Search InstrumentHeidelberg Student Prison: Digital Catalogue with Over 2,000 Images

Press Release No. 7/2022
20 January 2022

The paintings in the student prison are freely accessible online along with comprehensive background information

Scenes from student life, caricatures, mysterious signs – over 2,000 paintings and graffiti adorn the walls and ceilings of the historical student prison of Heidelberg University. They stem from students who were locked up there for committing an offence. It is now possible to retrieve not only the images themselves but also a wealth of background information on the individual objects – including details on their creators or their date of origin. The freely available search instrument arose from a project of the Institute for European Art History of Ruperto Carola in cooperation with the Baden-Württemberg State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and the Heidelberg University Library. The project includes an extensive photo documentation of the university prison, which is one of the most popular attractions of the city of Heidelberg.

Student Prison

This documentation starts with a plan of the prison − accurate to the last centimetre − covering all five detention cells and the stairwell, which extends over three storeys. Every single painting, inscription and drawing was photographed and classified. “An evaluation of various sources in the University Archives made it possible in very many cases to identify the names of the prison inmates who had designed the graffiti. With the aid of the ‘prison book’ it was also possible to discover which individuals had served a sentence in the student prison, when and how often,” explains the director of the documentation project, Prof. Dr Matthias Untermann from the Institute for European Art History. This led to the development of an extensive digital catalogue with over 2,000 images, which can be searched according to differing criteria with the assistance of appropriate search and filter functions. For example, it is possible to go straight to individual rooms, but the catalogue can also be searched by names, objects and other key words. Supplementary links lead to the sources of the Heidelberg University Archives and the University Library. Handwritten texts, such as inscriptions on the walls and ceilings of the detention cells and stairwell, have been transcribed for easy reading.

The student prison is in Augustinergasse, adjoining the rear of the Old University. The building was acquired by the university in 1786. In the course of the 19th century it was gradually rebuilt to serve as a prison. The university had its own court and, for over 100 years, students were detained in the student prison for offences such as disturbing the peace at night, or other infringements of public and university order. In the last few decades before it was closed in 1914 students regarded it as cool to be locked up in the prison and to immortalise themselves by painting and scribbling on the walls. That included, for instance, tracing silhouettes, describing practical jokes or depicting the emblems of student fraternities, known as circles. “I don’t think I have ever been in rooms more richly adorned with frescos,” wrote US author Mark Twain on visiting the place in 1878 – at a time when it was still in use as a student prison.

Prof. Untermann underlines that the new image database will also play a supporting role during the restoration work that has meanwhile begun, which is being funded in the context of the federal government’s special programme for the preservation of heritage sites. Owing to natural dilapidation, climatic conditions and, ultimately, also the use by visitors, extensive restoration has become necessary at Heidelberg student prison, particularly to preserve the paintings on the walls and ceilings. That also includes protecting the paint layer and plaster, patching and retouching.