The Mughal Empire: Jahangir

The Mughal empire represents a unique and fascinating period in art history: the Empire was simultaneously Muslim (Sunni) and Indian, interweaving not only Muslim and Indian faiths, but also their politics, cultural practices, and of course art and architecture. This post will focus on Jahangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor of India (r. 1605-1627) . India was already rich in art, so it’s not a surprise that Jahangir was born to avid patrons of the arts and, later in life, became one himself. His father, Akbar the Great (r. 1556-1605), prolifically commissioned art and architecture. Jahangir’s family was also a curious one that valued an open mind. According to art historian Milo Cleveland Beach,

“Akbar, quick to see that strength depended on the cooperation of India’s numerous religious factions, began by revoking the taxes levied on non-Moslems. His own intellectual curiosity then led him to immerse himself seriously in the religions with which he was surrounded.”

A student of many religious schools of thought, in 1582 Akbar created the Divine Faith, a conglomerate of beliefs he held from the different faiths he studied including Hinduism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. The wider orthodox Muslim community revolted against this invention, so this new religion was quickly abandoned. It does, however, tell us that Akbar was a student of the world. (I should note that even with Akbar and his descendant’s religious curiosities, they still commissioned and utilized some fabulous Islamic structures, including mosques, and some historians would argue that Akbar never really gave up Islam.) A 2009 exhibition, From the Land of the Taj Mahal: Paintings for India’s Mughal Emperors, at the Nelson-Atkins showcased the Mughals artistic penchant for indulging their interests, moving art away from India’s historical religious themes and toward everyday subjects such as hunting and portraits:

“[T]he Mughals took a keen interest in what they saw around them. Images reflect the life and times of the Mughal courts. They include portraits of the emperors, courtiers, holy men, important historical events, animals and hunting scenes … The Mughals were members of the Sunni order of Islam, but they found themselves ruling over a diverse population of mainly Hindus and followers of other faiths. The works in this grouping demonstrate how they encouraged tolerance, their role as patrons of the Chishti Sufi order, and their fascination with Christian imagery derived from European prints. …”

Jahangir, whose name means “Conquerer of the World,” used art as a tool to express his power and exercise his ego. This is perhaps no where better seen than in the artistic conversation he had with Shah Abbas, the Shahanshah (king of kings) of Persia. The two men never met: their relationship in terms of political influence and greatness was explored through art. The relations between the two rulers was strained by conquest, and commissioned works can be viewed as peace, or at the least, appeasement offerings. In the early 17th century, the armies of Shah Abbas took Kandahar, a city under Jahangir’s jurisdiction that his ancestors fought to annex. Jahangir’s convoy to Isfahan, Shah Abbas’ capital, was unsuccessful, as were his military efforts. Jahangir and Shah Abbas were both responsible for wonderful commissions, displays of their respective power via architecture (Shah Abbas built a new capital, Isfahan) and painting (Akbar the Great and Jahangir’s patronage enabled the Italian Renaissance style to flourish under their respective reigns).

Abu’l Hassan, Jahangir’s Dream, c. 1618-1622. See it up close at the Google Art Project.

In Jahangir’s Dream, Jahangir and Shah Abbas are depicted standing on top of the world: together, they have power over and rule the world. The lion and the lamb at their feet, as well as their embrace, suggest a peaceful harmony between their kingdoms. Despite the depiction that they both rule over the world, Shah Abbas is lower than Jahangir, a sign of lesser status. Jahangir’s head is also in the center of the sun, which functions as a halo of sorts as well: he is the center of the world. Even though the painting shows a friendship between the two rulers, Shah Abbas humbles himself to Jahangir’s greatness. Abul’Hassan employed clever artistic devices to ensure that Jahangir’s greatness was obvious. As the viewing notes at the Google Art Project discuss,

“Abu’l Hasan cleverly manipulated established symbols of sovereignty. The globe that represents temporal rule becomes a stage for the Mughal emperor’s disingenuous embrace of the shah, while the lion, which should be lying tamely beside the lamb to signify good kingship, discretely nudges the lamb back towards Iran.”

Abu’l Hassan, Jahangir’s Dream, Detail, c. 1618-1622.

Jahangir’s Dream combines Indian and Western modes of representation with Islamic manuscript detailing (i.e., the borders and script contained in the painting).

Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi sheikh to Kings, c. 1620. See it up close at the Google Art Project.

King James I (top) and the artist Bichitr

Unrelated to the art conversation with Shah Abbas, but nonetheless intriguing, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi sheikh to Kings was part of a miniature album that Jahangir commissioned. As mentioned, Jahangir was fascinated by Renaissance art. The cupids (which visually “sing” Jahangir’s praises) depicted combine the Western world with the Eastern world. As in Jahangir’s Dream, we once again see that Jahangir’s head is in the center of the sun and the moon; he is the center of the universe and the giver of light. The rulers represented in this miniature are painted in order of importance: Jahangir is obviously the most important. Closest to him, the most important in his court, is the Sufi sheikh (mystic). Jahangir regards the sheikh’s opinion and the inner life above the opinion of all other men, no matter what kingdoms they rule over. The Ottoman Sultan receives second rank importance. King James I of England (based on an existing portrait), is the third person of importance in Jahangir’s court. And now we come to the bottom left of the painting, where the artist Bichitr placed himself as the least of importance: a self-portrait of the artist in his own work was a bold move. Bichitr was not overly pompous, however. Jahangir is stepping on the artist’s signature, signifying that Bichitr knew his place.

