When Mughal rulers borrowed from Christianity to produce exquisite works of art
About five centuries ago, the Mughal Emperor Akbar sent a request to the Jesuit priests stationed in the Portuguese enclave of Goa to teach him Christianity. It is difficult to say whether he wanted to learn more about the religion of Christ out of personal interest or for the sake of choosing suitable material for his new religion, ‘Din-I-Illahi’. However, what was initiated was an elaborate process of cultural exchange culminating in a collection of glorious artistic pieces composed of a combination of Persian and European motifs.
Jalal-ud-din Muhammed Akbar King by God appointed
The great fathers of the Order of Saint Paul know that I am your great friend.
I send Abdullah my ambassador and Dominic Pires there to ask you to ask you to send
me two learned priests, who should bring with them the main books of the Law and
the Gospel so that I can learn the Law and its most perfect contents.
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 leaders in the north, in the hope that they would convert. They immediately arranged for translated volumes of the Bible and several works of art from Europe reflecting Christian imagery.
The very first paintings to reach the Mughal court were large oil paintings of Mother Mary, a religious figure known to 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 records, Akbar was so moved by the images in the Bible that he knelt down before the image of Christ and Mary and worshiped three times in the Christian, Muslim and Hindu manner.
The Mughal Emperor was moved by religious sentiments in European works of art, but had no intention of converting to Christianity. Rather, he saw the use of non-Mughal motifs as perfectly appropriate to demonstrate the supremacy of the Mughal Empire and their universal right to rule. Renaissance art, which emphasized humanistic values and realism, was at its peak 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 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 drawing inspiration from Christian motives was continued by Jehangir and later by Mughal rulers.
The Indian origin of the paintings is evident from the use of Mughal motifs and native scenes. Several of them drew inspiration from familiar images of Indian goddesses to create European characters. There were several of these works of art which consisted of images of Mughal rulers with biblical figures in the murals above, thus serving as the religious justification for Mughal rule.
The 17th century Jahangir painting of Prince Khurram with a turban ornament is a perfect example of art showcasing Mughal rule with images borrowed from Christianity. In this case, the motives can be attributed to the polyglot Bible. Close examination will reveal the main murals occupied by biblical figures.
Even more astonishing are the royal commissions for the realization of wall paintings with Christian figurines in the Mughal royal palaces. Wall paintings of public saints from Jahangir first appeared in Agra Fort, surrounding the Emperor’s throne. Later, such murals were also commissioned from the courts of Lahore and Mandu. The images of the saints were always arranged in rows in the upper register of the walls or the ceiling. Interestingly, Christian images were never outside of buildings, perhaps to avoid offending the religious sentiments of the general public.
While Christianity had been received and adopted in several other countries prior to its arrival in India, the reception of religion here was unique in that it was tailored in a way that served the interests of Mughal rulers. But in doing so, the Mughals introduced the native Indians to the Christian values and traditions that the country would celebrate for centuries.