The Codex Calixtinus is an illuminated 12th century manuscript collection of stories, sermons, prayers, and chants, as well as a travel guide with road directions and local customs for pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It has been kept in the cathedral archives for more than 800 years, the primary jewel of the collection and one of Spain’s greatest cultural treasures.
On Tuesday, July 5, 2011, cathedral staff noticed that it was missing from a reinforced case in the archive room. After a frantic search turned up nothing, they called the police. It seems that the manuscript had been stolen as early as Sunday, but large security loopholes allowed the thieves to strike without anybody realizing for days. Cameras were supposed to be trained on the manuscript case at all times, but none of the active cameras in the room were pointing at the Codex Calixtinus. In theory, only two archivists and the cathedral dean had access to the archive room, so they apparently got complacent about securing the case itself. They couldn’t confirm if the case had been locked before the theft. The door to the archive room was not forced open. Then, to top it all off, the manuscript wasn’t even insured.
It was a major scandal. The Spanish press dubbed it the “theft of the century.” Authorities initially suspected the theft might have been commissioned by a black market manuscript dealer (a go-to theory whenever important art is stolen that never seems to pan out) and feared the Codex was smuggled out of the country before the theft was even discovered. The truth was a little closer to home.
On Wednesday, July 4, 2012, the police found the stolen Codex Calixtinus in a garbage bag inside a cardboard box in the garage of a former cathedral caretaker in Milladoiro, just a few miles from Santiago de Compostela. The day before they had arrested four suspects — the caretaker, Manuel Fernández Castañeiras, his wife, his son and the son’s girlfriend. Under interrogation, Castañeiras confessed to the crime but would not tell them where he stashed the loot. It seems his son spilled the beans in the end.
This is raw video of the garage with the invaluable medieval codex in a garbage bag in a box against the wall. (My apologies for the autoplay which I can’t figure out how to disable.)
EDIT: I’ve removed the embed because the autoplay is just too annoying. Watch the video here.
An initial examination of the Codex Calixtinus indicates that it’s in excellent condition, despite its highly questionable storage circumstances over the past year. The police also found €1.2 million ($1.5 million) in cash, several other books stolen from the cathedral and a silver tray. They also found a set of keys to the cathedral. I shudder to think of how Castañeiras got his grubby mitts on that million and a half. At this point in the investigation, the police think he may have pilfered cash and valuables donated to the cathedral by pilgrims over the course of decades.
So yet again the mysterious theft first attributed to nebulous underworld characters turns out to be the work of an insider. In this case, it was the most classic of insider thieves: the disgruntled former employee. After 25 years working for the cathedral as an electrician and all around handyman, Castañeiras had been let go in early 2011 ostensibly due to restructuring. The Bishopric wanted to standardize employment and Castañeiras was a contract worker, so he got the chop. Rumor has it that was a cover story, however, and he was really fired because he was suspected of those petty thefts.
He filed suit against the cathedral for unfair dismissal and was reputed to hold a grudge against the dean. The suit was ongoing when the theft occurred. Also ongoing was his habit of going to Mass at the cathedral every day, a routine which didn’t stop until he was arrested.