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What is Jesus Doing in Mughal Miniatures?

By Aliya Usmani

When the Mughal Emperor Akbar heard of the arrival of the first Jesuit Mission led by Rudolph Aquaviva and Monserrate from Goa, he immediately headed to the chapel in Fatehpur Sikri. He took off his turban, shook off his long dark hair and in respect, Akbar prostrated in front of Christ and Mother Mary. The Fathers of the Mission presented him with a picture of the Virgin Mary which they had brought from Rome. According to Father Monserrate’s records, Akbar accepted it with great delight. And thus, with the Jesuit Mission of 1580 began the tryst of the Mughals with the world of Christianity.

However, this was not the first encounter of the Mughals with European art. We know that Akbar was in contact with the Europeans at least since the 1570s. Abu’l Fazl (the chronicler of Akbar’s reign and an important member of his court) mentions European contact as early as 1578. When the first Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1580, Monserrate was greeted with pictures of Christ, Moses and Mary in the royal dining hall.

Thomas Roe, an Englishman and Pietro della Valle, an Italian traveller, arrived in India during the 16th and 17th centuries. They were in awe when they looked at walls covered with murals of Christ and Madonna along with several miniature paintings depicting similar themes. The European visitors were often so fascinated with these Christian images in the Mughal empire that false reports spread about the possibility of Akbar’s conversion to Christianity. However, these reports remained unfounded.

Both Akbar and his successor Jahangir showed keen interest in commissioning Catholic art. Numerous paintings dealing with devotional themes, and portraits of Jesus and Christian saints were commissioned. What is striking about these paintings is that they are distinctively influenced by Renaissance art. Renaissance was a period in European history lasting broadly from around the 14th century to the 17th century marked by the rediscovery of art, philosophy and architecture of classical antiquity. It focused on the visual representation of human anatomy and less on the artists’ imagination. The likeness to reality was the hallmark of Renaissance paintings.

The similarity to stylistic elements of Renaissance art in Mughal paintings is directly linked to Akbar’s exposure to European works, through the Jesuits, produced during the Renaissance. These works included engravings of some of the flagbearers of Renaissance art such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Matin de Vos. The Jesuits got with them oil paintings, a copy of Plantyn\’s Royal Polyglot Bible (printed at Antwerp between 1568- 1573) and even a Portuguese painter!

The art that appeared in the Mughal School due to this intermingling of two stylistic traditions was very different from its predecessors. It was a combination of both Persian and European elements. The artists began to apply a scientific perspective and used techniques such as chiaroscuro (contrasts of light and dark) to enhance their paintings. Akbar was deeply influenced by realism and commissioned his artists to paint lively portraitures depicting the minutest details. It was Jahangir though who commissioned the largest number of Catholic devotional art under his reign.

The theme of the Crucifixion is considered abominable in Islam. As according to the Islamic tradition, Jesus was never crucified. Despite this, we find Mughal miniatures replete with paintings depicting the Crucifixion of Jesus. Jahangir’s painters worked on several pieces in which they painted a figural border around a poetic text inscribed by calligraphers. Some of them also combine Christian figures with Hindu and Islamic figures. One of these border paintings depicts the scene of the Crucifixion. (See Fig.1)


Once, an unknown Portuguese painter arrived at the Mughal court in 1595 with a Jesuit Mission. He left behind a painting titled ‘Madonna and the Child with Angels’. Salim (known as Jahangir after he succeeded the throne) wanted his artists to imitate the Portuguese painter’s paintings. He commissioned an imitation of Durer’s engraving of the ‘Madonna and Child’. He instructed the artists to consult Jesuit fathers to paint all the colours accurately. In the painting ‘Madonna and Child with Angels’ (See Fig. 2), painted by an anonymous Mughal painter, there has been special care taken to get the blue of Madonna’s robe right.


Salim trained his artists to be extremely consistent. Some of the painters in Akbar’s atelier were even inspired by painters in the academy of Salim. One such painter under Akbar was Manohar who painted ‘Christ as Savior of the World’ (See Fig. 3)


One of the most skilled artists of the Mughal School was Basawan. He did not just imitate European art, but fused elements of both European and Mughal art in his works. In his painting of Madonna breastfeeding Jesus (See Fig. 4), we see that the carpet has a Persian design and the ornate vessels also are painted in Persian style.


The presence of the Emperor himself in holy pictures (See Fig. 5) is also suggestive of the fact that the Emperor aimed at being projected as a subject of devotion. Through this, the emperor attempted to gain spiritual legitimacy by sharing a frame with Jesus.


Interestingly, Jahangir even wore a Christian cross of gold beneath his Persian-style robes and sealed his official letters with seals of Jesus and Mary to concretize his spiritual legitimacy. These paintings were a constant source of tension with the Muslim ulama. The Muslim orthodoxy pointed out that the naturalistic depiction of living beings was prohibited in Islam as it amounted to trying to emulate the power of creation. In justification Akbar, according to Abu’l Fazl, replied: “There are many that hate painting, but such men I dislike. It appears to me that an artist has a unique way of recognizing God when he must come to feel that he cannot bestow life on his work …”



The Indian Conquest of Catholic Art: The Mughals, the Jesuits, and Imperial Mural Painting Author(s): Gauvin Alexander Bailey Source: Art Journal , Spring, 1998, Vol. 57, No. 1, The Reception of Christian Devotional Art (Spring, 1998), pp. 24-30

Sectional President\’s Address: HUMANISM IN MUGHAL PAINTING Author(s): Som Prakash Verma Source: Proceedings of the Indian History Congress , 2002, Vol. 63 (2002), pp. 209-242 Published by: Indian History Congress

The Jesuits and the Grand Mogul: Renaissance Art at the Imperial Court of India, 1580-1630 by Gauvin Alexander Bailey

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