Beginning with the reign of Akbar, the Mughals increasingly sacralised the space of the domestic sphere as a strategy of political legitimisation. Honorific titles bestowed upon royal women equated them to the figure of the Virgin Mary. For instance, Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum was given the title of “Mariam Makani”, “dwelling with Mary”, after her death.
While it may be surprising why a Muslim ruler should invoke a figure of the Christian theology, it must be remembered that the figure of Mary is exalted in Islam, with the Quran lauding Virgin Mary as an exemplar of women with around 30 verses dedicated to her. This trend of sacralising royal women was extended during the period of Jahangir as well. Jahangir’s own mother also was also equated with the Virgin Mary through her lofty title “Maryam uz Zamanni”, i.e. “Mary of the Age”. Scholars have argued that the equation of the royal mothers with the figure of the Virgin Mary was established to exalt the spiritual status of the emperor as well as embody qualities of chastity and purity upon the royal women.
Both Akbar and Jahangir showed an interest in European Art, especially after Akbar was presented with a set of the ‘Antwerp Polyglot Bible’ by the Jesuits in 1580, engraved by Flemish artist including Pieter Van der Heyden, Pieter Huys, Gerard van Kampen and the Wierix brothers. Artists of the Mughal atelier were ordered to make copies of numerous engravings of religious subjects brought by the Jesuits, and court painters assimilated many Christian iconographic elements such as haloes and angels into the Mughal repertoire, and the figure of Madonna was in particular profusely illustrated by them.
However, the motive of incorporation of Christian themes into Mughal art was not only religious piety. In many Mughal paintings, Christian iconography was used to exalt the spiritual and political status of the Mughal monarchs, and give them a quasi-divine sanction. According to contemporary accounts, Jahangir sealed his official letters with images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ and wore a cross of gold beneath his robe. Both Akbar and Jahangir had images of the Virgin Mary and the Christ painted along with Christian saints and angels on their palace walls and ceilings. Their use of this iconography was political, and visually reiterated that their rule had divine approval.
This particular painting of Jahangir holding an image of the Madonna in his hand, depicts both Jahangir and the Virgin with a halo. The artist therefore equates both the figures spiritually. Since Jahangir’s mother was named as “Mary of the Age”, the image could also allude to her. The earthy and the spiritual combine together to form a range of meanings suggesting the spiritual and political grandeur of Jahangir.