When Jesuit Priests Presented a Painting of Madonna at the Court of Akbar
The inaugural story from our series on syncretic traditions in India
April 4, 2018
The Jesuit from Portugal, Fernão Guerreiro (1550–1617 ce), collected letters from Jesuit missions from all over the world and put them into multivolume compilation Relçam. In these volume figure, naturally, accounts of the missions to India, during the time of Akbar and Jahangir. Of specific interest is the account of the time when the Jesuits introduced in Agra a copy of the Madonna on the high altar of S. Mana del Popolo in Rome.
The enthusiastic account of the impact of that painting on the Indian populace, from the highest to the lowest, fills several pages. One reads about common women in droves succumbing to the charm of that painting; great Moorish Captains coming with companions from long distances to gaze at it; the highest in the land, the Emperor himself, bowing before the image with his turban half removed from his head and then asking to borrow it for a few days to show it the women in the secluded imperial household, including his mother, and, eventually, of having it copied by his own painters. The account says, however, that the native painters worked as hard as they could, but achieved very little in the end, not being able to equal the Portuguese in the art of painting.
Source: Edward Macleagan, The Jesuits and the Great Mogul (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1932), 228–34. Based on Jahangir and the Jesuits: With an Account of the Travels of Benedict Goes and the Mission to Pegu. From the Relations of Father Fernao Guerreiro, S.J., trans. C.H. Payne (London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1930).
Guerreiro, Fernão. Relação anual das coisas que fizeram os Padres da Companhia de Jesus nas suas missões, nos annos de 1600 a 1609 e do processo da conversão e cristandade daquelas partes. Artur Viegas, ed. 3 vols. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade, 1930–1.
‘The Fathers had had the picture,’ he says, ‘for two years, but they had not dared to expose it for fear that the King would take it. Now, on the feast of Christmas and Circumcision of this year 602  they determined to place it in the church, which they decorated in their best style for the purpose. They had, however, no other intention than that of helping their own devotion and that of the Christians.
But it happened one day during the octave, that some poor women in the Fathers’ neigh-bourhood asked their permission to come and see the church in the evening. They were allowed, and were so enchanted at the sight of the sacred picture that, on going home, they went, like so many Samaritan women, praising it so highly and giving such glowing accounts of it to all whom they met and talked to, that from mouth to mouth the news spread all round and set the whole city astir. The people began to flock to the church, and they returned marvelling still more at what they had seen than they had been eager to come.
They left their shops and their occupations to hasten to the church, and curiosity ran so high that more than two thousand persons came that evening alone from the adjoining streets.
The next day in the morning, the Fathers were obliged to say an early Mass, because the people were already waiting at the door to enter. Seeing the great concourse, which went on increasing, and fearing some disorder, the Fathers were obliged to see to the things of the house and guard the chief doors, so as to avoid a tumult. Then, they stationed themselves at the more convenient entrances to receive the people and speak to them. The sacred picture was exposed on the altar of the chapel, with candles burning round it. It was covered with two veils: one thin and transparent, the other a curtain of taffety, which remained always drawn until the church was full of people. It was then pulled aside, and besides two small boys always standing near the altar, there was always someone knowing the language of the country who, each time the picture was unveiled to the people, spoke to them of Our Lady and her Blessed Son, who had come down to earth to reveal and teach to the world the true way of salvation. To make the people enter in greater order, the Fathers saw that the women entered separately, and the men separately, thing which gave great edification and no more were allowed in at time than the church could hold. When these had gone out, others were let in, and at the unveiling of the picture they would all stand gazing and lost in admiration.
The feelings which the sight produced in them were something marvellous and evi-dently beyond the natural. They were feelings of admiration, emotion and consolation. Truly, even to those infidels, the Virgin showed herself a mother of consolation, seeing how consoled, contrite and touched by the sight they left her presence. Such was the impres-sion of the Fathers, when they heard them speak after they had seen Our Lady. It was the case with many distinguished and noble personages; for the Fathers took occasion of this to preach to them and speak of Christ Our Lord and that sovereign Lady, His Mother, and to discover to them at the same time the impostures and misdeeds of Mahomet. They listened with much compunction and confusion, and without protesting, to all the evil that was said of Mahomet; and it is all the more astonishing if one knows how badly Moors bear to hear their false prophet spoken ill of, or how greatly they hold all kinds of pictures in abhorrence. Even so, all left with feelings of love and affection for the Holy Virgin.
