Recent Acquisition | The Nativity of Christ

The Nativity of Christ

Indian, Deccan, The Nativity of Christ (detail), 1620–40. Ink, color, and gold on paper. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund (2018-26)

In The Nativity of Christ, the infant Jesus lies on the ground facing his mother, his whole body encircled by a golden halo. His mother kneels beside him, her hands clasped together in prayer and adoration. Behind her is a small hut, a lush tree, and mountains in the distance. Oxen and sheep drink from a pool in front of Jesus, and sheep lie peacefully alongside. Two angels stand in adoration to the side while seven others hurtle down through puffs of clouds from the sky. Some of these angels carry handbells, another plays a horn, one holds a book, and two more pour flames. Above are winged cherubs, their bodies hidden by clouds, and a crescent moon. What are likely small birds (or possibly bats) dot the clouds. The finely drawn scene is enlivened with hints of color—the Virgin’s red lips, the standing angels’ decorative belts, and the lips of the flying angels and cherubs, along with Jesus and Mary’s gold halos. 

Christianity reached the Indian subcontinent long before the Mughal Empire was founded in 1526, but during the reign of Akbar (r. 1556–1605) renewed proselytizing efforts, this time by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, were made. The missionaries had some success in a few regions but failed in their ultimate hope of converting the Mughal emperors. However, both Akbar and his son Jahangir (r. 1605–1627) were fascinated by Christian art. Their curiosity was such that both would order pictures and engravings from the Jesuits. Jahangir was even known to occasionally intercept and take for himself shipments of art meant for his father.

Both emperors directed their court painters to study European images. Artists would copy or paint over engravings in a quest to study Western techniques of spatial recession and volume. Soon, Indian artists were freely creating compositions that bore only a loose resemblance to European models. The Nativity of Christ is an example of Indian artists freely innovating upon the Western prints they viewed. One possible source of inspiration for this composition is a print by Hieronymus Wierix after a painting by Martin de Vos, found in Father Geronimo Nadal’s Evangelicae historicae imagines, published by Plantin Press in Antwerp in 1593. A copy of this book was sent by the Jesuits to Jahangir around the turn of the 17th century.

The Nativity of Christ

Indian, Deccan, The Nativity of Christ, 1620–40. Ink, color, and gold on paper. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund (2018-26)