Exhibit Shows Joint Mission of Jesuits, Moguls

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Exhibit Shows Joint Mission of Jesuits, Moguls


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


In 1556, Akbar, the Mogul emperor of India, founded a court comparable to that of the Medicis in Florence. Halfway around the world, and a century earlier, the Medicis had ruthlessly fought their way to power, much like Akbar's ancestor Genghis Khan.

Though created through bloody slaughter, both Indian and Italian dynasties became generous patrons of the arts, spawning dynamic - and very different - artistic renaissances. In India's case, it wouldn't have been possible without the Catholic Church.

In an unusual, fascinating exhibition opening at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery today, we see how missionaries from the Society of Jesus - better known as the Jesuits - carried the Italian Renaissance style of Michelangelo and Titian across deserts and oceans to Akbar's sumptuous palaces. "The Jesuits and the Grand Mogul: Renaissance Art at the Imperial Court of India (1580-1630)" succeeds, at least in part, in summing up 50 years of art, religion and politics at the Mogul courts in what is now northern India and Pakistan.

The disparate objects - 22 paintings, engravings, manuscripts and sculptures - reveal the idiosyncratic nature of these hybrid arts. Remarkable are the tiny rock-crystal, gold, ruby and sapphire "Christ the Savior," reminiscent of both Flemish Renaissance prints and representations of the Hindu god Krishna; the "Virgin of the Apocalypse," modeled on Martin Schongauer's, done with a brush but a close imitation of the original engraving; and the posthumous portrait of Akbar standing under a cloud-filled blue sky obviously borrowed from Dutch and Flemish landscapists.

* * *

Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605, and his son, Jahangir, who reigned from 1605 to 1627, sought to unify their conquered territories through religious tolerance. Akbar tried to bring his Moslem and Hindu subjects together, not an easy task.

He ruled as a kind of philosopher-king, surrounding himself with Muslim diviners, Hindu philosophers and Jesuit priests and artists. But he subscribed to none of their faiths, promulgating instead an eclectic creed derived from Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity.

Art was a means of conveying this religious message, and Akbar found Catholic imagery perfect for creating a state ideology. Christ as the Good Shepherd, as in the ivory sculpture from Goa in the exhibit, can be viewed as an extension of the Hindu cowherd god Krishna. A "Madonna and Child" by the Indian painter Basawan shows a nursing, bare-breasted Mary who continues the Indian fertility goddess tradition. In "Ladies Praying With a Child," the emphasis on the women's bosoms, elaborate dress and intricate jewelry and the palace architecture is completely Indian.

* * *

Both Akbar and Jahangir, attracted to the priests' debating abilities as well as their art, invited Jesuit missions to their capital. Beginning in the 1570s, Akbar instituted weekly interfaith meetings for learned religious leaders.

He even built special imperial discussion halls. There, the Jesuits and Moguls debated, traded books and exchanged art on a grand scale. At one time, Akbar owned more than 100 illustrated books, 300 engravings, 20 oil paintings and 20 sculptures - gifts from his European visitors.

The Jesuits sent their best representatives to this vast kingdom, as guest curator Gauvin Bailey points out in "Occasional Papers," a book accompanying the exhibit. The priests came from the most influential European families and early recognized the importance of art as a missionary tool. …

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