Unto the Indies By Gauvin Alexander Bailey

At the turn of the seventeenth century, an astonishing piece of news reached zealous Catholic ears in Europe. Akbar (1556-1605), the Great Mogul of India, the mightiest Muslim ruler in Asia, had commanded court artists to paint hundreds of icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and a panoply of Christian saints in the style of the European Late Renaissance. Expectations of those in Europe were raised even higher when word came that Akbar and then Jahangir, Akbar's son and successor (1605- 1627), ordered murals of these devotional images painted on the walls of imperial throne rooms, gardens, royal villas, and tombs. Convinced that the dynasty was on the verge of conversion, legions of European statesmen and clerics directed their efforts, funds, and hopes toward the forbidding, sun- scorched plains of northern India.

It turns out that they were too optimistic. The Moguls (Mughals), who went on to build spectacular monuments such as the Taj Mahal (1632-1643) and the Red Fort of Delhi (1639-1648), were to rule over a flourishing and firmly Muslim state for two more centuries. It was not so much Catholicism that had seduced the emperors; it was Michelangelo. And it was Jesuits, including Rodolfo Aquaviva, nephew of Jesuit superior general Claudio Aquaviva, and Antonio Montserrate, who had brought the Renaissance to the Ganges.

Combining a taste for the fine arts with a serious interest in world religions, Akbar had been fascinated by European engravings. Eager to acquire more pictures and to obtain Jesuits for debate with representatives of other world religions, including Islam and Hinduism, he invited them to come to live at his palace near Agra in 1580.

He got more than he bargained for: the Jesuits proved to be such skilled debaters that they were soon court favorites, and they brought to India a full sampling of contemporary European culture. Lavishly illustrated books, exquisite engravings by such artists as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer, life-size oil paintings, and even a Portuguese painter (whose name is lost) were hauled over sea and desert to this distant realm. Their impact on Mogul painting was profound and lasting.

Traditional Indo-Persian painting, although extremely refined, had never achieved the visual realism and optical effects of the European Renaissance. An aristocratic art on a miniature scale, it favored instead jewel-like colors, intricate detail (artists often painted with brushes made of tiny kitten hairs), geometry, and especially balance and elegance. But Akbar, an earthy and vigorous ruler, had no time for Persianate frippery. He favored lavish, self-glorifying picture books; he valued drama, excitement, and anguish in his art. He was also of a scientific bent and wanted a painting style capable of visually recording natural and human elements of his realm with photographic accuracy.


An Akbar-period painting done in a more traditional Indo-Persian style, ca. 1560. Depicting the construction of a palace, it revels in geometry and color, but its perspective is not convincing, and it uses no shading. Lahore Museum, Pakistan.


When the Jesuits arrived, Akbar sent artists to study with them, ordering the artists to sit at catechism class and paint whatever they heard. They recorded the pageantry of the Christian liturgy and processions and even sketched the theatricals put on at Christmas and Holy Week. The Jesuits and the Portuguese artist taught the Mogul painters European techniques of perspective, modeling, light, and color. Some Moguls learned by painting directly over engravings, like paint-by-numbers, and then adapted the new style freehand. Others drew original compositions based on a variety of prints and paintings, blending different elements into highly imaginative creations. Akbar's court painting style was never the same.

Taking the lead from Renaissance art, Mogul painters gave their images more depth and three-dimensionality. They colored landscape and hills in gradations of blue to suggest distance, they gave figures solidity and fleshiness through subtle shading, and they made background objects smaller to make them appear farther away. Mogul painters became extremely skilled at realism, producing images of flora and fauna with a visual exactness that outstripped the work of Europeans. Portraits of court officials were so exact that the emperors began judging character on the basis of pictures alone when making promotions.

But Akbar was not just interested in art lessons. One of his goals in organizing those religious debates was to create a creed that combined elements of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, hoping to unite his subjects (mostly Hindu and therefore hostile to Islam) under his command.

