Despite being listed within the AA category of objects that are valued as rare, fragile, and unique, this lavish painting of Jahangir with the portrait of the Madonna remains understudied. It shows us the influences of European visual cultures on Mughal India, and the complexities of historicising the arts of the connected worlds of Pre-Modern Islam and Christianity.

The painting encapsulates the mastery and sophistication with which the artists in the Mughal Court combined different aesthetics and ideologies of different cultural regions for fashioning a distinctive art of portraiture that expressed Mughal imperial idioms.

Although historians remind us that the portraits of the Mughal emperors and their nobles are “one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Mughal dynasty”, they also demonstrate the errors of the “common perception”, to quote Crispin Bates, that “portraiture in South Asia begins with the Mughal emperor Akbar” and highlight the “long literary and artistic traditions” in the Indian subcontinent from the first century, which contributed to the local receptions of familiarity for the Mughal portraits.

'Jahangir holding a portrait of the Madonna', c 1620. | Image credit: Public Domain.

Portraiture emerged as a distinct genre of Mughal painting by the end of the 16th century, and illustrated the “turn to the individual [which] was a feature of wider Eurasia in the early modern period”, as Laura Parodi emphasises. Aspects of its genealogy can be traced to the paintings of Humayun by the emperor’s artists in Kabul, c 1545–55, which present him within the compositions as an identifiable person wearing his special headdress Taj-i-‘izzat, the Crown of Honour.

The origins can also be linked to the passion of the Mughal emperors for “historical and observational documentation”, of which an early example is Abu’l Fazl’s statement in his Ai’n-i-Akbari that Akbar “ordered to have the likenesses [surat] of all the grandees of the realm”. Yet, developments in portraiture from Akbar’s reign cannot be fully explained through narratives of origins and genealogies, as this painting of Jahangir holding the portrait of the Madonna implores us to see.

The painting reminds us of the increasing presence of Europeans in the Mughal court, which followed the Mughal encounters with the Portuguese after Akbar’s annexation of Gujarat in 1573 which brought the Mughal realm close to Goa. The Jesuit missions from Portuguese Goa, who came to Akbar’s court, brought many illustrated European books, paintings and engravings of reputed artists as presents for the emperor. Biblical imagery, expectantly, inundated the illustrations, and much of this was carefully copied by Akbar’s artists at his orders. “[H]undreds of iconic portraits of Jesus, Mary, and a panoply of Christian saints in the styles of the late Renaissance, to adorn books, albums, jewellery, and even treaties, were produced in the royal workshop”, as Gauvin Bailey narrates.

Jahangir, then Prince Salim, often intercepted the consignments for his father to appropriate them for himself. As the governor of Lahore (1585–98), he received the third Jesuit mission in 1596, and Susan Stronge draws attention to an artist in this entourage who recorded that, “the Portuguese painter who came with us has not time for anything except painting images for [Salim], of Christ, Our Lord and of Our lady. He makes him paint the ones which his father owns.”

After becoming emperor in 1605, Jahangir continued to add Christian images to his collection, and “his acquisitions were carefully studied by artists who either copied them exactly, or used them to create innovative works loosely inspired by European models”.

In this way, “the Mughal style was continually modified and the radically different aesthetics and images of the West were absorbed”, to quote Stronge.

The painting of Jahangir holding the portrait of Madonna dates to c 1620. By this time, prolific reproductions of the Christian images within the royal atelier had long ended, following the emperor’s peremptory dismissal, in 1614, of the Jesuit delegation from his court after the Portuguese captured and looted his imperial ship Rahimi on the Arabian Sea. However, the English visitors to Jahangir’s court, such as Thomas Roe, who arrived in 1615, kept the flow of European prints and portraits.

The influence of the contemporary European visual cultures can be observed in the conscious efforts of Jahangir’s artists for realistic rendition and the creation of small portable images. However, elements of portraiture, as Priscilla Soucek demonstrated more than 40 years ago, were part of the Islamic visual language even before “any contact with early modern Europe”. Therefore, scholars today, such as Mika Natif, also emphasise that:

The Mughal painters […] repurposed European paintings […] Their reconfigurations of European iconography and innovative use of modeling, sfumato, and perspective, which served their own ends, resulted in a verisimilitude that distinguished Mughal portraiture from earlier Timurid representations […].  

Natif tells us that Mughal artists transformed the genre of portraiture in the Mughal sphere “to an imperative tool of political, ideological, and historical importance”. Jahangir began gifting tiny bust-size paintings of his likeness (shabih) – haloed, in profile and framed against the jharokha window – to his nobles, peers and esteemed visitors as tokens of loyalty and prestige. And as historians such as Afzar Moin note, the portraits of his amirs shown wearing his pendant-portraits “encapsulated in visual form the sacred manifestation of the saint-emperor to his disciple”.

The portrait of Jahangir in the painting – a nimbate emperor in profile and in jharokha – reminds us that, similar to Europe, portraits were created for use as political images within the Mughal realm. The halo and profile have long been regarded as clear European elements within Mughal art, but the jharokha balcony draped in a rich textile, possibly a carpet, also documents European features.

Notably, Jeremiah Losty affirmed that while the presence of cloths of honour or carpets on throne seats was then an ancient eastern idea which may have influenced the earlier Mughal arrangements under Akbar, nonetheless the manner of the depiction of the carpet over the parapet in Jahangir’s portrait is in fact entirely western […] The carpets hanging over parapets seen in the later 15th century Netherlandish paintings were meant to be seen as exceptionally rare and valuable articles and hence suitable for adorning the images of the Virgin […] It is hardly surprising therefore that this motif was quickly taken up in later royal and imperial portraiture.

