We’ve come to the north of India. It feels like summer; flat-bottomed boats ply the Yamuna River.
A few small birds flutter through the dry air. Also flying creatures of a more celestial order.
And it’s all the province of one man. His authority comes through in his bearing, and in a beauty that’s literally incandescent. So bright that even the clouds part to let him shine.
Meet Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor. His regnal name translates as “King of the World,” and he was exaggerating only slightly.
Four centuries ago, mighty crosscurrents of religion and culture flowed into a new Indian art. It was courtly and refined, but also eye-poppingly luxuriant.
The Mughal empire was the richest polity of its age, and a powerhouse of global trade. It reached its zenith under Shah Jahan, who laid out incalculable sums on architecture, gardens, jewelry — and paintings.
He commissioned this one right around the time he took the throne, at 36.
It was painted by an artist called Chitarman.
The painting itself is only about eight inches tall, and surrounded by calligraphy and flowers of gold. The whole sheet is smaller than a tabloid newspaper.
Now, it belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which dates it to 1627 or ’28, as appears in an inscription on the painting. (Most scholars agree, although a few propose it may be a later copy.)
You will not, however, find it with the bulk of the museum’s Indian art. This painting, and the album it comes from, are in the Islamic collection; it’s a Muslim masterpiece made 2,500 miles from Mecca.
Mughal miniatures are unbelievably detailed, but that’s not what I love most about them.
What I love is their profound cosmopolitanism: Hindu, Islamic and even Christian motifs, blended into images of the highest prestige.
Within the details of this miniature lies a master class in the political uses of cultural hybridity. And the uses of something else too: dumbfounding, superhuman beauty.
Chitarman has painted the new emperor as an icon of stability. His pose is formal, stiff. The depiction in profile gives him the bearing of someone standing apart from the world.
His chest is garlanded with jewels: strings of fat pearls interrupted by rubies and emeralds. An advertisement of wealth, though scholars have observed religious significance: A young Muslim man would wear strands like this at his wedding.
Shah Jahan is wearing a weighty pink coat, called a jama, festooned with flowers, belted with a sash of gold and orange. The coat is tied to the right, in Muslim fashion. (Hindus tied theirs to the left.)
On his head is a purple turban, strung with more jewels and topped with peacock feathers. That bird was an emblem: In the year this was painted, Shah Jahan ordered up the stupefyingly ornate Peacock Throne, whose jewels are now dispersed.
Behind him is a marble screen, called a jali: an archetype of Indo-Persian luxury. The screen, as well as the floral-patterned brocade draped over its center, would have been made in one of the many imperial workshops.
A painting like this would also have been the product of many hands. Chitarman would have designed the composition, selected the colors; then apprentices did the painstaking work, with fine brushes of squirrel hair.
But this was court art, and the emperor tightly controlled his artists’ production. He ordered them to depict him in profile only, and as buffed and radiant as those emeralds and rubies.
It’s a picture as beautiful and crisp as Shah Jahan’s Koh-i-Noor diamond. But its beauty was not an expression of vanity. It carried a clear political meaning: Here, I am king.
But the mausoleum, like the albums, was much more than a personal luxury. Shah Jahan and his artists knew that if you really want to wield political power, you need more than soldiers or imams.
Power, for the Mughals, also came from absorbing the cultural forms under their authority, then reconstituting them in their own image.
In Shah Jahan’s left hand is a pendant, circled with even more jewels.
Strung with a chain of gold, suffixed with a teardrop-shaped pearl.
Set into the pendant is a cameo.
It’s a detail that could have been included at the emperor's command. Maybe it’s another foreign luxury, or the work of a European lapidary at the Mughal court, carving Asian precious stone.
But real or imagined, Indian or otherwise, the cameo’s subject is undeniable: It’s Shah Jahan.
A miniature in a miniature, a painting made from a gem. As lavish and cold as the ruler it depicts. We behold the emperor beholding himself, contemplating his own magnificence.
The image of authority can be as big as the Taj Mahal, or so small it fits in your hand. The challenge, for emperor or artist, is to make that image stick.
You can have sway in the short term through your army and your treasury. But if you want to last forever, make something beautiful.
Produced by Joshua Barone, Alicia DeSantis, Nick Donofrio, Gabriel Gianordoli, Tala Safie and Jessie Wender.