The Samaritan woman – Mughal miniature from the book by Padre Jerome Xavier

On the second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel  of John Chapter 4: 5-42 focuses on the Samaritan woman on the well. Today’s art section features a Mughal miniature illustration featured in the book  Mirat- ul- kud   which was written in Persian by  the Jesuit, Fr Jerome Xavier,  the grand nephew of St Francis Xavier who wrote for Akbar and Salim, on the life of Jesus 

The contribution of the Great Mughals to art, history and culture goes way beyond the majestic grandeur of the Taj Mahal and its romantic fantasy. Equally enticing was the contribution of the Mughals to miniature paintings. One such example is depicted above. If you snoop about the CHRISTian theme of this Mughal painting you will realise that it does serve as an alley to transport you into the Mughal field wherein religion, politics, culture, society and art were at play.

Reminiscing the Gospel passage of John, Chapter 4: 5 – 42, the painting illustrates the moment when Jesus was conversing with the Samaritan woman and his disciples come back from the city, amazed that he was publically speaking to a woman who was a Gentile. This painting was used to illustrate the Mir’atu l-quds or The Mirror of Holiness, a biography of Jesus in Persian, offered to Emperor Akbar and Prince Salim (later Jehangir) by Fr. Jerome Xavier, the grand nephew of St. Francis Xavier, the apostle of the Orient.

It is indeed interesting that the Mughal King Akbar initiated Muslim Christian dialogue in September 1579 by sending his ambassador to Goa with a letter which read:

“… I am sending Abdullah, my ambassador, and Dominic Perez (an Armenian Christian, the interpreter) with the request that you will send me two learned Fathers and the books of Law, especially the Gospel, that I may know the Law and its excellence…”

However with the apparent failure of the first two missions (1580 – 1591), the Jesuits feared that the goal of converting the emperor was simply unrealistic and therefore decided not to send other missionaries. But, acknowledging the emperor’s interest, the viceroy himself,       D. Matias de Albuquerque, pressured the Provincial to send the third mission alleging that “other religious men wished and were asking to go if the Jesuits would not oblige.” Curiously enough, the third mission to the Mughal court lasted for almost two centuries, until 1773, when the order was temporarily suppressed. The most important member of the third mission and its leader was the Spanish Jesuit Padre Jerome Xavier (1549- 1617).

Born in Spain, at the age of nineteen, Fr Jerome entered the Society of Jesus and arrived in the capital of the Estado da Índia in 1581. Between 1584 and 1585, he was based in Bassein but due to his poor health he was transferred to Cochin in Kerala. In 1592 he was appointed the Superior of the Professed House of Goa, the second in command after the Provincial. Described as prudent and critical, he won the support and resentment of his peers. In October 1594, at the age of 46, Fr Jerome was chosen to go to the Mughal court. Fully aware of the need to master the court language, on 20th August 1595, in a letter he stated:

 “Now our entire occupation is to learn the Persian language and, moreover, we trust in God’s mercy that within the space of one year we shall speak it; only then we shall be able to say that we are in Lahore, for up to now we are statues.”

When the third mission arrived at the court, they were agape because not only was the verandah of the emperor decorated with images of Christ, Mary and the Apostles but even Akbar himself wore suspended on his neck a gold chain with a reliquary which had on one side of it an Agnus Dei and on the other side the image of Our Lady! With hopes held high, the missionaries carried out their full scale programme organizing processions, skits, engaging in discussions and debates, translating books from Portuguese to Persian and vice versa.  

‘It amused the king to listen to disputes between the Mullahs and the Fathers, just as it amused him to watch a fencing match or a cock-fight. At other times he would egg on the Fathers to attack Muhammad, slapping his thighs with delight at their retorts to their opponents.’  – The Jesuits and the Great Mogul by Sir Edward Maclagan

The truth however was more prosaic. The tolerant Mughal Emperor Akbar used his secular policy to further his religious and political interest. He made special arrangements in Fatehpur Sikri (capital) for interreligious dialogue – including Muslims Hindus, Jains, Parsees and Jesuits. His main motive was to start a new religion, which would unite the best of all other religions called ‘Din-i- Illahi’. He courageously proclaimed it in 1579 despite opposition from the Muslim clergy and established himself as the absolute ruler, based on the theory of Divine Right. However the new religion had not much influence outside the court and soon went into oblivion with Akbar’s death. Thus the Mughal emperors openly appropriated the Jesuits’ devotional imagery as a form of royal propaganda.

The unceasing efforts on the part of the Jesuits ceased to convert the Mughal rulers. Frustration at the mission’s lack of progress Fr Jerome described the mission as “sterile.” Interestingly, Father Jerome states that Jahangir allowed him to leave the court, only to have him use his diplomatic skills to “arrange with the Viceroy about peace (in the resolution of a conflict in Surat involving the Mughals, the Portuguese, and the English), and conceal the fact that he [Jahangir] was asking for it.”

On his return to Goa he was appointed the rector of Saint Paul’s College, then the largest and most important Jesuit school in Asia. He died two years later, on June 27, 1617, at the age of 68, a victim of a fire at the College. In recognition of his work and dedication, Pope Paul V, following a petition by King Philip of Portugal, appointed him Archbishop of Cranganore (known today as Kodungallur) in Kerala.

Coming back to the painting, it adheres to a style typical during the late Akbari period. The composition is divided into three basic parts wherein Jesus and the Samaritan woman occupy the center of the miniature, under a picturesque landscape in which high mountains shield a city.  The lower foreground portrays two women and a group of five men observing or talking about the two principal figures. As in many other Mughal miniatures westerners are portrayed with no specific purpose. Animals like the dog symbolized a peaceful and just reign and were often seen accompanying missionaries in their daily chores.

The apostle behind Jesus holding a book represented the Jesuits who were appropriately perceived as educators in both Europe and Asia. Rocks in Mughal art were represented with a unique sense of humour wherein they appeared as animals gnawing or with closed eyes. The use of red for the buildings represented the red sandstone of Fatehpur Sikhri, the capital of the Mughal Empire. Initially never intended in Mughal paintings, realism soon came to be imitated from western art. Light, shade and tridimensionality was introduced to provide a sense of perspective. The concept of depth was employed by featuring smaller objects in the background. The colour schemes are often subdued, the outlines soft and fluid while chiaroscuro (shading) recalled the European fashion. Thus a fusion between the east and the west came to co-exist which formed one of the legacies of the great Mughal Empire.

Joynel Fernandes – Asst- Director, Archdiocesan Heritage Museum


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3 thoughts on “The Samaritan woman – Mughal miniature from the book by Padre Jerome Xavier”

  • What News!! Great to know that he believed in Jesus!

  • Good Eveninf Fr.Warner and Hoe all is well.

    I enjoy every episode of your Simple Truths and I also have started to thnk and implement what you have shared.

    Fr. I wanted to know if you can discuss on the topic of Marriage / Remarriage with regards to relationships with a Divorcee. I have read about this on the internet but just wanted guidance with regards to this matter.

    So, I am a widower and I do plan to remarry however, most of the proposals I get are Divorcees. Now although the church doesn’t support divorces there are a few churches conducting Matrimonial programmes which include Widows, Divorcees and Never Married.

    This is solely to seek clarity on the above topic and not an opportunity to hold our Catholic church responsible in anyway. I’m sure there may be others out there who would benefit from this topic.

    Would appreciate a reply from you and would not be upset or offended if this is a topic that cannot be discussed through your platform.

    Thank you and God Bless…..


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