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The Synthesis of European and Mughal Art
October 13, 2000
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The European engravings brought to India in the sixteenth century by the Jesuits to help communicate Christian doctrines to the Mughals are well documented.1 Prints of non-religious subjects and topographical materials, which need not have necessarily found their way into Mughal possession by way of the Jesuit missionaries is a subject that has been dealt with to a far lesser extent. Individual travelers and merchants took engravings of classical nudes and mythical subjects to the East; this would explain the presence in Mughal albums of prints of nude, mythological and classical subjects, and motifs from maps in background landscapes.2
What has also been neglected is a study of how the Mughal artists synthesized aspects of these prints and maps to create a new painting style. Perhaps the best example of the synthesis of Mughal and European art in any one manuscript may be seen in an illustrated Khamsa, or collection of epic poems by the Persian poet , now in the British Library, dating between 1593-1595. While some scholars of Indian and Islamic art have dealt with this famous manuscript, the use of European painting techniques and the exact European origins of the paintings of this Khamsa have so far been largely ignored.3
The purpose of this article is to examine the adoption of the European techniques of sfumato, modeling and stereoscopic perspective in the Khamsa illustrations and then to trace the European sources for the motifs of some the key miniatures. In this regard, it is necessary also to look at the use of motifs taken from European maps for Mughal background landscapes, which is a subject that has not been dealt with in Mughal art history. This article also demonstrates that the use of these European elements in the Khamsa was not the sign of a passive acceptance of ‘superior’ painting techniques but a creative and meaningful response by the Mughal artists in the form of articulating their own ideas. Indeed, to use the language of modern technology, the Khamsa is a fine example of the Mughal artists’ ingenuity in “uploading” these foreign elements into their own aesthetic and semantic structures.
We begin with subject of artistic techniques. “Sfumato” may be defined as the deliberate blurring of a line or contour to make an object seem to disappear in the distance, or to add a soft-focus effect to a face or body in the foreground. In the Khamsa, this technique is used in conjunction with another technique, that of painting distant landscape in pale blue in order to create the appearance of distance through gradual shifts of colour from dark to pale tones towards the horizon. Such a technique has its origins in European book illustration, as a folio depicting the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (Fig. 1) clearly shows.4 This is by Simon Bening from a book of hours painted around 1520-30 in Bruges. It is unlikely that an original page from a treasured Book of Hours found its way to Mughal India, as these folios were avidly collected by the rich and powerful in Europe. However, there were single folios in wide circulation, which were meant as samples for potential buyers.
In the Khamsa, several pictures feature the same technique used for the background scenes. One of the best examples is in the background of a picture of Mary the Copt, the legendary founder of alchemy (Fig. 2).5 Here, behind a distant city, hills and mountains have been painted with faint blue tones to add an idyllic atmosphere to the scene. Such deliberate blurring of forms is also uncharacteristic of the sharper linearity of forms and the use of flat, gold leaf backgrounds in Persian and earlier Mughal art.
Many of the engravings found in Mughal possession excel in the technique of modeling - using light and dark tones to depict the direction of light in order to conjure up the illusion of three dimensions. This is seen best in the modeling of cloth. European engravings provided clear models of the principle of establishing the direction of light. In an engraving of a man and a woman by Jacob Golzius, which was undoubtedly in Mughal possession, as it was eventually to be copied by a Mughal painter in the Gulshan Album, almost all the surface of this print is a spectacle of the engraver’s skill in rendering the play of light on the folds of silk garments and curtains (Fig. 3). Although there are several examples of Mughal artists rendering the light and shade of folds of cloth in the Khamsa manuscript, the most impressive study appears in Brings Khusrau News of 52a (Fig. 4, detail), here, the curtains of the tent show the Mughal artist’s masterful use of the European technique of modeling and a new interest in using colours to depict light and shade, rather than solely as areas in an overall chromatic structure.
