NOT many men, and fewer women, have been accorded the cognomen
"the Great". In classical history, one thinks of Alexander and
Pompey; but, surprisingly, Augustus and other emperors never gained
the appellation. The Mongol ruler Timur the Lame
(c.1336-1405) was demonised by Christopher Marlowe in
Tamburlaine the Great.
European monarchs fare little better, although the only British
sovereign so recognised is Alfred of the West Saxons. One wonders
whether he features in Michael Gove's quixotic curriculum. In
Russia, Peter and Catherine stand pre-eminent, of course; and
Charlemagne (d. 814) proved something about a unitary Europe. The
"Sun King" took the name for himself (on the victory arch of the
Port St Denis you can still read the gilded bronze inscription to
"Lodovico Magno"); but Louis the Great more commonly refers to the
earlier Hungarian King of Croatia (1342).
In the Western Church, two pontiffs have made it. Alessandro
Algardi's outstanding relief sculpture in St Peter's, Rome, of the
late 1640s, shows the Apostles Peter and Paul, meat cleaver and
sword in hand, confronting Attila the Hun at the behest of Leo the
Great (d.461), the first pope to be interred in the new basilica.
Gregory the Great dispatched Augustine to Canterbury. Supporters of
the process for canonising Karol Wojtyla have taken to advocating
John Paul the Great.
In Muslim culture, such a designation would be little short of
blasphemous. God, and God alone, is Great. This exhibition, staged
by the Fondazione Roma in a palace along the Corso in the heart of
the city, explores the conundrum that Allahu akbar, the
traditional cry that God is the Greatest, can also mean Akbar is
The third Moghul emperor, Jalaluddin Muhammad, called Akbar
(1542-1605), was a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine.
Akbar was only 13 when he succeeded to the throne at his father's
unexpected accidental death, and he achieved his full majority at
the age of only 17.
While he could be ruthless, he was also noted for his generosity
and civility. As a Muslim, he married a Hindu princess as his first
wife, and, as he expanded his empire northwards to include Pakistan
and parts of Afghanistan, he appointed governors regardless of
their nationality, ethnicity, or religion.
Although he remained illiterate throughout his life (it is
suggested that he may have had an acute form of dyslexia), he met
sages and scholars every Thursday evening to discuss a "divine
Faith", a syncretistic and religionless form of worship which, in
1582, embraced the empire. Three years before, in the famous
mahzar, Akbar had been declared the supreme governor
(imam-i-adil), with authority over the teachers of the
faith. As amiru'l muminin, he was all but Caliph as a
guide to the faithful.
To some, particularly Pakistani, Muslim historians, this open
tolerance and encouragement of all other faiths has been denounced
as apostasy; but others recognise that pragmatism and a sound
business sense lay behind the dialogue and toleration.
At Court, Hindus and Muslims wore the same dress, differentiated
only by whether it was tied across the left or right side of the
chest; and from 1580, the Court welcomed Roman Catholic priests.
Between 1542 and 1552, much of South India experienced the Jesuit
missions, led at first by Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, and
Akbar encouraged them to enter into his empire.
We glimpse much of this civilised and civilising tolerance in
the pages of illuminated manuscripts that richly inform this
exhibition. In one watercolour, painted on cotton and dating to
1578-80 (Paris, Fondation Custodia), two turbaned mullahs are seen
debating. In another, from the British Museum, attributed to the
Hindu artist Basawan, the prophet Elijah comes to the rescue of a
prince, Nur al-Dahr, who is about to drown. The apocryphal tale is
recounted in The Adventures of Hamza, the Prophet's
In 1582, Akbar set Hindus and Muslims to translate the
Mahabharata into Persian, the language of the Moghul
court. Just how equal each faith was is teasingly asked in a
watercolour from Philadelphia's Free Library. The Brahmins are seen
seated on a gingham cloth as they debate from a scroll. Yet, in the
more important part of the pic- ture, three mullahs, each sitting
on a richly decorated carpet with their tesbih, their
prayer-beads, write on a codex. Two servants fan them, a privilege
not accorded the Hindus.
To Western eyes, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the
exhibition, which includes coins and furniture - an inlaid
ivory-topped table from Gujarat depicting the Blessed Sacrament in
a monstrance censed by angels turns out to incorporate an altar
frontal - is the accommodation of Christian iconography.
After the first Jesuit mission to the Mogul court at Fatehpur
Sikri, the circulation of European prints made possible first-hand
encounters for Indian artists in the imperial atelier.
Twenty years later, during the third Jesuit mission, to the
court at Lahore, Fr Gerolamo Saverio SJ and Abd al-Sattar Ibn Qasim
Lahori worked together to produce The Mirror of Holiness
(Mir'at al-quds), which offered a redaction of the Old and
One illustration, from a copy that was lavishly painted,
probably for Akbar's son Salim, depicts the surprise of the
disciples encountering the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's well (John
4.27). It was painted by Manohar, Basawan's son, who copied a
picture from Geronimo Nadal's Evangelicae Historiae
Imagines, which was first published posthumously in Antwerp in
The artist has been faithful to the original; but the disciples
are now shown as Europeans seen through oriental eyes. The
youngest, in a tunic with a ruff and trousers, holds a handbag from
which, no doubt, money had been paid for the food that they had
gone to fetch, while the apostle in front of him has a soft cap.
Similarly, Elizabethans litter the ground at Calvary in a scene of
the crucifixion by Keshav Das, which clearly derives from a Flemish
prototype (British Museum 1983, 1015-01).
The winged Evangelist St Luke, in an earlier manuscript
illumination (Paris, Fondation Custodia) that derives from a German
woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-50), appears in a red cloak with
multi-coloured wings. But instead of the bull lying behind him at
his feet are two greyhounds. Perhaps the change was a conscious way
of avoiding giving offence to Hindus by removing a recognisable
image of Nandi.
The catalogue and the exhibition taken together are a
contribution to deepening our knowledge of the profound humanity
and diversity of one inspired ruler whose example might speak in
our own day.
"Akbar: The Great Emperor of India" is at the Fondazione
Roma Museo Palazzo Sciarra, via Marco Minghet-ti, 22 Rome, Italy,
until 3 February. Phone 00 39 06 697 645 599. Open 10 a.m. to 8
p.m. daily, except Monday.