Rooftop – Where India Inspires Creativity

Icons, Themes, And Objects: European Symbols in Mughal Art

European Symbols in Mughal Art

With the rising influence of the Mughal Empire as not merely a local stronghold but a powerful ruling dynasty, it was inevitable that its people would soon come into contact with cultures far beyond their wildest dreams. In the second part of this two-part series, we will examine European symbols and how they affected the art of the Mughal Empire.

What is an Icon?

Virgin Mary and child Christ, Mid 18th century. Image credit: whitewall.ART

From the 7th century onwards, orthodox Greek churches used pictures of Jesus Christ as an object of devotion. These pictures were called ‘icons’. Icons as well as symbols like the peacock, the fish (ichthys) and the anchor were used even in later periods of Christian art.

That is how the term icon came to be associated with any object or image that is outstanding or has a special meaning attached to it.

The Mughal Empire: Akbar’s Interest in European Art

Now let’s take a step back and understand what was happening on the other side of the world. The Mughal Empire was still very much in power. The buzz surrounding Christianity’s arrival in India had reached the ears of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.

Jesuit priests at Akbar’s court. Illustration to the Akbarnama, miniature painting by Nar Singh, c. 160. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Akbar was secular and prioritised the coexistence of people of all religions in his kingdom. He sent a Mughal ambassador to the Portuguese colonies and requested the viceroy and “Chief Fathers of the Order of St. Paul,” to send two priests to his court, along with the books of the Gospel. He openly invited them to discuss religious law and teach him more about Christianity. In the above painting, we see Akbar and the Jesuits at the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship), where he frequently held such religious discussions.

The Jesuits reached the Mughal court in Fatehpur Sikri in 1580 and stayed there till 1583. They presented several paintings of the Virgin and Child to the Emperor. Akbar ordered his sons and courtiers to kiss these images as a sign of respect and reverence. The missionaries also presented the Emperor with a copy of Plantyn’s Royal Polyglot Bible of Philip II of Spain, which he in turn ordered his men to make several copies of before it had to be returned.

Akbar’s Religious Tolerance: Sowing the Seeds of Cultural Fusion

Akbar’s Triumphal Entry into Surat. By Farrukh Beg. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

At about this time, Europeans themselves began making appearances in art. In the above folio from the Akbarnama, a blue-eyed man wearing a blue robe blends into the crowd in the far right. The artist Farrukh Beg paints his unique and foreign features with painstaking detail, distinguishing him from the rest of the locals in the image.

Akbar himself made a visit to the church at Fatehpur Sikri and was struck by the representations of Mother Mary in the paintings there. He paid his respects to a painting of Our Lady by Fr. Martin de Silva from Rome and another portrayal of Our Lady in a painting of St. Luke by Brother Michael Godinho.

Salome Receiving John the Baptist’s Head on a Platter, from a Mirror of Holiness (Mir’at al-quds) of Father Jerome Xavier, 1602–1604. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

According to a letter that one of the Jesuit fathers of Goa wrote, Akbar left and returned with his chief painters and other artists, all of whom were wonderstruck and stated that ‘there could be no better paintings nor better artists than those who had painted them’. Through the missionaries, Akbar’s court was introduced to Christian icons, symbols, and motifs.

Mary as a European Symbol In Mughal Miniature Art

Christianity and Islam have one thing in common: they are both Abrahamic religions. Since both religions revere Mary, the mother of Christ, she became one of the first religious icons to be adopted by Mughal painters. Another religious concept that the two religions share is the Day of Judgement.

Image credit: Royal Collection Trust 

Both Nanha and Manohar worked on this Day of Judgement painting. It is based on a Flemish engraving by Adriaen Collaert that depicts the Last Judgement and dates back to 1580.

Image credit: Smarthistory

The Mughal ‘Madonna and Child’ features a composition that is almost exactly the same as the Madonna by the Tree by Albrecht Dürer. However, the inscribed verse is from the Quran, while Albrecht’s version includes one from the Bible.

ca. 1590–ca. 1600. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Another European theme seen in Indian painting is ‘Christ’s Deposition’. This theme was popular in Flemish religious prints and old European murals. It features Christ on the cross, with several of his followers present at the scene.

The Early Motifs

Krishna and Indra, Mughal Miniature, ca. 1590. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Jesuits introduced quite a few motifs to Mughal art, which include angels, cherubs, halos, and the image of Madonna and Christ. Consequently, Mughal painters began painting European subject matter, and absorbed the use of certain techniques from their art.

Keshav Das, ca. 1580–85. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

While painting strictly European themes, Mughal artists tended to reference pre-existing paintings and heavily reference compositions, only choosing to express their unique style in the colours and the individual components of the composition.

