Based at the Portuguese settlement at Goa, the Jesuits would be the earliest Europeans to visit the Mughal court at Fatehpur Sikri in the late 16th century. Receiving an invitation from the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1608), they made three visits to the court from 1580-95.
The agenda of the three missions was to indoctrinate the Mughals to Christianity. During the third mission to the court at Lahore, Father Jerome Xavier (1549–1617) collaborated with the Mughal court writer Abd al- Sattar ibn Qasim Lahori (fl. 1590–1615) to prepare a Persian text based on the Old and New Testaments known as the Mirʼāt al-Quds (Mirror of Holiness).
This text was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602. Father Xavier presented a copy of the text to both Emperor Akbar and his son Prince Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir). Although the proselytisation was not very successful, there was a clear impact on local artists. With both Akbar and Salim establishing rivaling artistic studios at Agra and Allahabad respectively, they would commission their artists to produce illustrations to accompany their individual copies of the Mirʼāt al-Quds.
In terms of the illustrated version of the Mirʼāt al-Quds, Jéronimo Nadal’s Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1593) has been identified as the primary source of Biblical imagery that was either directly copied or adapted for their scenes on the life of Christ (Carvalho 2012, pp. 49-62).
What remains of Akbar’s copy, as confirmed by the presence of his seal that signifies imperial ownership and patronage, is in the Lahore Museum (Stronge 2002, p. 105). (Carvalho debates and does not corroborate this information.) The remnants includes only 10 rather damaged folios with illustrations. According to the art historian Susan Stronge, Prince Salim desired a far superior illustrated version and ordered his artists to execute double the number of pictures for his volume (Stronge 2002, p. 105). The surviving part of Salim’s commission consists of 160 pages of text and 24 illustrations; this manuscript is held in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The British Library’s collection includes an un-illustrated manuscript of the Mirʼāt al-Quds, that was copied and dated 8 Ramazan 1027 (August 29, 1597) which is almost contemporary to illustrated versions prepared for Akbar and Salim.
As Father Jerome Xavier arrived in Lahore in 1595 and remained at court until 1615, his letters document his perceptions of life at the Mughal court and in particular, how the Mughals celebrated Christmas at Lahore in 1597. Father Xavier, reporting from Lahore to the Provincial in Goa in 1598, Xavier wrote (Maclagan, pp. 72-3):
“At Christmas  our brother Bendict de Goes prepared a manger and cradle as exquisite as those of Goa itself, which heathens and Muhammadans, as well as Christians, thronged to see. In the evening masses were said with great ceremony, and a pastoral dialogue on the subject of the Nativity was enacted by some youths in the Persian tongue, with some Hindūstānī proverbs interspersed (adjunctis aliquot Industani sententiis).… At the conclusion of the sacred office, the gates were opened to all…. Such was the crowd of spectators in those days that the cradle was kept open till the 8th day after Epiphany the fame of the spectacle spread through the town and brought even outsiders to see the sight.”
In another letter, Xavier describes some of the decorations they used at the Christmas crib (Bailey, p. 32, quoting from British Library Add. 9854, f. 164b):
“...a [mechanical] ape which squirted water from its eyes and mouth, and above it a bird which sang mysteriously...and a globe of the world supported on the backs of two elephants...and above this a large portrait of the King [Jahangir] which he sent us when he was a prince. . .and next to this figure was placed a large mirror at the front of the crib. . .[At the gates] were the Angel, i.e. Gabriel, with many angels, who were accompanied by placards proclaiming ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ or ‘Nolite Timere’ in Persian. Around the Holy Infant in the crib were some sayings of the Prophets who pretold the coming of God into the World.”
Although there are no paintings of the Christmas celebrations at the Mughal court that have been documented, nor are there any individual illustrations or detached folios to the Mirʼāt al-Quds in the British Library’s collection, there are a number of drawings that document the experimentation with Christian iconography by Mughal artists. This genre of painting would become popular by the early 17th century during Jahangir’s reign.
Artists were appropriating imagery from European engravings as well as received information from the Jesuit priests on how to convert the cross-hatching of engravings into wash in preparing their nim-qalam drawings (Losty and Roy 2012, 119). Below is an example of an engraving of the Virgin and Child that was pasted into a Mughal album page and compiled into an album for Prince Dara Shikoh and another showing a nim-qalam drawing of the Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess.
This article first appeared on British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.