Written by John Watters
The Heritage Tour officially began on Friday, May 22, but many in the group chose to get a head start by touring or visiting friends in other places. Some went to Paris, others to Rome, others to Bratislava, and a few even farther afield. My wife, Alison, and I chose to spend a few extra days in Munich.
While Sherri Baierl provides the “official” voice of the Heritage Tour blog, I will contribute where I can, and I thought I would focus on two things: the small wonders I encounter both during and outside the tour, and the experiences I have that connect me in some way to either the Cornerstone seminar that preceded the tour, my life as a member of the St. Norbert College community (working in the office of communications), or the values and principles I’ve come to understand as integral to the Norbertine heritage.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Cornerstone Seminar was the opportunity to spend a Saturday morning at the abbey with Fr. Jim Neilson. In a whirlwind two-hour slideshow, Fr. Jim put into context much of the art, architecture and other sights we would encounter on the trip. He helped us understand the cultural and political forces at work during the times these things were created, and the significance of the symbols, design features, and even the materials used in them.
At the end of his presentation, someone asked Fr. Jim if he could recommend “must-see” places to visit. One he cited was the Asam Kirche (church) in Munich, and Alison and I sought it out on our first morning in the city,
I really don’t have the vocabulary to describe the place. It is breathtakingly elaborate, pulling out all the stops even by rococo standards. (By the way, my art knowledge is negligible. I’ll do my best to “fact- and terminology-check” with my art-professor wife, but forgive any faulty references.) To put things most simply, Asam Kriche is the kind of place where you sit back and stare at the ceiling with your mouth open for minutes on end. It encourages the feelings of wonder and awe one should properly have in God’s house, and of course that was the intent..
The pictures you see here hardly do the church justice. Unfortunately, it rained constantly in our first days in Munich, so photos in natural light were impossible to come by.
It was an exciting (and moving) beginning to the trip. Ironically, the one place in the church that did not seem pristine was the crypt of its brother-creators, the Asams. It was in urgent need of repair, and a small box had been set up to accept donations. A couple of euros seemed like a very modest thank-you to the builders.
Just down the street from the Asam Kirche was the Stadtmuseum, We had seen a note that said it included a marionette collection, which didn’t seem terribly exciting – to grown-ups, anyway. But it was raining, and any port in a storm, so we went in to check it out.
The entire museum was full of delightful surprises.
The first floor contained 10 intact 15th-century wood carvings – exquisitely graceful depictions of dancers, each 2-3 feet tall. So much of the city was destroyed in World War II, it is remarkable that anything of this age has survived.
Woodcarving has a long tradition in Germany, and these exceptional statues put me in mind of the new, masterful examples of the art that we now have in Dudley Birder Hall. If memory serves, the carving tradition of the family that created those extends back almost as far as the works in the Stadtmuseum. I imagined how they might themselves look after 600 years, once they have acquired the same rich patina.
The upper floors of the museum contained a centuries-long retrospective of marionettes and puppeteering, from medieval examples to some truly astonishing 20th-century works. We were transfixed by the modern work of Harry Kramer, in particular. The marionettes gave way to a highly entertaining collection of old carnival and circus items, from carousel animals to games of “skill,” and the top floor contained an extensive collection of musical instruments both ancient and modern, many of them in interactive displays. Humans can apparently make music on just about anything, from seashells to hollow logs.
In the floor between was a riveting exhibition of photography by Anders Peterson, whose depictions of common (and uncommon) people were alternately bleak and joyous.
I really can’t recommend the museum highly enough, and both Kramer and Peterson are artists I’m eager to learn more about.
The evening brought a different sense of connection when we went out to dinner and, later, to the Hofbrauhaus for a stein or two. Shared tables, which are something of a rarity in American restaurants, are commonplace here. It is expected that if there are seats available at your table, others will join you. After a few awkward initial moments, it feels quite natural, and in fact, it’s a great way to meet people (especially in the Hofbrauhaus!)
We began the Cornerstone Seminar in 2014 with a shared meal, and enjoyed several more during the course of the year’s meetings. This was a wonderfully effective way to get to know and bond with our fellow travelers, as well as a very tangible demonstration of Norbertine hospitality and community. If I’m not mistaken, Michels Commons was designed to include a number of large tables to encourage just this sort of communal sharing of meals and conversation. And our tour will begin, aptly enough, with a group dinner. So I found a common thread between those practices in our college community and the practices among the people of Munich.