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Jesuits came to the Mughal court hoping to convert the emperors. Instead, the Indian rulers used Christian images for their own royal propaganda.
Photo Credit: The San Diego Museum of Art
When Mughal emperor Akbar invited Portuguese Jesuits from Goa to his court in 1579, they were elated. Converting Akbar to Christianity would be their biggest achievement outside the European world.
They sent excited reports back to their home country, saying that India’s largest empire would soon be a part of the Christian world.
As it turned out, Akbar had other ideas. His court was in the midst of intense inter-religious discussions. At the time the Jesuits were sharing their art and discussing the Bible with scholars in the court, others were being directed to translate hundreds of Sanskrit and Arabic texts, including the Ramayana, into Persian.
Mughal Emperor Akbar holds a religious assembly in the Ibadat Khana in Fatehpur Sikri; the two men dressed in black are the Jesuit missionaries Rodolfo Acquaviva and Francisco Henriques, c. 1605. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Akbar directed court artists to use Christian imagery for his own royal propaganda but refused to commit any further.
The presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth, c. 1600-1610. Possibly painted in Bijapur. Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.
Christian iconography is unusually adaptive. When Christianity reached China, the Chinese portrayed Jesus Christ as one of their own. It’s no wonder that Christ was Indianised when the Jesuits first came to India. But as artists, particularly four in Akbar and Jehangir’s reign, learned from and adapted to Western styles, their depictions of Christ and Mary became steadily more European.
If you do not look closely, some of the most striking Mughal art between 1580 and 1630 could be mistaken for belonging to European schools of art.
Mother and Child with a White Cat. Attributed to Manohar (active ca. 1582–1624) or Basawan. Photo credit: The San Diego Museum of Art.
Virgin and Child, c. 1625. Photo credit: Caravaggista.
Christian stories were also not entirely alien to the Mughals. Ninety verses of the Koran deal with Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad is said to have allowed the portraits of Jesus and Mary to be preserved when he ordered all other idolatrous images to be destroyed in the Kaaba.
Jesus was also popular among the Sufis as a sort of hermetic ascetic. Given Akbar’s strong endorsement of the Sufis, it is not surprising that the two figures were then steadily incorporated into royal commissions.
Akbar’s son Prince Salim, who would later become Jehangir, also did the same. Unlike his father, who encouraged depictions of Jesus and other saints in secular, royal and religious settings inspired only partly by European art, Jehangir seems to have insisted on a more strictly European approach, at least the saints.
Even so, propaganda is not to be sniffed at. One painting shows Jehangir as ruler of the world atop another image of Christ holding a cross. Another pair, also of Jehangir, shows him holding an image of his father Akbar and his spiritual mother, Mary.
Jehangir and Jesus. Hashim, Jehangir, c. 1615-1620. Abu’l-Hasan. Photo credit: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.
If the Jesuits still retained any hope of converting either emperor, a painting by Bichitr would have snuffed that out. The painting, adorned with naked and clothed European cherubs shows Jehangir snubbing King James I and VI of England in favour of a Sufi sheikh.
Jehangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, from the St. Petersburg album, c. 1615-1618. Bichitr. Photo credit: Freer Gallery of Art.
The influence of European art on Mughal miniatures continued well after Akbar and Jehangir, even in paintings that did not directly reference Christ. One of the later examples of this comes around a century later. The Birth of Christ with its title written in English is now at the National Museum in Delhi.
The Birth of Christ. Mid 18th century, late Mughal, Muhammad Shah period. Photo credit: National Museum, New Delhi.