Merchants, Missionaries and the Allure of India

Volume 1, Number 1 (2012)

Merchants, Missionaries and the Allure of India: Speculations on Cross-Cultural Contact and Artistic Exchange in the Middle Ages

by Robin O’Bryan


While art historians have begun to acknowledge the debt of medieval and Renaissance art and architecture to Islamic and Chinese sources, somewhat surprisingly, India has been left out of the mix.  This is all the more curious given ancient Greek and Roman contacts, the establishment of important trade networks, and the spread of Christianity to the subcontinent in the earliest centuries A.D.  My paper seeks to correct this lacuna in art historical scholarship.  Adopting a purely speculative approach–but one grounded in the wider historical record–I use the peregrinations of merchants and missionaries to show ways in which Indian artifacts and stylistic ideas would have spread westward.  I then examine the visual evidence to explain some of the radical changes to the European, and even African, aesthetic that emerged when Jewish, Islamic, and European traders and Christian missionaries were traveling between Central and South Asia and the Western hemisphere.  Analyzing a range of works from Romanesque pilgrimage churches to Gothic cathedrals to illuminated manuscripts and Ife sculptures, I propose that deviations to the prevailing artistic canons may have their origins in Indian prototypes.  Ultimately, I suggest that we might rethink our understanding of these artistic and architectural anomalies, seeing them not as expressions of insular creative activity, but rather as a putative result of contact with foreign lands.

Full text article available here.

Text copyright 2012 Robin O’Bryan








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