Those who came the first days belonged generally to the lower class; but, from the third and fourth day there came Moulas or men of letters, noblemen and lords, who before that deemed it dishonourable to come to the church.
Their example increased still more the excitement in town, so that the number of those who went in and out of the church—which is small—was computed at ten thousand a day.
They came not only from the town, but even from places outside, to which the fame of the sacred picture had spread. Except in the evening, the Fathers had not a quarter of an hour to themselves during the whole day, even to eat a morsel. Such was the concourse they had to attend to, and so wonderfully did the Mother of God wish to make herself and her Blessed Son known to those infidels, so that on the Day of Judgement they might have no excuse.
Among the lords and nobles who came, there was a great Captain with an escort of more than sixty persons on horseback, and many men on foot, altogether a man of great respectability. On seeing Our Lady, he stood as if spell-bound.
After these, there began to come others and others, and they returned so much moved that, on reaching home, they brought all their people, and, what is more, their wives, ladies of the first nobility.
The Fathers welcomed them with much courtesy; and when they came, the other people were kept back and were refused admittance.
A Moor of the highest rank, one of the King’s officers, could not on account of his many occupations come at any other time than one day very early in the morning. The Fathers took him to the chapel and unveiled the holy picture. Casting his eyes on it, he looked at it for a good while, lost in wonder and speechless, tears rolling from his eyes all the while. The Father asked him to sit down, and profited by the opportunity to speak to him of God, but he did nothing but weep, unable to detach his eyes from the picture. ‘Sir,’ asked the Father, ‘what harm did Mahomet find, or what harm do your people see, in the use and veneration of such a picture, since it excites in the heart such consolation and emotion?’ He answered that the Moors do not understand these things, and he went on to speak so plainly in disparagement of Mahomet and in honour of Christ and of Our Lady that devout Christian could not have done better. He remained there until the concourse of people obliged him to leave, and he went his way much consoled and saying to all a thousand things in honour and praise of our holy Faith.
A brother and a nephew, and cousins and relatives of the King of Xhander (Khandesh), and a son of the King of Candaar came also two or three times, with large retinue and many nobles and lords of the court, and they said to the Fathers that the King would not be pleased if they did not mention to him something so much worth seeing. Hence they resolved to do so at once; and, repairing to the palace they gave an account of what was going on, to which the King answered that he knew it already, and that he also would like to see the picture of the Lady Mary. He wished them to bring it for his inspection. The Fathers said it was a pity that His Highness did not come to see it where it was, on the altar. ‘I shall go,’ he said. But his courtiers objected that he could not, because the house of the Fathers was very far. (In fact the house, though within the city, was half a league from the palaces.) It would, therefore be better if the Fathers brought the picture.
They did so the next day, but at night. When the King knew it was there, he was much pleased, and ordered that they should bring it to his room. Father Manoel Pinheyro went to fetch it. Meanwhile the King called for a black rain cloak, which he had kept for some days for the Fathers, and he asked Father Xavier if he found it good. ‘Yes, Sire,’ answered the Father. ‘Do you wish us to wear it? It would do, Sire, against the rain, and to follow you in your service, but these cords and tassels of silk will not do for us.’ ‘Then there is no harm in cutting them off,’ he said, and descending four or five steps from the throne where he was seated, he vested the Father with it himself. Father Manoel Pinheyro arrived just then with the picture. It was as high as a man, and had been brought covered and very neatly framed.
The King had again seated himself; but, when the Fathers uncovered the picture, he imme-diately came down again, approached quite close, took off his turban half to show it his deep reverence, and expressed himself extremely pleased to see it.
Out of respect for the King, the grandees kept behind him and dared not approach; but, he called them one by one to have a look at it, and they vied with one another in showing the astonishment and wonder it caused them.