The other major European technique utilized by the Mughal artists was the depiction of perspective. One of the most remarkable illustrations in the Khamsa is The King is Carried Away by a Giant Bird - The Story of the Princess of the Black Pavilion, f.195a (Fig. 5). It is rich in incidental detail and rural vignettes on a minute scale. Most of all, however, this miniature is an opportunity to show off the new technique of perspective, not to mention a new aerial viewpoint. The is here shown soaring above the earth, over farms, towns and figures absorbed in the minutiae of everyday life, all oblivious to the , except for the spectators in the castle who raise their hands in wonder and bewilderment.
The King of Black Carried Away by a Giant Bird - The Story of the Princess of the Black Pavilion is a complex exercise in rendering of the illusion of distance: there are no fewer than seven receding planes and several rustic vignettes. This miniaturisation accentuates the feeling of distance and dizzying height. There is also a play on contrasts of scale: the tiny figure in the talons of the monstrous bird and the diminution of objects in the distance. The use of this form of stereoscopic perspective is a decisive break with the earlier techniques of Persian painting where figures near the horizon differ little in size from those in the foreground and where objects appear stacked, one upon another.
This miniature is remarkable not only for demonstrating the Mughal adoption and mastery of techniques of European art but it also shows the Mughal artists adapting aspects of European maps and paintings as subordinate aspects of an overall composition and to support their visual storytelling techniques.
The image of the figure in the claws of a giant bird may have a precedent in European cabinet or panel painting, which preserved the style of earlier Northern European painting. An example of this is The Fall of Icarus (Staedtel, Frankfurt-am-Main, no.1689), by the Antwerp painter, Tobias Verhaecht (1561-1631).6 When considering the landscape and main subject together, the colouring and composition of this painting compare favourably to the Khamsa illustration, which also synthesizes landscape elements and deep perspective. Also comparable are prints and paintings of the story of Ganymede, seized by Jupiter in the form of a great eagle.7 At least in these works, it is a bird carrying off a figure rather than a man with wings. In a charming reversal, the Europeans were influenced by Indian imagery in a print by Stradanus (Jan van der Straet, 1523-1605) of Magellan's Discovery of the Straits, which features a large bird, this time carrying an elephant in its talons across the sky. The image first appears as a description of the Garuda in the Mahabharata (I, 1353) and (III, 39) and in Europe from Marco Polo's description of Madagascar.8 There is also a related picture from a manuscript of the Katha-Sacrit-Sagara of A Man Hiding in an Elephant Skin Carried Off by a Giant c.1590-1600.9
In Arabic literature, the great bird appears in the Arabian Nights as a rescuer of the stranded travelling merchant in one of the tales; in , it appears as a protector and substitute parent of but also, as an evil bird to be conquered by Iskandar.The is the divine entity encompassing all others in c's Mantiq al-Tayr. Any of these sentiments may have attached to the image of the in The King of Black Carried Away by a Giant Bird - The Story of the Princess of the Black Pavilion in the Emperor Akbar's Khamsa. Further motivation for choosing to illustrate the subject besides the deliberately conspicuous manipulation of European painting techniques to execute the image, may have arisen from knowledge of the great bird as a powerful universal symbol in both the Indian, Chinese, Iranian and European cultural traditions.
Other symbolic associations available to the Mughals may be found in some verses from the Mantiq al-Tayr, where c describes the dropping one of its magic feathers in China:
The was thus also known as the inspirational spirit of painting and the inclusion of its image in Akbar's Khamsa of puts the illustrated manuscript on a par with the picture gallery of China mentioned in the verse above.
