Course Highlight: ART 228 “Art and Power in the Middle Ages”

March 2, 2023

Professor Charlie Barber and A&A Graduate Student Mathilde Sauquet Co-teach Through the Collaborative Teaching Initiative

ART 228 “Art and Power in the Middle Ages” looks at politics and religion reflected in the art of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa between 300 and 1200 C.E., exploring the art of great courts as well as migratory societies and of religions including Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Islam.  Fundamental to the understanding of Medieval art, this is an annual course that is always team-taught. In the current semester, Professor Charlie Barber is co-teaching the course with A&A Ph.D. candidate Mathilde Sauquet as part of the Collaborative Teaching Initiative (CTI), a program administered by the Office of the Dean of the College.  “By inviting a graduate student to become a part of that team, we can refresh the course, using a different perspective to re-evaluate course content as well as pedagogical practices,” said Barber.  As collaborators, Barber and Sauquet work together in conceiving how best to introduce the material to undergraduate students and optimize the class experience.

“There's a real benefit for me being able to observe Charlie's teaching and pick his brain as I'm trying to figure out how I might approach a given topic or when deciding which set of objects makes the most sense.” – Mathilde Sauquet.

5 students and 2 instructors crowd around manuscript facsimile.

Barber’s and Sauquet’s deliberate, in-depth approach to examining art in context has convinced astrophysics concentrator Xander Jenkin ’25 of art history’s value. “Before taking this class, I enjoyed history but didn't really like art or art analysis. I felt like art analysis was obtuse and too interpretive, as someone else would see meaning in a Picasso painting where all I see are incoherent colors and shapes randomly smeared across the page,” he said. “The deep integration of history, religion, and politics allows me to actually perform analysis about the meanings, interpretations, and depictions in these pieces.”  History concentrator Alina Guo ’26 was also surprised to learn how effectively art reflects its historical context. “Medieval canon was way more fluid [than I thought]…sometimes celebrating a more ecclesiastical history, sometimes modeling the Greco-Roman ideals,” she said.

Students examine ornate box as Professor Barber reaches over it

Looking closely at objects firsthand is an enthralling and essential component of this course.  Barber and Sauquet selected two Northumbrian facsimiles from Princeton’s Special Collections for a recent class. Sauquet presented a facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels, a manuscript made on the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast at the beginning of eighth century. Considered one of the most iconic books of the Middle Ages, the Lindisfarne Gospels is rich with intricate imagery that melds local and Mediterranean traditions in its illumination.  "The carpet and incipit pages really push one's visual and mental engagement with the book," said Sauquet.  "The manuscript makes one want to look more and more closely, as it reveals hidden details and further intricacies about itself," she continued. "I think the book holds a kind of playful and enigmatic potential that can get students very excited about it." 

 "The manuscript makes one want to look more and more closely, as it reveals hidden details and further intricacies about itself" – Sauquet

Students and instructor look closely as manuscript on table.

Mathilde Sauquet presents a facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels. 


Students were assigned readings from Old English riddles as well as Beowulf to prepare for class and effectively found connections in the objects. For Jenkin, color was the most rewarding facet of seeing objects firsthand. “I particularly enjoy seeing the colors of these recreations in real life,” said Jenkin.  Unlike the “dull and pale” Medieval relics Jenkins was accustomed to seeing, “they were actually incredibly vibrant with rich colors and patterns. The purples, in particular, were great to see on the pages of the texts we looked at,” said Jenkin. 

Barber intrigued students with a highly ornamental box from Special Collections.  The facsimile reproduces an 8th-century box known as the Franks Casket, carved from whalebone and depicting scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Germanic tradition.  The box’s surfaces communicate a myriad of stories including the mythological Remus and Romulus and the biblical Magi, with the main inscription using a mixture of Old English, Latin, runes and insular script to couch a riddle about the sea-born origin of the material used to make the box. Guo was surprised by the coexistence of so many kinds of story telling in the art of the Middle Ages as exemplified in this object, “I realized art and history of aesthetics during the Medieval period are not always about the monumentalization of a classic canon,” she said.


Ornate box in foreground is examined by Professor Barber and students gathered around.

Professor Barber and students examine a facsimile of the Franks Casket, British Museum/Bargello Museum. 


The collaborative teaching approach seems to be serving the class well.  “This class has done a great job teaching us how to think about art and giving us more to ‘chew on’ as we get more comfortable working with art on our own,” said Jenkin. “I've learned a lot and am excited to possibly take more art history classes after this one (which I wasn't planning on before).” Sauquet likewise feels its benefit.  “Co-teaching has been a wonderful experience in that it's been both humbling and empowering for me as a graduate student,” she said. “I'm learning so much from the actual practice of preparing and delivering lectures - it's certainly time-consuming, but also highly rewarding!”

“This class has done a great job teaching us how to think about art and giving us more to ‘chew on’ as we get more comfortable working with art on our own.  I've learned a lot and am excited to possibly take more art history classes after this one (which I wasn't planning on before).” – Xander Jenkin '25

The Office of the Dean of the College seeks to accomplish two goals through the CTI program: first, to encourage a graduate student’s intellectual, pedagogical, and professional development under the guidance of a seasoned mentor; and second, to provide innovative new team-taught courses for Princeton’s undergraduates. Sauquet is the fourth graduate student in the Medieval area to have participated in this program. Katherine King, Meseret Oldjira, and Erene Rafik Morcos have preceded her in the program.  Fall 2023 will see two such courses in the A&A offering born of the CTI program.  Professor Hal Foster and A&A graduate student Samuel Shapiro will co-teach ART 455 “Seminar in Modernist Art & Theory : What was Postmodernism? What is Modernism?” and Professor Cheng-hua Wang and graduate student Yutong Li will co-teach ART 389 “Women and Gender in Chinese Art.” In both cases, the graduate students conceived of the courses together with their mentors and will help develop syllabi, reading lists, and course content.

Professor Barber observes as Mathilde Sauquet teaches.

The CTI program directly impacts graduate students’ careers. “CTI provides an excellent forum for further training and for close observation of the student’s teaching skills,” explained Barber. “This pays rich dividends when it comes to our writing recommendation letters for our students when they arrive on the job market.”  Sauquet is making the most of the opportunity. “This feels like a great time for me to go out of my comfort zone and teach material I'm less familiar with,” she said.

“It is a steep learning curve, but I know that I will come out of this experience feeling much more confident and better equipped to teach on my own in the future.” – Mathilde Sauquet