Saturday, 23 July 2011

National museum artefacts 5: a guest appearance

Haven't done one of these in a while, but I still have a good few things worthy of comment (and am planning a return trip to the museum before too long!).

Anyway, one of the joys of the museum is its section on Indian miniature paintings. They're fascinating portraits of life in a vanished society - the court of the Mughal rulers of Delhi who preceded the arrival of the British. They are particularly interesting because the Mughals were Muslim, but their art features some of the loveliest renditions of the human form you are ever likely to see - not normally something associated with Islamic art (they were also responsible for some of the most beautiful architecture in the world, including the Taj Mahal). The paintings don't really lend themselves to casual photographing, but you can see some lovely examples here.

One of the examples listed there really intrigued me, and it was this one:

At first sight the main thing you notice is the beautiful gold leaf script and decoration surrounding the central portrait, which represents one of the Mughal emperors, Jahangir (1605-27). The portrait itself is revealing: you might expect an early 17th century emperor of Persian and Mongolian stock to be depicted as a warrior, but what we see is a sensitive and artistic-looking young man - clearly someone who valued culture above conquest (despite this, he apparently enlarged the empire significantly during his tenure as top banana). But when you go for a closer look at Jahangir you notice that what he is holding is a bit unexpected:

She gets everywhere, doesn't she?

Yep, it's the virgin Mary, in the familiar meek-and-holy posture in which she is depicted in churches across the Christian world. But what's she doing in a portrait of an Islamic ruler, far distant from the nearest centre of Christianity?

Turns out we have a Brit to thank for this, though one who shared his culture with India in a rather less brutal way than his successors. Thomas Roe came to Jahangir's court as ambassador for King James I in 1615, bringing with him several paintings with Christian themes. Clearly they caught Jahangir's eye to the extent that he commissioned the above portrait.

This fascinates me for what it says about the culture of the court in Delhi at the time. In England, we'd recently had Elizabeth's persecution of Catholics (and Queen Mary's persecution of protestants before that), and we still had jolly old Olly Cromwell, that paragon of religious tolerance, to come. But in Islamic Delhi, the emperor was having himself painted with an icon of a foreign religion (actually, interesting question: I know Jesus is recognised as a prophet by Islam, but anyone know what it has to say about Mary?).

Of course the Mughals also pulled off the rather unusual feat of ruling for centuries over an empire that was overwhelmingly of a different religion to them, apparently without serious efforts to covert their subjects (though they had wars aplenty with neighbouring Hindu dynasties). The contrast with the ruthless efforts to suppress dissenting religious views in England (and elsewhere in Europe) at the time is striking, and shows just how recent an arrival tolerance is to our now-cosmopolitan society.


Mani said...

Even Islamic scholars are perplexed by this aspect of Mughal rule in India. Islamic rule in India was not "cultured" all the way, though. Sufism was the dominant Islamic force in India during the Mughal rule. It was mostly during Akbar and Aurangzeb that the Polarization started. Also, at a subtle level India was always for mutual respect in inter faith issues as opposed to tolerance :).

Chris said...

Thanks's certainly a fascinating period of history, I wish I had more time to learn more about it!