Many European maps and topographical views of the sixteenth century may be seen as the sources for figural elements and views of ships and distant cities on hills found in the Khamsa pages, these connexions have so far remained unknown. Whether these were brought to India by merchants or by the Jesuits is not known but the Jesuits had certainly brought over maps to their other missions in Japan. One Japanese copy of a map for a screen is from the Civitates Orbis Terrarum published in Antwerp in 1572 and 1581.11 One of the most significant gifts to Akbar from the first Jesuit mission was an atlas of the world.12 The Jesuit father Monserrate reports that on one occasion, while the Jesuits were before Akbar, the emperor called for an atlas and asked where Portugal was in relation to his own kingdom.13
In the Khamsa, motifs from maps may be seen in the form of the figure playing bagpipes accompanied by a greyhound dog in The King of Black Carried Away by a Giant Bird - The Story of the Princess of the Black Pavilion described above (see detail Fig. 6). There is a strikingly similar figure found in a map of 1584, printed by Gottfried von Kempen in an edition of Ptolemy's Geographiae Libri Octo (Fig. 7).14
Scenes of boats and figures pulling in nets from the sea are found in the Civitates Orbis Terrarum (Fig. 8), mentioned above,15 in the Urbium praecipuarum mundi theatrum quintam (Fig. 9) and in Abraham Ortelius’s atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Antwerp, 1570). These are scenes that may be found also in so many Mughal miniatures of the late sixteenth century and in the Khamsa’s Mourning the Death of His Father in particular (detail Fig. 10).16 One can perhaps understand the consistent use of this motif as recognition of the expansionism of the Portuguese fleet in real life, invading the outer reaches of the Mughal artist’s psyche.
Other pictures reinforce the view that the Mughals used European illustrations and maps as a source of imagery for their book illustrations. A Flemish seascape may be identified in the background to the illustration of and the Gazelle, f.19a (Fig. 11, detail). The seascape with a European boat and a farmer ploughing the land immediately in front of this bears a remarkable resemblance to a page representing a calendar scene of February from a Flemish Book of Hours c.1535 (Fig. 12).17 The archaic boat with shields and oars found in the background of this Mughal miniature (Fig. 11, detail) may also be seen as an incidental detail taken from the Geographiae Libri Octo mentioned above (Fig. 13).18
Another aspect indebted to European prints in the Khamsa is that of a bridge over a river with tiny figures walking over it. This may be seen in the background of and the Gazelle. The motif can be traced back to a print after Maarten van Heemskerk of Heraclitus and Democritus, 1557, 19 which in turn, was revived in the topographical views such as those published by Plantin in the 1570s.
European imagery was also used in the Khamsa for the picture of The Disputing Physicians (or Philosophers) folio 23b (Fig. 14). The picture features a series of wall paintings in the background; one rectangular panel with another beneath it is situated in an architectural niche with curtains at the centre. To the left is an arch under which is painted a scene with a background of its own, as if to appear as a window view on to a landscape. In the spandrel of the arch is an angel, painted to appear as a relief. These features in the composition can be compared to a sixteenth-century European print of the Visitation from the Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (c. 1571, Fig. 15).20 This has the same organization of space: an arch to the left in where there is a subsidiary scene, the Birth of St. John the Baptist, and a central panel (the Journey to Nazareth), in front of which the main 'real' scene takes place, the Visitation. , who painted The Disputing Physicians, must have adapted the basic composition from this original and added to it a rather conventional Persian scene in the foreground.
The central panel in the background of folio 23b may be identified as St. Luke and the Angel or a St. Matthew and the Angel. It is clear that the wall painting is based on a version of a very similar scene by c.1590.21 There is an even earlier copy by , dated 1587-8, now at the Bodleian Library. This is of St. Matthew writing in a book held by an angel. The original European engraving of c.1565, with the kind of boats and far-off townscapes typical of the Khamsa, is by Philip Galle, based on a work by Maarten van Heemskerk the Khamsa is obviously related to this although this connection has never before been made explicit.22 The only difference in the Khamsa painting is that the angel writes on a scroll of paper, while in the other versions, the angel holds open the page of the book for the saint to write on. Another version of this image is a folio from the Plantin Humanae Salutis Monumenta c. 1571,23 which shows an angel encouraging the saint to write. The smaller inset below this in The Disputing Physicians picture represents a female reading from a scroll with an attendant standing nearby.24 This may be an Annunciation: several European engravings by the Wierix family depict the Virgin in bed, receiving an angel with a scroll, bearing good tidings.25
The scene depicted on the left of the Disputing Physicians features several bathers in a tub. The picture is obviously European in origin, as nudity in Islamic art is extremely rare.26 The panel to the left appears as a real opening onto a background landscape under a painted arch. It presents itself as problematic: either this is an obvious illusion, or the nude scene is taking place in the same room as the encounter between the disputing physicians.