What they said and confessed all of them redounded greatly to God’s glory and gave much satisfaction to the Fathers.
The King, who was very keen on getting the picture, said, ‘My father esteemed much things like this; and, if anyone had given it him, he would have granted him any boon he might have asked.’ The Fathers understood perfectly his clever way of disguising his request, but they did as if they had not, and warded him off with some compliments. ‘For the moment,’ returned the King, ‘leave the picture in the room where I shall sleep to-night.’ And he entered the apartment with the Fathers, and told them to put it anywhere they liked and preferred. When it was hung up, he made a great reverence before it taking off his turban almost completely, a thing he never does.
The Fathers had understood at once that his reason for wishing to keep the picture was to show it to his wives and daughters. He showed it to them the next day, and descanted himself on the excellence of the Queen of Angels and great was the respect and honour shown her by all these Moorish ladies. One of them, who until then had been very hostile to the Fathers and the law of Christ, was much changed after that, her opinion of us being very different now from what it had been. The next day, the Fathers returned, fearing not little that the King would like to retain the picture; but God was pleased that he should return it, and they took it back greatly consoled as he who ‘reducebat arcam domini in locum suum’ (who brought back the ark of the Lord to its place).
The people had been very sad to hear the picture was in the King’s palace; for they thought they would never see it again; but, on learning that it had been brought back to its place, they came to visit it once more.
Ere long, however, their devotion was again interrupted. The King’s mother, who was very old, hearing what was going on, and not having seen the picture when it was in the palace, was anxious to see it. She begged her son to ask the Fathers again for it, which he did; and, when the Fathers arrived with it, he excused himself saying that old as his mother was, she liked, however, to be still fondled as mother. Without allowing anyone to help him, he took the picture in his arms and carried it inside, where he placed it high and conveniently. Not only his mother, but his wives and daughters, who had seen it already, came to view it, the sight giving them as much pleasure as it excited admiration.
The King stood near the picture, and said that none of the women should touch it. When it had been shown, he had it carried by a eunuch to the Fathers, who were standing outside.
In the square before the palaces there were many people who were also eager to have a look at it. Captains and noblemen pressed the Fathers to show it to them, a request which could not be refused. As the picture was to be shown to so many at a time, great was the noise going on around it; but, no sooner was it uncovered, than a hush came over the crowd, and all marvelled greatly. After this, the Fathers went home with it, and wherever they passed in the street, the people rejoiced and congratulated the Fathers on their bringing it back. On seeing it taken again to the palace, they had thought the King would lay hold of it.
The concourse to our church began anew, and then it was soon broken off again, because many advised the King to have a copy of it made by his painters. The King contended that they would not be able to imitate it to perfection; still, to try what they could do, he got together the best painters of the city and sent someone to ask the Fathers to bring the picture back. They went and put it in a becoming place, where it could be seen by all, and it was the King himself who was most demonstrative in his reverence, telling young pages in his suite not to go near. And, as numbers of Moorish and Gentio nobles, and the King’s nephews came to see it, the Fathers had an excellent opportunity to explain to them and declare with great freedom, the whole of that day, the mysteries of that Lady and of her Most Holy Son. The Moors listened to it all, and took it very well, and they showed they had a high opinion of the things of our Faith, a remarkable and quite novel phenomenon, seeing their general arrogance, and supreme disdain of us.
Meanwhile, the painters merely took their measurements and threw out some lines; but, though this time the picture remained many days in the palace, and they worked as hard as they could, they achieved very little in the end, and were obliged to confess that they could not come up to the perfection of the model or equal the Portuguese in the art of painting. Many, therefore, tried to persuade the Fathers to present the sacred picture to the King; but the Fathers parried them off gently, and on the feast of Our Lord’s Resurrection they went to ask it back. They took it home and put it away altogether. Many lords still asked for it repeatedly, to let it be seen by their wives; but in order to conciliate greater prestige and reverence for the holy Virgin, the Fathers refused it to it to all. There were two, however, against whom they were powerless.
This essay has been extracted from Oxford Readings in Indian Art edited by B N Goswamy, Oxford University Press, 2018, and republished here with permission from the publishers.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.