By Aleksandra Rutkowska, DPhil student
Aleksandra completed the MSt History of Art and Visual Culture in 2018 and shares her experience of the course.
Doing the MSt was as fulfilling as it was tough. The course compressed into nine months a combination of the usual elements of a full-year art history postgraduate programme with learning experiences unique to the vibrant intellectual community of Oxford University. At times it could feel like an ultra-marathon of reading, writing and discussing with no time for more mundane daily tasks, yet it invariably rewarded any hardships with a sense of personal development as a skilled scholar. Most importantly, I simply truly enjoyed every single second of it – and I am more than grateful for the opportunity to continue studying at the department, now as a DPhil.
At its core, the MSt course was similar for everyone. Each of us had to take the compulsory module in theories and methods of art history, which consisted of weekly sessions centred on assigned readings. We were usually split into two groups, but sometimes (usually in weeks led by guest lecturers) we would all participate in a single class. One or two students would deliver short presentations detailing the key points of the topic, and then the conversation started. Our critical apparatus was put to the test during handling sessions at the Ashmolean Museum, when we analysed objects from their extensive collections using our ever-expanding repertoire of art historical approaches. In addition, we were encouraged to attend the corresponding undergraduate lectures in order to get yet more solid grounding in the readings.
The second component of the MSt was an elective special option, which we chose accordingly to our research interests. Each option numbered around four or five students (but this could increase up to ten depending on how many students are in a cohort). I had the pleasure to be in Professor Gervase Rosser’s course ‘Gothic: Artistic Originality and the Transmission of Style in Medieval Art’, which far exceeded all of my expectations. Our weekly meetings, during which we shared our thoughts about the problematics of medieval art and its historiography, were followed by equally stimulating coffee breaks and walks through Oxford’s Gothic and neo-Gothic architecture. On a few occasions, we also visited the Ashmolean for behind-the-scenes investigations of medieval artefacts, and went to Merton College and the Weston Library to have a look at some of their most treasured manuscripts.
Exeter College Chapel, 1850s. © Aleksandra Rutkowska
Although these would have more than sufficed to allow us to examine our subject of study hands-on, Gervase did not stop there; he was kind enough to take us on trips further afield. We went to London twice, once in Michaelmas and once in Hilary. On our first visit, we explored the medieval court in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the second one saw us touring Westminster Abbey and the medieval rooms of the British Museum. Yet for me the highlight came in Trinity, when Gervase took us (some of us quite literally, for he drove three of us in his car) to Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, a former country residence of the Rothschild family now owned by the National Trust. We spent an unforgettable day looking at magnificent manuscripts in the Manor’s library with their curator, who also showed us around the palace. When the programme came to an end, we had no words to express our gratitude to Gervase.
Manuscript session at Waddesdon Manor, Trinity 2018
Apart from the two obligatory elements, as MSts we were free to attend other courses and open lectures suited to our needs. As a medievalist, I participated in medieval palaeography in Hilary, and took classes in classical and medieval Latin throughout the year, both of which were provided by the History Faculty. They both proved to be invaluable for my research. I am convinced that no other university would have offered me a similar chance to obtain such skills.
Moreover, we were expected to participate in the academic life of the department and the University by going to departmental research seminars in Michaelmas and the Slade Lectures in Hilary. The main difference between the two is that a different speaker is invited each week for the former, whereas the latter is run by a single guest lecturer. Since my research is mostly about late medieval Castile, in Hilary I also decided to join the newly-established Iberian reading group, run by members and researchers of the History Faculty. I feel I gained a lot from these additional activities.
Of course, in the midst of lectures, seminars and museum visits we also had to find enough time to prepare our assessments. For the Theory and Methods course, we were required to submit one short (1,200 to 1,500 words) formative essay in Michaelmas and Hilary in preparation for the seventy-two-hours take-home exam at the end of Trinity. As topics were pre-assigned, I found these less challenging, but at the same time also somehow less immersive, than the two pieces of work (each between 4,000 and 5,000 words) I had to produce for the special option. Gervase was as wonderful a supervisor as he was a tutor and his help in forming and structuring my ideas for these essays was invaluable.
This leads me to what is perhaps the heart of the MSt: the dissertation. Gervase made sure early on that I was devoting enough time to working on my chosen topic, since, while it is not very difficult to write 15,000 words, making them meaningful is another matter altogether. Cardinal Gil de Albornoz and his funerary chapel in Toledo cathedral soon became my inseparable companions, with whom I spent long hours in the libraries every week. My college (Somerville) also supported me in this endeavour by awarding me a research grant, owing to which I was able to go to Toledo in early December to see the monument and examine the pertinent primary sources in the cathedral’s archives. I started writing my tentative ideas soon after, so as not to be overwhelmed by the emptiness of the blank page once the submission deadline started approaching.
Funerary Chapel of Cardinal Gil de Albornoz, 1340s-72, Toledo Cathedral. © Aleksandra Rutkowska
Some final words
If I were to offer one single piece of advice to future MSt students, I would say that you should follow your own research interests while remaining open to other topics and perspectives. Also, I am well-aware everyone keeps on repeating that, but do not leave writing up your dissertation until Hilary!
Further information about the Master’s Degree in History of Art and Visual Culture can be found here.