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India

When Emperor Akbar encouraged Christian art

The first examples of Christian art in India are found in the Muslim Mughal court in the north

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When Emperor Akbar encouraged Christian art

A part of a picture shows Jesuit priests Rodolpho Acquaviva and Antonio Monserrate (in black) attending a meeting in the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar (Photo: Wikimedia)

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In a two-part series, Indian Jesuit writer Father Myron Pereira reflects on the influence of early Jesuits in the development of Christian art India:

Portuguese India during the 16th century — that is, the colonial enclaves of Goa, Bassein, Cochin and the Pearl Fishery Coast — was blessed with the presence of the Jesuits. They built monumental churches, colleges and residences.

The Portuguese Jesuits lavishly decorated these buildings with paintings, statues and church furnishings, and they commissioned numerous artists, painters, builders and sculptors.

Indeed, the Jesuit church was designed to represent a particular image of Catholicism in the East: a triumphant Church.

Most of these artists were Hindus. They created ivory and wooden statues and furnishings in a subtle hybrid style, merging the late Renaissance influence of Europe and elements of local Hindu temple art.

While the pictures of Mary, the saints and the angels were derived from Italian and Iberian originals, most of them were usually adapted to Indian sensibilities.

One example of such hybrid art can be found in the courts of the great Moghuls — Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan. They were the result of the early Jesuit missions to the Moghul court in Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra.

The Mughal mission

Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) had ambitions of founding a new religion, the Din Ilahi (divine faith), amalgamating the teachings of different faiths. He invited scholars and theologians to engage in discussions on religious topics.

Knowing about the Portuguese Christians in Goa, Akbar invited Christian scholars to his capital to engage in religious discussions.

This resulted in the first Jesuit mission to Akbar’s court. Two Jesuit priests — Rodolpho Acquaviva and Antonio Monserrate — and the lay brother Francisco Henriques arrived in Akbar’s court in 1580. The gifts they brought to the emperor included the Royal Polyglot Bible, an eight-volume edition copiously illustrated and printed in Antwerp, and a beautiful Byzantine Madonna. 

The quality and the technique of these gifts from Europe opened a whole new vision of religious art in the Moghul court, which had an earlier tradition of court painting, mostly under Iranian influence.

Akbar wanted his court artists to make copies of these Christian pictures, both in content and technique, and a whole new style of painting was born.

Why the Jesuits failed

The Jesuits were not slow to encourage the emperor’s passion for art. They arranged to have more pictures of Jesus and Mary (important figures in the Quran), Biblical scenes, and the saints for the court painters to copy, indigenize and disseminate among the Mughal aristocracy, who eagerly followed the inclinations of Akbar and his son. 

The pictures came in different formats. There were the typical Moghul-style miniatures, usually water colors on paper or parchment. There were also frescos, which decorated the walls of homes or palaces, and there were the retablos, Portuguese devotional paintings or decorative tableaux, which used a painting, a sculpture, or a combination of the two, as a back-up altarpiece.

Akbar was so fond of his collection of Christian paintings (as was his son, Prince Salim, the future emperor Jehangir) that on certain Christian feast days, he would arrange to have a public exhibition and placed his paintings on display. It was his way of showing his friendship for the Jesuits, and particularly for Padre Acquaviva.

The emperor had invited the Jesuits to Fatehpur Sikri for religious discussions, though the Jesuits had other secret ambitions: to convert Akbar to Christianity, and with him the whole of his empire.

In this they were sorely mistaken. Akbar was not the least interested in changing his faith. 

Disappointed with the emperor, the Jesuits left Akbar’s court within three years. However, there were two other subsequent missions to the Moghul later in 1591 and 1595. They faced similar failures. The interest of the Moghul rulers in Christian art never meant a desire to become Christian.

If the miniatures and frescos in the Moghul court were the most public form of Christian religious art, the churches of Portuguese India displayed other examples of Christian iconography. These were a unique blend of Europ ean inspiration and local Indian techniques. 

You can read the second part here: The Portuguese colony of Christian imagination in India

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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