We didn’t want to end the year with a Big Story on all that’s wrong with the world. Tis the season to be jolly—and enjoy the gorgeous eye candy that Christianity has gifted to our culture. Happy holidays!
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Anannya Parekh
Lead image: is Jamini Roy’s undated painting ‘Christ with angels’.
How it all began….
According to cultural memory, the first meeting between India and Christianity dates back to 52 AD—when one of 12 apostles of Christ—St Thomas—is supposed to have landed in South India. Syrian Christians in Kerala trace their origins to this encounter—when Thomas converted high-caste Brahmins to Christianity by performing miracles. But we have no historical record of this visit—or early art from this period.
A Mughal encounter: The oldest pieces of art were created in the courts of Mughal emperors. Jesuit missionaries were among the first Europeans to have that honour. They arrived in Goa in 1542—and were invited by an intrigued Emperor Akbar in 1579:
The ambassador carried a letter from Akbar to the viceroy and another to the ‘Chief Fathers of the Order of St Paul’, requesting them to send ‘two learned priests’ to the Mughal court, as well as ‘the principal books of the Law and the Gospel’, to teach and discuss with Akbar ‘the Law and what is most perfect in it’.
This 16th century painting recreates the Jesuits presenting the Bible to Akbar:
In 1580, Akbar was presented with a set of the ‘Antwerp Polyglot Bible’ by the Jesuits—engraved by Flemish artists including Pieter Van der Heyden, Pieter Huys, Gerard van Kampen and the Wierix brothers. It marked the beginning of a great artistic love affair.
The Mughal imagination of Christ: The Jesuits introduced the Mughals to all sorts of Christian imagery—“haloes, angels, cherubs, the Madonna, and Christ himself.” These were taken up with great energy by court artists—at the direction of their rulers. Kesu Das, for example, painted this crucifixion scene in 1590. It shows Christ and Mary among the women below:
A Madonna complex: In 1595, an unknown Portuguese artist left behind this depiction of Virgin Mary and child—later preserved in Emperor Jahangir’s album:
The iconography of Mary was especially attractive to the Mughals—since she is exalted in the Quran. Akbar’s mother was given the honorific ‘Mariam Makani’—or ‘dwelling with Mary’—after her death. Below you can see a famous painting of Jahangir with a picture of the Madonna:
Point to note: The use of Christian imagery was also about asserting the divinity of the emperors—juxtaposing them with sacred figures:
Jahangir sealed his official letters with images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ and wore a cross of gold beneath his robe. Akbar and Jahangir had images of Madonna and the Christ painted along with saints, angels and other Christian subjects on their palace walls and ceilings. In doing so, their message to their subjects was clear: their rule had divine approval.
Just as interesting: This 1598 miniature that shows a light-skinned woman nursing an infant—which resembles European depictions of Mary and Christ.
It reflects the growing freedom of Mughal artists—who were no longer just mimicking Western art—but incorporating it in creative ways:
[Basawan] fused Eastern and Western elements in his paintings.For instance in the painting…there’s a mother nursing her child on a carpet with Persian designs. Behind them is painted a rural Indian scene juxtaposed by a columned European structure with a knotted curtain (European influence). The exposed breasts and drapery folds of the mother are influenced by the personification of piety in the Polyglot Bible. Indo-persian facial features, carpet motifs, ornate vessels are representative of the blend.
Compare and contrast: One of the most notable Mughal-era paintings is the ‘Day of Judgement’ painted by Nanha and Manohar in the 17th century—for Emperor Jahangir. It’s a reinterpretation of a Flemish engraving from c.1580 depicting the ‘Last Judgement’ by Adriaen Collaert:
Here, we see how Nanha and Manohar make revisions to the original, based on their sensibilities, drawing from the existing Mughal miniature painting tradition that they were trained in. They have reduced the number of figures, rendering them in a softer, rounded form compared to the muscled, anatomical figures in the Collaert engraving. They also deploy the use of colour to distinguish between the saved and the damned—bright colours for the believers and muted shades for the non-believers.
See them side-by-side below:
Meanwhile, in Goa: The Portuguese influence
Christian art also flourished in the Portuguese colony in the 16th and 17th centuries. For example, this 17th century panel painting of Angel Gabriel—from the Convent of Santa Monica:
Or this traditional depiction of Madonna and child—from the Basilica of Born Jesus—which also includes Mughal-style mango (paisley) motifs in gold on the frame:
Beyond paintings: The truly unique contribution of Goan art is not its paintings—but iconic statuettes. They were made from ivory shipped in from Portuguese colonies in East Africa:
They are significant for their combination of European Christian iconography with stylistic treatments native to the religions and art of the ancient Indian subcontinent, such as elements from the Shilpa Shastras and Buddhist art.
These statuettes were produced in great quantity—and used as an evangelising tool to spread the faith.