A classical muse holding a scroll, by the artist Sadiqi, Mughal Miniature, dated 1609-10. Referenced from a 16th Century North Italian print. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Father Jerome Xavier wrote that he witnessed Mughal artists copying European prints and paintings from Jahangir’s collection. He also mentioned that one of them contained the theme ‘Descent from the Cross’, a theme that was very rarely seen in Indian art. Art historians speculate that the above painting was the one that Jerome wrote of, since the timelines and locations match up.

Father Jerome Xavier was one of the first Jesuit missionaries who met Akbar. On Akbar’s insistence, he composed the Dastan-i Masih or ‘the story of Christ’, and presented it to him in 1602.

European Symbols in Mughal Art During the Reign of Jahangir

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Prince Salim, or Jahangir, as he is most commonly known, adopted the title ‘Nur ud-Din’, meaning ‘light of the faith’. He chose the moniker ‘Jahangir’ as well, which translates to ‘world-seizer’. The halo and the globe became symbols that conveyed his new name in the most literal sense.

The Mughals had long been known for their claims that they were descended from divinity. In lieu of the slowly crumbling Mughal Empire, Jahangir sought to fortify his position by capitalising on his divine, sovereign, all-powerful status.

Jahangir Shoots Malik Ambar, c. 1620. By Abuʾl Hasan. Image credit:

This he conveyed through paintings with thinly veiled messages of pomp and propaganda. ‘Jahangir shooting poverty’ was painted at a time when poverty had been increasing in the empire.

Image credit: Artisera

The animal motifs here have special significance: they show the predator and prey animals together, symbolising that they have found peace under the just rule of the empire. This symbol was based on the description of animals found in the Polyglot Bible, which describes a lion, an ox, and a lamb sitting together, united by the peace of Christianity.

This symbol was adopted by Mughals and often used alongside the image of a globe. It was known as dad-o-daam in Persian, and used to symbolise a ruler wielding divine power and able to command the natural order in order to establish peace.

European Symbols in Mughal Art: Representation of Divine Authority

No symbol quite captured the Mughal quest for power like the globe. This symbol came to India as a physical object: perhaps a gift from European merchants and ambassadors. Now, Jahangir had a visual cue to depict the vastness of the entire world, which his artists took full advantage of. The globe became a prop representing Imperial power and the absolute dominance that the Mughals hoped to achieve.

Many of Jahangir’s portraits feature him holding a globe or sitting on it: a clear representation that he had seized the world and commanded complete control. Of course, Jahangir was no Alexander, but to the common man, he would have been equally as untouchable.

The Kandarpa Hasta theme in a Mughal Miniature. Image source: 

The Jesuits observed that the Mughals often adopted European religious symbolism not to echo their original meanings but to turn them into symbols that magnified their own power. In a similar manner, the Mughals appropriated the Kandarpa Leela motif of Pattachitra art while discarding the religious meanings behind it.

This isn’t to say that Mughals did not show any appreciation for European themes. Nor were they unaware of their allegorical meanings entirely: in fact Father Jerome recorded an instance when Jahangir requested the priests to explain the meanings of the symbols in European paintings to him. 

European Symbols in Mughal Art: European Gifts and Objects 

The painting shows kings of the world, some with distinctly Euro-centric features. Jahangir rejects them and chooses the Sufi saint instead.

Each Emperor curated a collection of objects, whether they were pieces of art, sculpture, jewellery, and curious or rare objects from foreign lands. Objects that Jahangir collected may have inspired certain symbols in the paintings of his era: some consider the hourglass in the above painting to be a real object, probably a gift from a European ambassador.

Jahangir entertaining Shah Abbas, by Abu’l Hasan. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Detail of the above Miniature with an image of Diana on a stag. Image credit: The British Academy

The hourglass would have been similar to those made by European goldsmiths at Augsburg. While no such object has been found by historians, other objects from Augsburg, like ‘Diane on a Stag’ which appeared in its original form in the above Miniature. The stag was an early automaton with moving wheels at its base and a hollow body that could be filled with liquid. Augsburg was quite famous for its ‘Uhrwerke‘, clockwork objects with movable parts.

The Influence of European Symbols in Mughal Art

Dining Scene with European Elements, c. 1590. Image credit: Fine Art America

Mughal painters began studying European painting and incorporating elements and techniques into their own work. They began to introduce three-dimensional shading and modelling in Mughal Miniatures, along with a greater degree of sophisticated naturalism and realism.

For one, artists began paying greater attention to realistic rendering and scaling. They also focused on portrait painting, a style that had never been popular with its Persian predecessor. A growing number of artists focused on accuracy in depicting faces, operating on the science of ‘firasa’. Firasa, or physiognomy, was the belief that a person’s outward appearance was a direct representation of their personality and character.

Want to learn more about the evolution of Indian painting? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more! Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app.

By Melissa D’Mello, Content Writer at Rooftop

Related Posts