In contemporary Europe, nude scenes such as Diana and Actaeon,27 or David Surprising Bathsheba28 were becoming popular in paintings and prints. Susannah and the Elders,29 a biblical story, which contains a bathing scene, was frequently represented in the form of prints and tapestries in the sixteenth century.30 But in these images, the elders are always shown fully clothed.31 The scene in the Khamsa appears not to be based on a bible story, or on Ovid, but is in fact, related to an entirely different pictorial tradition. The image is copied from a print from a fifteenth-century genre depicting women's bathhouses, common in the Northern Renaissance (Figs. 16).The central motif that runs through several of these prints is a tub with scantily clad or nude bathers in it (Fig. 16).32
By the sixteenth century, the tradition of representing bath-houses was carried on by Dürer in such drawings as Im Turspalt ein Voyeur,33 which was copied later in that century by Hans Springinklee. H. S. Beham also executed several prints of women bathing in tubs (Fig. 17)34 comparable to the scene in the Khamsa. The reason for including the bathtub scene in this picture was perhaps to cast an aspersion on the consistent nudity found in European art, in contradiction to the rather more sacred imagery found in the painting next to it.
Although the painting illustrates ’s story of the disputing physicians, the presence of the Christian pictures in the background can only be explained as an elaboration meant to allude to the theological debates held between the Jesuits and the Mughals.35 The , the chronicle of the Emperor’s reign, describes an invitation to scholars and theologians of all religions, heralded by the foundation of the (or debating chamber), opened at Akbar's splendid palace at Fatehpur Sikri:
Many of the debates that took place between Akbar’s Islamic theologians and the Jesuits are recorded in Father Monserrate’s Commentary and tell of the theological debates about the Trinity, the Immaculate conception and the Art of the Covenant, for example. 37
Thus, The Disputing Physicians may be seen to have a dual nature: it illustrates a legendary story and a real life event, so that each appears to reflect the other. The painting illustrates the episode in the text and is this is the outer meaning of the painting (known as the by the Mughals) but also, its inner meaning () refers to the Mughal and Jesuits' theological debates and the artistic contest between the Mughal artists and the European. Akbar asked his artists to copy European works (as one of them has done in the Disputing Physicians miniature) to see if they could do better than the Europeans.38 The ‘inner picture’ is about the inspirational sources of painting: the prime mover of the scene is God who has given the saint a vision in the form of the angel; secondly, the angel prompts the painter to paint, or write;39 the result is a painting which itself has inspired several copies by other artists, one of them , the painter of the Disputing Physicians.
It is also possible to see the picture of a painting within a painting in the Disputing Physicians as a representation of one of the physician’s visionary experiences (revealed by the curtain being drawn to one side), hence the physician swooning to the right. St. Luke (or St. Matthew) has a vision of the angel in the European painting on the wall, which in turn is portrayed as the vision of one of the physicians. In parallel with a common compositional scheme in Counter-Reformation Europe, the Disputing Physicians is a Mughal example of an artistic device that consists of the representation of a visionary experience, by placing the visionary in the lower part of the picture with the vision in the upper part.40
Finally in the verse in the Khamsa text dealing directly with this picture we read:
Seen as an illustration of this verse, the European images, which may also represent Christianity, or the vision of the disputing physician, are the “mirage” referred to in the text. The Disputing Physicians turns the tables on European art using it as part of a complex allegory of the Mughals’ own making.
With the kind of synthesis of European and Mughal Indian painting seen in the Khamsa’s Disputing Physicians; and The Gazelle and The King of the Black is Carried Off by a Giant Bird, it may be said that the Mughals’ use of European art had moved beyond simple copying to the application of sfumato, perspective and the illusion of volume to articulate their own storytelling. European techniques of modeling and creating the illusion of light and shade created a new interest in textures and surface effects. In all of the pictures mentioned here, the artists of Akbar's Khamsa took details from Western works and painted them in different and innovative landscape environments and contexts for subtle evocations of mood and atmosphere. The so-called European elements in the Khamsa are thus selected carefully and are used in a balanced and sophisticated manner. Moreover, in the case of the Disputing Physicians in particular, European art was manipulated to add allegorical meaning to the narrative structure. Thus, the Mughal painting repertoire was expanded to include European techniques and motifs and utilized in complex compositional and semantic structures. The Mughal response to European art was not slavish imitation but creative reinvention.