The Goan ‘Pelican’: Many of these are stunning—especially The Pelican Monstrance—described as “a spectacular example of Indo-Portuguese art.” It was common to depict Jesus as a Pelican in the Middle Ages in Europe—for this reason:
The pelican had a significant place in this imagery, standing in for the Christ figure, as seen in Psalm 102: 7: ‘I am like unto the pelican’ (Similis factus sum pelicano)... The bird came to symbolize filial love, for the pelican was thought to open up its own chest with its beak in order to feed its young. In fact, when the pelican catches fish, it retains half-digested food in a throat pouch beneath its beak which is then fed to its young. In doing this, it appears to be wounding itself, parallelling Christ’s Passion, and the Eucharist.
The delightful bit about this 4.5 feet silver statuette: the Indian artist reinterpreted the pelican with elements of a peacock—including the “head shape (but not comb or beak), body-, neck- and tail feathers”:
FFW to the 20th century: Contemporary Christ
Modern artists have stretched Christian iconography to create a truly Indian visual language—decolonising Western traditions. Sadly, a number of them are women—who have been long sidelined and forgotten. Here are some significant examples.
Ângela Trindade: At the age of 27, the Goan artist won the gold medal at the All India Women Artists’ Exhibition in 1936. Although a contemporary of Amrita Shergill, her work never received the same attention or accolades. Her best work was hardly limited to Christian themes, Trindade painted more than two dozen Madonnas—with and without Christ—and was one of the pioneering artists reclaiming religious art. A good example is ‘Our Lady of the Lotus’—where you can see the “distinctive Indian features of both mother and son, with their almond eyes and black hair”:
Want more Trindade? How about Christ being baptised in the River Jordan—but the scene is set in the outskirts of a village—with a Hindu temple in the background:
Angelo de Fonesca: was also a contemporary of Trindade—and also as overlooked for his art was considered “too Indian for rigidly Eurocentric Catholics and too Christian for nationalism-blinkered Indians” in the post-Independence era. He was far more modern in his style and sensibility than Trindade—as you can see in his 1941 depiction of the ‘Konkani Madonna’:
Fonseca was driven by his anger—misplaced or not—at what he saw as poor Indian imitations of Western religious art:
The Indian Catholic has generally been brought up on products of the West – very cheap and unartistic products at that, as a general rule – and consequently our art is strange to him… But we artists must make an effort to create real devotional pictures, and not merely to put a halo behind the head of a beautiful woman or inscribe a label at the foot of an ordinary man. Let therefore devotion be the substratum of inspiration, and that fostered by the breezes that descend from the lofty Himalayas.
You can see that vision most clearly in this 1953 watercolour ‘Annunciation’:
A very Indian ‘Last Supper’: Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Saviour’s last meal is among the most memorable—and instantly recognisable—examples of religious art. His work in turn has inspired many Indian artists—irrespective of their faith or background. For example: the legendary Jamini Roy—who offers this striking interpretation infused with Bengal folk art style:
MF Hussain was better known for his Hindu iconography, but his later work includes this 2008 painting titled ‘The Last Supper in the Red Desert’—which he worked on while in exile in the UAE:
FN Souza—also a Goan painter—moved away from the peaceable imagery of his predecessors. Jesus’ dining companions in this 1990 painting are filled with emotion—dismay, rage, shock—while Jesus remains calm in the centre:
Last not least: This Krishen Khanna painting is wittily titled ‘Last Bite’—which pays tribute to the camaraderie among artists. At the table are many of his friends and contemporaries: MF Husain, Souza, Tyeb Mehta, VS Gaitonde, Manjit Bawa, Jagdish Swaminathan, Bhupen Khakhar—and one woman, Bhanu Athaiya!
The bottomline: There are so many other glorious examples of Indo-Christian art–including sculptures by great artists, nativity scenes in households, prints by Madhubani artisans... But we’d run out of time and space if we tried to do justice to them all. We leave you with this delightful Bengali print from the Chore Bagan Art Studio titled ‘The Birth Of Krishna’—a delightful and different iteration of the East-meets-West tradition:
The best resources for Indian art history are the MAP Academy, The Heritage Lab and Google Arts & Culture. More specifically:
- For the Mughals: We highly recommend MAP’s essay on Christian symbolism, THL’s curated gallery and Google’s visual essay on the painting of Jahangir with the Madonna.
- As for the Portuguese, we carried MAP’s brilliant guide to Goan ivory statuettes. Check out Google to see more on the paintings.
- We also recommend watching this video guide to the Museum of Christian Art in Goa—and these Print and Scroll essays.
- Scroll has excellent profiles of Trindade and da Fonseca. You can also read about Hinduism’s influences on the latter in The Hindu.
- For a broader view on Indo-Christian art, see this Mint piece.
- The Heritage Lab has a great visual essay on the many interpretations of ‘The Last Supper’.
- The Hindu has a good piece on nativity scenes in Indian households today.