Citing examples of engravings and woodcuts from Renaissance Venice, Losty demonstrated that the “old-fashioned portrait format” reached India by the late-16th century through engravings in printed books. The “iconography was seized upon eagerly by the Mughal artists as models for their own representations of the Mughal emperor’s appearances at the jharokha, even to the appropriation of Charles V’s pomegranate fruit that Jahangir is holding in one of his shasts [portraits]”. An example is a gold coin of Jahangir of 1610–11 in the collection of the British Museum.

The Mughal emperors used Christian pictures not as ad maiorem Dei glorium but ad maiorem Moguli glorium; namely, as “vehicles to represent the reality and glory of their own dynasty”, as Ebba Koch reminds us. European realism served the Mughal rulers “in their close and rational observation of the visual world”. Notably, Abu’l Fazl, who openly declared his preference for the written word and thereby subscribed to the prejudice of the Muslim treatises towards calligraphy and painting, conceded that “European naturalism may serve as a means to attain higher truth”. He emphasised that:

A picture (surat) leads to the form it represents [khodawand-i khud, lit. its own master] and this [leads] to the meaning (ma`ani) just as the shape of a line (paikar-i khati) leads one to letters (harf) and words (lafz) and from there the sense (mafhum) can be found out. Although in general they make pictures (tazwir) of material appearances (ashbah-ikoni), the European masters (karbardazan-i firang) express with rare forms (bashigirf suratha) many meanings of the creation (basa ma`ani khalqi) and [thus] they lead those who see only the outside of things (zahirnigahan) to the place of real truth (haqiqatzar).  

The painting depicts Jahangir wearing a pearl earring in honour of the Chishti Shaikh of Ajmer, Khwaja Mu’in-al Din. Radiating divine light (farr-i izadi), he looks at the bust-length three-quarter portrait of the haloed Madonna, or Mary, “lowering her gaze in humility” to follow Natif’s description. The Madonna is revered in the Islamic world as a pre-eminent mother since Jesus is the most important prophet in Islam after Muhammad. However, she is historically associated with the Mughal political theory of sovereignty.

She is the representation of Alanquwa (Alan Gho’a), the legendary queen of Mughalistan who bore the divine light that she passed hidden through her children to Chengiz Khan and Timur, and through their successors, to Babur and his descendants. The legend of Alanquwa embodies the creation myth of the illuminist theory of kingship which the Mughal rulers formalised, and which Akbar first documented by presenting his imperial self as a receptacle of hidden divine light.

The Madonna whom Jahangir gazes at is “no longer the Mother of God, but one of the matriarchs of the illustrious Mughal dynasty of Perfect Men”, Natif informs us. And in seeing her as Alanquwa, as Jahangir possibly did, we begin to see the detailed imagery of the illuminated royal self which was fashioned in the emperor’s court through the art of imperial portraiture.

The paintings of portraits with portraits, as of Jahangir and the Madonna, “convey a sense of silsila (chain of transmission)“, as Moin reminds us. Of ancestral veneration and genealogy, “this type of innovative art was both a record and medium of the emperor’s miraculous self”. Significantly, Jahangir’s incredibly talented painters, such as Abu’lHasan, Manohar and Bishandas, deftly reworked Christian motifs for producing naturalistic pictorial expressions of the ideologies of Timurid sovereignty, and those in the contemporary Persianate world of the Safavid Empire. They made many copies of the Madonna and variants of the Solomonic imagery, including the winged-child angels, or cherubium, and figures of a lamb and lion lying peacefully next to each other, to show the supreme position of Jahangir within the imperial realm.

We do not know why this painting was made and who made it. We may, however, assume that it represents the hand of a few artists; someone would have drawn the face, someone else some other parts, and perhaps a third person would have done some of the colouring. The layers of the borders, in gold, and some with calligraphy, tell us that it was a folio of a muraqqa, the Persian word meaning “patchwork” that came to denote albums. As Elaine Wright states:

Each side of an intact folio is itself a patchwork of separate pieces of papers. In the centre of one side of an intact folio is a painting and in the centre of the other is a panel of calligraphy and outer border […] The folios were originally arranged in the albums so that openings, or facing pages, of paintings alternated with openings of calligraphy.  

Wright’s description of the patchwork construction of the muraqqa provides an insight into the long and labour-intensive projects of album production, which involved collecting paintings and panels of calligraphy, creating a composite folio, and binding them together for viewing. The albums, Rachel Smith recounts, were “luxury objects, symbols of the wealth of the emperor and his court, a wealth that was made especially obvious by the amount of gold on both the painting and calligraphy sides of the folios”.

Most Mughal albums have been disassembled and broken up over the centuries, and the exhibition of this painting of Jahangir holding the portrait of the Madonna as a dispersed folio allows us to consider this historic loss. Importantly, the breaking up of the albums provides a glimpse of the numerous ways in which the intensely tactile world of visual culture is often destroyed. This painted folio therefore brings us to see the importance of reckoning with the materiality of encounters, influences and sovereignty, as it fashioned the crystallisation of a remarkably cosmopolitan political culture of the Mughal realm.

A History of India Through 75 Objects

Excerpted with permission from A History of India Through 75 Objects, Sudeshna Guha, Hachette India