 The first wave of European prints dating from the 1540s must have arrived with Francis Xavier who was sent to India in 1542, or subsequently with fifty of his Jesuit brothers who joined him in Goa after 1555. Some of these mid-sixteenth century prints were probably acquired by the Mughal embassy to Goa in 1575. The second wave, dating from the latter part of the century must have arrived at the Mughal court with the three Jesuit missions, the first in 1580, the second in 1591, and the third in 1595. The literature dealing with this subject is quite extensive. For a good number of reproductions, and groundbreaking attributions see R. Ettinghausen, ‘New Pictorial Evidence of Catholic Missionary Activity: Mughal India (Early XVIII Century) Perennitas, Münster, 1963, pp. 385-96 and M.C. Beach, ‘The Gulshan Album and its European Sources’, Bulletin Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, #332, 1965, Vol. LXIII, pp. 63-89 and also by the same author, ‘An Early European Source in Mughal Painting’ Oriental Art 22, no. 2 (1976), pp. 180-188; The Grand Mogul: Imperial Painting in India, 1600-1660 (Williamstown Mass., 1978); The Imperial Image, Paintings for the Mughal Court (Washington DC, 1981). Percy Brown’s Indian Painting Under the Mughals (Oxford, 1924) and E. D. Maclaglan’s The Jesuits and the Great Mughal (London, 1932) although old still have useful passages on European and Mughal art, as does P. du Jarric’s Akbar and the Jesuits Tr., C. H. Payne (London, 1926), J.F. Butler’s Christian Art in India (Madras, 1986) and A. K. Das’s, Mughal Painting During Jahangir’s Time (Calcutta, 1978). More up-to-date are E. Koch’s brilliant essays and studies: ‘The Influence of the Jesuit Missions on Symbolic Representation of the Mughal Emperors’ in The Akbar Mission and Miscellaneous Studies, ed. C. W. Troll, Islam in India: Studies and Commentaries, 1, New Delhi, 1982, pp. 14-29 and ‘Jahangir and the Angels: Recently Discovered Wall Paintings Under European Influence in the Fort of Lahore’ in India and the West: Proceedings of a Seminar Dedicated to the Memory of Hermann Goetz, ed., J. Deppert, New Delhi, 1983, pp. 173-95. Also worth consulting J. M. Rogers, Islamic Art and Design 1500-1700 (London, 1983) and Mughal Miniatures (London, 1993); A. Okada, Imperial Mughal Painters, Indian Miniatures from the 16th and 17th Centuries tr. D. Dusinberre (New York, 1992); M. Brand and G. D. Lowry, Akbar's India: Art From the Mughal City of Victory (New York 1985) and D. Jones, ed., A Mirror of Princes, The Mughals and the Medici (Bombay, 1987). The subject was researched by E. Devapriam, The Influence of Western Art on Mughal Painting (unpublished doctoral thesis, Case Western Reserve University, 1972). [Back to text]
 Prints may have arrived at the Mughal court independently of the Jesuits, as they were not the only carriers of printed material to the East. In 1596, at Nova Zembla, between the Barents and Kara seas, a Dutch vessel ran aground on its way to the East via the Northern Passage. The ship was probably not the first or last merchant ship to carry prints as merchandise for oriental markets. For examples of what were found, see J. Braat, J. P. Filedt Kok, J. H. Hofenk de Graaf, and P. Poldervaart, 'Restauratie Conservatie en Onderzoek van de op Nova Zembla gevonden zestiendeeuwse prenten', Bulletin Rijksmuseum, vol. 28, 1980, pp. 43-79. [Back to text]