In addition to commissioning art that glorified his reign, Jahangir was also a connoisseur of Western Renaissance art, especially Christian art, which the Jesuits introduced during their campaign in India. In 1580, Akbar requested that Jesuits come to his court. To quote Beach once more:

“[The Jesuits] brought with them, as missionary tools, presents which included works of Christian art, although these were not the first Akbar had received. THe most notable was the Royal Polyglot Bible … The missionaries arrived fully confident of an eventual ‘harvest of the heathen,’ and the Emperor himself tantalized the Fathers by revering Christian images in their presence. …”

Akbar and Jahangir commissioned what we might call “standard” Western iconography, blended with Indian and Islamic elements. Below is a Virgin and Child dating to 1600-25. Mary is happily watching over an exploratory baby Jesus, who holds her hand and grasps flowers.

Virgin & Child, 1600-25

A yakshi on the gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi, a Buddhist mound meant for housing relics.

Mary also reminded me of Hindu yakshi, at left. Mary, to me, appears beautiful, full-figured, even voluptuous, as is common in Indian art. Her face is also distinctly Indian. The painting emits all the emotion we would expect from this tender scene and demonstrates Mughal artists’ ability to adapt and imitate Renaissance forms, best seen in the drapery of Mary’s clothes and the painting’s traditional composition.
Under Akbar the Great, the artist Keshav Des painted a wonderful St. Jerome that is a wonderful combination of Western, Indian, and Islamic art. As the MET describes, the Jerome, painted between 1580-85, was faithful to its model, an engraving by Italian artist Mario Cartaro.

Keshav Das, St. Jerome, 1580-85

“[Keshav Das] merged two sets of European imagery, the drunken Noah in slumber and the studious Saint Jerome holding a book of learning. Das was exploring a painterly technique more akin to European oil painting than to Indian watercolor, and the atmospheric haze of the distant city vista, again a gesture to European conventions, serves to heighten the dreamlike quality of Saint Jerome’s slumber.”

Titian, St. Jerome, c. 1575.

Veronese, St. Jerome, c. 1580.

The brilliant borders around this painting are Islamic conventions and are perhaps lapis and gold leaf, which would not be uncommon materials in Mughal paintings. Were it not for the MET’s informational description, I think it would be difficult to gauge, on a purely observational basis, wether the Saint is sleeping, in prayer, or meditating on the wise words in the book he holds. St. Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible, so he is often depicted at study or with this holy volume. Great minds need their rest. I should also point out that this iconography, of saints under trees, of wise men under trees discovering great things, is reminiscent of one of India’s greatest religions: Buddhism. For it was under the bodhi tree that the Buddha became enlightened. Perhaps this painting places the Saint in a place of honor and wisdom, immediately recognizable to India’s citizens. (Indeed, if you look up images of bodhi trees, the tree in this St. Jerome seems to me a stylized version of said tree.)

This painting is drastically different than what contemporary European viewers would be used to: an emaciated, heavily bearded, penitent St. Jerome such as the ones painted by Titian in 1575 and Paolo Veronese in 1580. Compare it with these two artists, on the left and right respectively. What similarities are there between these three paintings? Differences? How does Keshav Das successfully or unsuccessfully integrate Renaissance elements?

The final Biblical painting I’d like us to observe is not quite Biblical as it is a double portrait… of Jahangir and Jesus. The portrait of Jahangir was done by the Mughal artist, Hashim, and Jesus, by Abu’l Hassan. The most interesting thing about this painting, and I think all that needs to be said about it, is that Jahangir is above Jesus with the motif we have seen now, thrice: Jahangir the giver of light, the axis mundi: the center of the world.

Jahangir and Jesus. Hashim, Jahangir, c. 1615-1620. Abu’l-Hasan, Jesus, c. 1610- 1620.

Jahangir left an incredible legacy of patronage: his son, Shah Jahan, commissioned something we all know: the Taj Mahal and (in the form we know it today) the Red Fort at Agra. Such monuments with great stories behind them demand their own space, so we will have to return to the Mughal Empire.

(UCLA students, do yourself a favor and take a course or three with Prof. Bierman-McKinney [Islamic art] and Prof. Brown [Indian art]. UCLA’s courses are second to none when it comes to Indian & Islamic art and they could not get rid of me.)



Beach, Milo C., “The Gulshan Album and Its European Sources,” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Vol. 63, No. 332 (1965), pp. 63-91.

Pritchett, Fran,  Jahangir, “Indian Routes: a timeline of South Asian history,” accessed February 24, 2012.

Rai, Lajpat, “Review of Akbar the Great Mogul by Vincent Smith, Political Science Quarterly , Vol. 33, No. 4 (Dec., 1918), pp. 570-573.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, From the Land of the Taj Mahal: Paintings for India’s Mughal Emperors2009.

Walters Art Gallery, Desire and Devotion: Art from India, Nepal and Tibet in the John & Berthe Ford Collection.