Embark on a journey through the history of one of the oldest universities in Germany. Works of European painting, sculpture, graphic art and handicrafts from the Middle Ages to the present provide an insight into the eventful 600-year history of a university steeped in tradition. The University presents the highlights of its art collection inside the former “Royal Palace”, now the Rectorate building.

Besucher in der Kunstsammlung im Rektoratsgebäude, Foto: Kustodie/Marion Wenzel
View of the exhibition room, photo: Kustodie/Marion Wenzel

600 years of art at Leipzig University

Visitors can marvel at works of art from the Dominican monastery, founded in the thirteenth century, which was located on the site of today’s Augustusplatz campus. These include the mysterious sculpture of the knight Dietrich of Wettin and a legendary painted panel known as the Böhmische Tafel. Valuable insignia, such as sceptres, seals and national emblems, bear witness to the founding of the University in 1409 and its constitution. Portraits of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon as well as paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, his son Lucas Cranach the Younger, and their peers illustrate the close connection between the University and the Reformers. Portraits of important scholars and artists highlight how these individuals shaped academia and the city of Leipzig. The collection of portraits painted by Anton Graff for the Leipzig publisher Philipp Erasmus Reich shows poets, thinkers, artists and statesmen of the Enlightenment. Views of University buildings and a city model reflect how the University grew.

The Sceptres of Leipzig University

Unknown saxon goldsmith, sceptres of Leipzig University, 1476, with amendments dating 16th to 20th century, photo: Kustodie/Marion Wenzel

The early period of the university

Historically the University of Leipzig (“Alma mater Lipsiensis”) is an offshoot of the Charles University in Prague. After Masters and students of German origin had left Prague – due to what they considered political oppression – a new university was founded in Leipzig in 1409 with the support of the Margraves of Meißen and the permission of the Pope. Frederic IV, also known as the “Quarrelsome”, and Wilhelm II granted them property and the right to self-administration. This special status is symbolised in the art collection by “insignia”, such as the pair of sceptres (1476)  and the rector’s small seal (1592). Following the Prague example, the new university was likewise structured on the principle of four faculties and four so-called “nations” of Meißen, Saxony, Bavaria and Poland. They are reflected in four painted shields of the 17th century, which originally decorated the university hall (“Nationenstube”).

Today, many aspects of the history of the university can only be found in its art collection. Practically no trace is left of the early university’s original buildings, as they were continually being rebuilt in more modern styles and on a grander scale. The oldest college buildings were located in the south-western part of the medieval city, between the Schlossgasse and the Petersstrasse, where the city council had allocated buildings for the use of graduates even before the official founding of the university. Later expanded to the “Kleines Fürstenkolleg”, these buildings housed the Faculty of Law from 1508 onwards (first called the “Petrinum” and referred to as the “Juridicum” since 1881). The main campus, however, was situated on the eastern rim of the medieval city, in the “Latin Quarter” between the city wall (now the Goethestrasse) and the Ritterstrasse. The complex of buildings became the seat of the Faculty of Arts (artes liberales). The new campus included the “Großes Fürstenkolleg” complete with dormitories (“Bursen”), a large heated lecture hall (“Vaporarium”), which also served as an assembly hall (“Nationenstube”), as well as various colleges, e.g. the “Kleines Colleg” and the “Rotes Colleg”.

Reformation and Baroque

The introduction of the Reformation in 1539 entailed the donation of even larger premises. In 1543 Grand Duke Moritz bequeathed the newly secularised Dominican monastery of St. Paul, south of the Grimmaische Straße, now the area between the Grimmaische Straße, the Universitätsstraße, Augustusplatz and the Moritzbastei. Numerous important medieval works of art in the collection testify to the wealth and culture of the former monastery, such as the life-size wood sculpture of St. Thomas Aquinus teaching and a double-sided painted altar piece, both completed around 1400. The late 15th century high altar of the Paulinerkirche is exhibited in the Thomaskirche as a loan from the university to the church. The close ties between the university and the Reformation movement are documented in numerous portraits of Luther and Melanchton, paintings with Protestant iconography, such as “Christ and the Children” from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder and painted epitaphs such as the one for Johann Goritz dating from 1553.