 See F. Martin, The Miniature Paintings and Painters of Persia, India and Turkey, from the 8th to the 18th Century (London, 1912); G. Warner, Descriptive Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts in the Library of C.W. Dyson Perrins, DCL, FSA, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1920); P. Brown, Indian Paintings Under the Mughals, A. D. 1550 to AD 1750 (Oxford, 1924); S. C. Welch, 'The Emperor Akbar's Khamsa of , Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, XXIII, 1960, pp. 87-96; T.J. Brown, ' Manuscripts From the Dyson Perrins Collection', The British Museum Quarterly, XXIII/2, 1961, pp. 28-30; G.M. Meredith-Owens, Handlist of Persian Manuscripts 1895-1966 (London, 1968); N. Titley, Miniatures from Persian Manuscripts in the British Library and the British Museum (London, 1977); J.P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India (London, 1982); H. Marshall, ‘An Analysis of Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Mughal Painting: With Reference to Persian Cultural and Political Influences’ (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London, 1981); J. M. Rogers, Islamic Art and Design 1500-1700 (London, 1983); M.C. Beach, Early Mughal Painting (Harvard, 1987); A. Okada, Imperial Mughal Painters, Indian Miniatures from the 16th and 17th Centuries (Paris, 1992); J.M. Rogers, Mughal Miniatures (London, 1993); S. P. Verma, Mughal Painters and their Work: A Bibliographical Survey and Comprehensive Catalogue (Delhi, 1994) and B. Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of (London, 1995). [Back to text]
 See R. Wittkower, 'Miraculous Birds', Journal of the Warburg Institute, vol. I, no. 3, pp. 255-257, and for a reproduction of the Stradanus print. The same motif but in the guise of a Persian or Chinoiserie with an elephant in its beak, or talons, may be seen in BL Add. 18803, f. 15, and in a Jain cosmological design and as a design on a Mughal carpet both at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, reproduced in Coomaraswamy, Catalogue of Indian Collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, 1930), vol. II, pls. LXXIII, LXII and CCXCVIII. [Back to text]
 By Hieronymus Wierix in M. Mauquoy-Hendrickx, Les Estampes de Wierix Conservees au Cabinets des Estampes de la Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier, vol. I (Bruxelles, no date), vol. III, no. 1992, pl. 307. [Back to text]
 The only comparable material in Mughal art is a picture of the Virgin Mary and an angel holding up to her an open book, see S. N. Gupta, Catalogue of Paintings in the Central Museum, Lahore (Lahore, 1922), pl. VI. [Back to text]
 There appears to be only one other related scene in Mughal art, in a loose leaf at the Victoria and Albert Museum (D399-1885) where, in the background, two nude children play over a barrel. [Back to text]
 See prints by Anton Wierix in Mauquoy-Hendrickx, op. cit., vol. I, pls. 70-71, and mention of tapestries featuring the same subject in W. S. Thomson, The History of Tapestry (London, 1973), p. 254 and 380. [Back to text]
 See H. P. Duerr, Nachtheit und Scham, Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozess (Frankfurt am Main, 1988), particularly figure 25, a scene of a Burgundian bath-house with two nudes who very much resemble those in the Khamsa, f. 23b, and fig. 40, Jungbrunnen. Figs 26, 31, and 43 are also comparable. [Back to text]
 See G. Pauli, Hans Sebald Beham, Ein Kritisches Verzeichniss (Strasbourg, 1901), 216, ii and 210, ii, the latter print displays a woman's anatomy as frankly as the representation in the Khamsa. [Back to text]
 The Jesuits were actually painted into a story of a now dispersed 1592-94, now in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington. Jesuits also appear in an illustration by c. 1605, now in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. [Back to text]
 Seen as a hierarchy, the divine faculty moves the intellect, whose subordinate is the imagination, below this is sense perception and then material objects. This is similar to Plato's line divided in the Republic between ideas, mathematical concepts, objects and shadows. Such schemata, synthesized with the hierarchical scheme inherited from Plotinus are seen in various Islamic philosophers’ works from the al-Safa, , Ibn Sina, (whose work was illustrated by Akbar's artists) to Ibn Rushd and Ibn al-. [Back to text]
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