When Mughal rulers borrowed from Christianity to produce exquisite works of art

About five centuries ago, Mughal Emperor Akbar sent a request to Jesuit priests stationed in the Portuguese enclave of Goa to teach him Christianity. It is difficult to say whether he wanted to learn the religion of Christ for personal interest or for the purpose of choosing suitable material for his new religion, ‘Din-I-Illahi’. However, what was initiated was an elaborate process of cultural exchange resulting in a collection of glorious artistic pieces made up of a combination of Persian and European motifs.

Jalal-ud-din Muhammed Akbar King appointed by God

The principal Fathers of the Order of Saint Paul know that I am your great friend.

I am sending my ambassador Abdullah and Dominic Pires there to ask you to send
me two learned priests, who would bring with them the Principal Books of the Law and
the Gospel so that I learn the Law and its most perfect.

Akbar’s invitation came as a big surprise to the Jesuits who saw it as an opportunity to teach the laws of Christianity to Muslim rulers in the north, in the hope that they would convert. They immediately curated translated volumes of the Bible and several European artworks reflecting Christian imagery.

A painting depicting religious discussions in Akbar’s Ibadat Khana, (Wikimedia Commons)

The very first paintings to reach the Mughal court were large oil paintings of Mother Mary, a religious figure known in the Muslim world for her presence in the Quran. The Jesuits then presented the Royal Polyglot Bible to Akbar, with biblical illustrations by a Flemish painter. According to historical chronicles, Akbar was so moved by the images of the Bible that he knelt before the image of Christ and Mary and worshiped three times in Christian, Muslim and Hindu fashion.

The Mughal emperor was moved by religious sentiments in European artworks, but had no intention of converting to Christianity. On the contrary, he considered the use of non-Mughal motifs perfectly appropriate to demonstrate the supremacy of the Mughal Empire and its universal right to rule. Renaissance art, which emphasized humanistic values ​​and realism, was at its height in 16th-century Europe and was also reflected in biblical images of the time. The themes of these paintings, having universal appeal, were considered ideal by the Mughal rulers to justify their rule in a foreign land with multi-religious subjects.

Akbar’s court painters like Kesu Das, Manohar, Basawan and Kesu Khurd were most inspired by European motifs and produced paintings with Christian themes and figures. Later the tradition of relying on Christian motives was continued by Jehangir and later Mughal rulers.

Christmas, Christmas Greetings, Mughals and Christmas, Mughals, Christmas Greetings, Christmas Cards, Christmas 2021, Christmas News, Christmas Art, Christmas Paintings, Indian Express Mother Mary and Child Christ, mid-18th century (National Museum, New Delhi)
Christmas, Christmas Greetings, Mughals and Christmas, Mughals, Christmas Greetings, Christmas Cards, Christmas 2021, Christmas News, Christmas Art, Christmas Paintings, Indian Express Martydom of Saint Cecilia by Nini, 17th century. (Victoria and Albert Museums)
Christmas, Christmas Greetings, Mughals and Christmas, Mughals, Christmas Greetings, Christmas Cards, Christmas 2021, Christmas News, Christmas Art, Christmas Paintings, Indian Express Mother and Child with a White Cat: Folio from an Album by Jahangir, Attributed to Manohar, 1598 (San Diego Museum of Art)

The Indian origin of the paintings is evident from the use of Mughal motifs and native scenes. Several of them were inspired by familiar images of Indian goddesses to create European characters. There were several such works of art which consisted of images of Mughal rulers with biblical figures in the murals above, thus serving the purpose of religious justification of Mughal rule.

The 17th century painting which Jahangir presents to Prince Khurram with a turban ornament is a perfect example of art showcasing Mughal rule with images borrowed from Christianity. In this case, the motifs can be attributed to the Polyglot Bible. Close examination will reveal the upper murals occupied by biblical figures.

Christmas, Christmas Greetings, Mughals and Christmas, Mughals, Christmas Greetings, Christmas Cards, Christmas 2021, Christmas News, Christmas Art, Christmas Paintings, Indian Express Jahangir presenting Prince Khurram with a turban ornament, 1617 (Royal collection trust)
Christmas, Christmas Greetings, Mughals and Christmas, Mughals, Christmas Greetings, Christmas Cards, Christmas 2021, Christmas News, Christmas Art, Christmas Paintings, Indian Express Jahangir and Jesus, 17th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Even more astonishing are the royal commissions for the realization of murals with Christian figurines in the Mughal royal palaces. Jahangir’s murals of public saints first appeared in Agra Fort, surrounding the emperor’s throne. Later, such murals were also commissioned in the courts of Lahore and Mandu. Images of saints were always arranged in rows in the upper register of the walls or ceiling. Interestingly, Christian images have never been outside buildings, perhaps to avoid offending the religious sentiments of the general public.

While Christianity had been received and adopted in several other countries before it came to India, the reception of the religion here was unique in that it was adapted in a way that served the interests of the Mughal rulers. But in doing so, the Mughals introduced the native Indians to Christian values ​​and traditions that the country would continue to celebrate for centuries.

Christopher S. Washington