For the growing university, the acquisition of the monastery library represented a notable improvement in teaching conditions. At the same time the new premises provided the much-needed space for lecture halls, refectories and dormitories. Founded in 1240, the Paulinerkirche was architecturally re-modelled according to Protestant ideas and solemnly inaugurated as the university church in 1545. Its spacious interior served not only for disputations and graduation ceremonies, but also as the burial site for the university elite, a practice that continued into the late 18th century. In this tradition, an important ensemble of epitaphs developed over the centuries, which continued to inspire pride and confidence in later generations. In 1968, however, communist rulers decided to tear down the church to make room for socialist “urban development”. Before the church was literally blown up with explosives, many works of art could miraculously be saved. The current exhibition presents a selection that has been restored, yet a great many pieces still await restoration for display in the new university hall/church on its original site.

The Post-Reformation history of the university is also reflected in numerous portraits of professors. The “Ordinariengalerie” of the Law School [6] includes portraits of department heads from the 16th to the 19th century and is the only systematically planned gallery of professors at the university. From the middle of the 17th century onwards, an increase in portrait donations from private benefactors is to be noted, many of which were gifts to the university library. Of particular interest to art historians is the late 18th century Gallery of Friendship. The collection consists of portraits commissioned by the publisher and bookseller Phillipp Erasmus Reich of Leipzig. Reich had associated with many famous Enlightenment writers, artists and philosophers such as Moses Mendelsohn, Lessing and Sulzer from Leipzig or Lavater from Zurich. Predominantly painted by Anton Graff, the pictures included several university professors, for example C. F. Gellert and J. A. Ernesti.

The so-called “deposition instruments” are of special importance for the history of student life at the university because they are relics of an ancient initiation rite for incoming students. The notion derives from the Latin term depositio cornu, i.e. the “removal of the horns”. An incoming student at that time had to don a hat with horns, symbolic of his uncouth, Dionysian nature, the forcible removal of which symbolised his passage into civilised society. Moreover, the student was “groomed” with oversize combs, razors, axes and planes. After repeated cases of injuries and even death, the initiation was finally abolished in 1719. Similar rites were common at many universities throughout Europe, but the necessary “tools” have only survived in Leipzig.

Cranach Werkstatt, Epitaph Göritz, 1553, Foto: Kustodie/Marion Wenzel
L. Cranach the elder (workshop), Epitaph for Johann Goritz, 1553, photo: Kustodie/Marion Wenzel
Max Klinger, Portrait of Wilhelm Wundt, 1908, photo: Kustodie/Marion Wenzel

The State University (18th/19th century)

From 1830 onwards the University of Leipzig began developing into a modern state university. The new beginnings went hand in hand with an ambitious building spree, which is documented in the collection through various cityscapes on paper. Between 1830 and 1836, the first main building named “Augusteum”, based on the designs of A. Geutebrück, was built on the Augustusplatz. Its sculptural decoration by E. Rietschel (1801−1864), for instance the tympanon on the façade and the cycle of twelve reliefs for the university hall, was largely destroyed in 1944, but an important architectural fragment in the shape of the monumental entrance gate called the “Schinkelportal” has survived. The middle of the 19th century also saw the construction of new institute buildings both on the premises of the monastery and in the “Academic Quarter” on the city’s south-eastern periphery, amply documented in etchings and lithographs. The years around 1900 saw the advent of yet another building campaign. Between 1892 and 1898 the original Augusteum by Geutebrück was re-modelled along historistic lines by A. Roßbach, adhering to the classical style of his predecessor. In addition to a new façade towards the Augustusplatz, the building was furnished with an impressive foyer and a much larger university hall. Most of the interior decoration of the “Augusteum” was however destroyed in World War II. The monumental mural painting The Flourishing of Greece (1907−1909) in the auditorium by the symbolist painter and sculptor Max Klinger of Leipzig was lost. In the years around 1900, the university had particularly close ties with Klinger and commissioned him to produce several works. In the exhibition this special relationship is attested to by Klinger’s marble bust (1908) of the psychologist and former professor Wilhelm Wundt. Some pieces of the interior decoration of the Augusteum have survived, such as the sculpted portrait bust of the art historian Anton Springer signed by Carl Seffner and dated 1892. Vogel von Vogelstein’s oil painting (1841) of Gottfried Hermann, professor of classical philology, is just one example of a representative collection of painted portraits from the 19th century.

How to find us

The study collection “Studiensammlung” can now be found on the original premises of the university and is located on the ground floor of the Rektoratsgebäude at the corner of the Goethestrasse and the (Kleine) Ritterstrasse. The present building was erected from 1860 to 1861 by the master builder of the university, Albert Geutebrück (1801−1868), as the “Royal Palace” which served as the Leipzig residence of the Saxon king. Between 1895 and 1896, the interior of the building was re-modelled in the Neo-Rococo style by Arwed Rossbach (1844−1902).