the legend with its miniatures. The legend of the saint is rendered on 23 pages as such: a thin gold strip forms the frame wherein image and text are interlinked, since what is depicted in the miniature is outlined underneath it. The artist not only designed the illumination, he also wrote the explanations in the manuscript himself.


Alternative Titles
Life of Saint Wenceslas
Vita des heiligen Wenzel
Icones historici vitam et martyrium sancti Wenceslai principis Boemiae designantes
Size / Format
66 pages / 22.6 × 15.8 cm
Humanistic minuscule
23 miniatures with gold
Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria (1529–95)
Artist / School

Available facsimile editions:
Life of Saint Wenceslas – Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Codex Ser. nov. 2633 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)
Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Graz, 2013
Limited Edition: 381 copies

Life of Saint Wenceslas – Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Codex Ser. nov. 2633 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)
Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Graz, 2013
Limited Edition: 99 copies
Detail Picture

Life of Saint Wenceslas

The King Sowing Grain

King Wenceslas was famous for his generosity and many legends about him tell of how he cared for the welfare of his people, most famously in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”. The King is shown here helping to sew grain and although wearing his crown and dressed in beautiful robes, his piety is attested to by his simmering golden halo and bare feet. It is a wonderful and dynamic image with Saint Wenceslas in mid-stride as grain flies out of his hand.

Life of Saint Wenceslas – Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Codex Ser. nov. 2633 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)
Single Page

Life of Saint Wenceslas

Meeting of Wenceslas and Duke Radislaw von Kamim, Angel with Cross Prevents a Duel

According to legend, one of the vassals of King Wenceslas I, Duke Radislaw, rose in rebellion against his liege lord. Wenceslas attempted to resolve the conflict peacefully, which was taken as a sign of weakness by Radislaw, and so the two armies met on the battlefield. In one last attempt to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, Wenceslas challenged Radislaw to single combat, and the two met between the hosts.

As Radislaw approached Wenceslas, two angels appeared on either side of the King, one holding a cross and the other a flag, crying “stand off!”. Radislaw dropped to his knees and repented of his rebellion. Wenceslas raised him up and forgave him, welcoming him back into favor – an exemplary act of Christian mercy worthy of a saint.

Life of Saint Wenceslas – Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) – Codex Ser. nov. 2633 – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)
Facsimile Editions

#1 Die Vita des heiligen Wenzel (Normal Edition)

Limited Edition: 381 copies
Binding: Red silk
Commentary: 1 volume by Maria Theisen
Language: German
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Price Category: €€ (1,000€ - 3,000€)
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