His main problem had been that Hinduism possessed an extremely potent iconography of deities with which Islam, with its tendency toward iconoclasm, could not compete. He discovered the solution when a painting of the Virgin Mary exhibited by the Jesuits nearly caused a riot among Hindu crowds eager to see it. From that moment on, Akbar openly appropriated Catholic imagery as a vehicle for his own propaganda, capitalizing on Christianity's affinities with Islamic, Mongol, and Hindu symbols and themes. Mary, for example, was revered by Islam and could also be used as a metaphor for Akbar's mythical Mongol ancestor Alanqoa, who gave a virgin birth. Jesus represented Akbar (and later Jahangir) himself, with his apostles as his courtiers. It was in this context that the royal apartments came to resemble Catholic sacristies.

The Jesuits were not naive bystanders, however. Letters they wrote back to Europe show that they were well aware of imperial intentions from the start. Why, then, did they persevere? Ignatius himself made it Jesuit policy to aim missions at princes (he even emphasized Indian monarchs), since their subjects would follow them if they converted. Even if a prince failed to convert, the conspicuousness of the mission could still sway his subjects. Therefore, although Mogul emperors were secretly perverting Catholic iconography, they were giving the mission good advertising. Accordingly, the Jesuits soon directed their energies to the Hindu majority--precisely the same audience the Moguls were targeting with their borrowed images. Ignatius also indicated that princes could be solicited for funds for the mission, and indeed both Mogul emperors generously subsidized mission activities.

A uniquely Jesuit attitude of accommodation also helped the mission. Building upon the recommendations of Jesuit theorists such as Jose de Acosta (1539-1600) and Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), they adopted the customs, language, and even clothing of their host population to help convert from within. Since they approached their missions as a dialogue between cultures rather than a harangue, Jesuits achieved success in non-Christian nations such as India and China where others had failed. Accordingly, from 1595 onward, the Mogul mission started to live up to its name.

Using imperial funds and native builders, Jesuits built chapels and residences in major cities in an ingenious combination of Mogul and Renaissance styles. Capitalizing on the Mogul penchant for spectacle, they mounted lavish festivals, fireworks, parades, and choral services, even going so far as to hire tightrope walkers and jugglers and to decorate the Christmas crib with mechanical apes and birds. Envious English observers scoffed at these "prattling, juggling Jesuits."

Other methods were much more subtle, including tactics that resembled the emperors' own in reverse. Familiar with the intricacies of Sufism, the prevalent mystical form of orthodox Islam, Jesuits adopted Sufi imagery and metaphor to explain Christian tenets. Jerome Xavier (1549-1617), nephew of Francis Xavier, composed the first Catholic tracts in Persian, instilling his writings with references to divine light and mirrors, symbols of great importance in Sufi cosmology. He used Islamic arguments to justify the use and worship of images. In a particularly clever piece of word play, he opened his Mirat al Quds (The Mirror of Holiness, 1602) with the story of Abgar, King of Edessa (4 b.c.- a.d. 50), and the miraculous image of Christ. Xavier constructed this story of redemption by a holy picture as a thinly veiled reference to Emperor Akbar and his own love of icons. In Persian, "Abgar" and "Akbar" use the same five letters.

The Jesuits used inculturation in their own artistic projects. Taking advantage of Akbar's enthusiasm for European art, they hired his finest court painters to illustrate Catholic treatises. These they had adorned with miniature paintings in the style and spirit of Akbar's illustrated epics, but with Jesus and the saints as subjects instead of the emperor. Since they satisfied the emperor's own curiosity about Christian art and ritual, the books were extremely well received. The Jesuits also harnessed the Hindu reverence for images by staging carefully timed showings of devotional pictures, set off to advantage with taffeta and velvet curtains and candles and incense.

The intellectual nature of this mission, its enthusiastic reception by the host civilization, and the subtle inculturation that took place on both sides made the Jesuit mission to the Moguls one of the most flourishing cultural encounters ever to take place between East and West. Whereas music served to bridge the cultural gap at the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay, and science and architecture sustained the China mission, here the catalyst was art.


Pic of author Gauvin Bailey, from Vancouver, B.C., is finishing a PhD in art history at Harvard. He has published articles on Islamic art and the arts of the Catholic missions in Asia.