The Courtauld-Harvard Study Trip to Germany

The Gallery, Meissen Cathedral Photo
The Gallery, Meissen Cathedral Photo: Stuart Whatling

The idea for a Courtauld-Harvard excursion to Upper Saxony last May was born in the triforium of Prague cathedral in 2006, when Jeffrey Hamburger, Professor of the History of Art at Harvard, had suggested to me that we take a student study trip together into Germany. A year later, and thanks to Jeffrey’s energetic fund-raising, my enthusiasm, and the organising genius of one of our Associate Fellows, Alexandra Gajewski, we were all assembled at Berlin Schoenefeld: Jeffrey, me, 15 Harvard students (mostly postgrad), 5 of my Courtauld doctoral students (supported by the Research Forum), Dan Smail, Professor of History at Harvard, and last but not least, one of the great medievalists of our day – Robert Suckale of Berlin and his wife Gude, herself a leading manuscript specialist. For the next nine days, on a bus that became our second home, we cut a swathe through the old East Germany, as Robert’s reputation opened up all the normally inaccessible parts of our chosen churches, and Jeffrey acted as guide, German interpreter and benign academic uncle. With a mixture of intelligent co-operation and healthy competition, the well-prepared students gave their allotted papers in each building while I watched transatlantic friendships in the making. In Magdeburg cathedral we peered down from the splendid gallery to one of the first sculptures of a negro in western art. In Halberstadt we marvelled at one of the great treasuries of Europe. In Naumburg cathedral we climbed the towers and stood surrounded by a rather haughty court of medieval German aristocrats, brought uncannily to life by the anonymous 13th-century Naumburg master. The staff and pupils of Pforta school, which counted among its alumni Fichte, the Schlegels and Nietzsche, entertained us to a lively lunch and showed us their great 12th-century DE CIVITATE DEI. We were welcomed almost everywhere with generosity and warmth. Cathedral architects gave up their weekends to guide us through every detail of their beloved churches. The old Communist East Germany only occasionally re-surfaced. At sublime Annaberg an officious guide, masquerading as one of the last members of the East German Olympic shot-putting team, lectured us relentlessly in German as if we were children. ‘Am I boring you?’ she asked at last. ‘Yes,’ said the indomitable Alexandra with her sweetest smile. At that the guide retired. I wondered, however, if boredom sometimes seeped into even our most energetic students. When Zoe Opacic, graduate of The Courtauld and now lecturer at Birkbeck, explained the mysteries of cell-vaults at Meissen, her audience came away sparkling. But curiously enough, my standing offer – made loudly at the very beginning of the trip – of a three-hour technical disquisition on Schlingrippengewölbe (curving vaults) was never (now I look back on it) actually taken up… Long hours of looking in the day (lunch was for wimps) were rewarded with convivial evenings in the Gasthof, where mountains of sauerkraut and tankards of brown Saxon beer made conversation and friendship even more exhilarating. Back in Berlin, we vowed to do it again. Regensburg in 2008. We will be there!

Professor Paul Crossley