Merchants, Missionaries, and the Allure of India

Open Inquiry Archive Vol. 1. No. 1 (2012)
Issue Introduction

At Open Inquiry Archive our mission is to publish papers on culture and the arts, especially those pieces that cross disciplinary boundaries, or explore connections between areas that are usually treated separately. Touching upon all of these, Robin O’Bryan’s “Merchants, Missionaries, and the Allure of India: Cross-Cultural Contact and Artistic Exchange in the Middle Ages” is a great fit for our inaugural issue.  Professor O’Bryan makes several thought-provoking analogies between the art of such wide-ranging cultures as Umayyad Damascus, medieval France (particularly along the pilgrimage routes), and Africa, providing us with comparable works from the contemporary art of India and China. Reminding the reader of the (often downplayed) importance of the Silk Road as a conduit for commerce and ideas between East and West, O’Bryan convincingly argues for a reassessment of some long-held beliefs with regard to what she terms “sudden appearances” of motifs or stylistic changes in art. O’Bryan posits a nuanced use of the visual record as a tool for reconstructing historically-plausible accounts for the advent of new forms, particularly in cases where there is absence of documentation.  We at OIA think you, the reader, will find this stimulating article great fodder for methodological and historical debate. Enjoy.

~ Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard


Merchants, Missionaries, and the Allure of India:

Speculations on Cross-Cultural Contact and Artistic Exchange in the Middle Ages

by Robin O’Bryan

Among the mosaics adorning the eighth-century mosque in Damascus is the representation of a rather fanciful building.*  The structure displays classically-derived arches and columns and a shell niche, testimony to Syria’s cultural heritage when it formed part of the Roman empire.  But the upper level also has an unusual tent-like roof with edges which curl upward into pronounced floriated finials, a structural characteristic that gives it the appearance of a Chinese pagoda. (note 1) While the mosaics are purported to be the work of craftsmen sent from Byzantium, without proper documentation we can’t be sure of the source for this innovative design. (note 2) Nevertheless, the historical record may provide a clue.  Since there was a Byzantine presence in China in the sixth century–and since Islam had spread to China by the mid-seventh–we may reasonably conjecture that a Chinese prototype served as the artistic inspiration. (note 3) Indeed, in Xian, where the first mosque was built in 651 for Arab merchants, a minaret [See inset 1] displays architectural characteristics similar to those seen in the Damascus mosaic. (note 4) As Damascus and Xian both served as termini for Silk Road traffic, we have another catalyst in the claim for artistic exchange.

Inset 1. Chinese style minaret of the Great Mosque. WikiCommons

This example gives us an excellent idea of some of the intriguing connections to be made when we look closely at the visual evidence–and conversely, of some of the limitations that may result from relying too heavily on primary documentation.  Unfortunately, art historians have all too often tended to privilege the written word–contracts, inventories, and the like–over the art work itself.  But what happens in situations where documents may either not exist or have yet to be accessed?  How do we effectively evaluate the parameters of artistic creation, especially when confronted with anomalies like the Damascus mosaic?   Here again, we come up against strongly-ingrained traditions in scholarship.  While the discipline is much concerned with issues of artistic influence, it is less interested in the processes by which such influence was effected.  In the absence of documentation, art historians are reluctant to change course, preferring to see aberrations of style as taking place in a cultural vacuum or simply chalking them up to artistic genius.

In this essay, I take an alternative, speculative approach, using the visual evidence to propose specific instances of artistic influence emanating from Asia during the Middle Ages.  Because my investigation is concerned with establishing formal relationships between the arts of vastly different cultures, I begin by examining the wider historical record, setting out plausible scenarios which would have allowed for artistic transfer. Although not discounting the contributions made by itinerant artists and craftsmen, in large measure my focus is on the two groups who played a seemingly tangential, but actually pivotal, role in facilitating artistic exchange: the merchants and missionaries who traversed large swaths of land and sea in the name of trade and religion.  I then use their peregrinations as a foundation to help explain some of the radical changes to the European–and even African–aesthetic that emerged when these players were moving between Central- and South Asia, and regions to the West.  Ultimately, the crux of my argument will hinge on what I contend is a Western medieval connection with the arts of India. (note 5)

Thanks to the ground-breaking contributions of Lauren Arnold, writing on the Franciscan mission to China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and of Rosamond Mack’s and Deborah Howard’s work on Islamic influence on the art and architecture of Italy during the Renaissance, we are beginning to realize the extent to which European art was shaped by outside forces. (note 6) While underscoring the importance of the Silk Road and the Mediterranean basin as conduits for the spread of trade and religion–and hence artistic exchange–their research also shows that significant East-West relations were well in place before the Portuguese discovered the sea route around Africa at the end of the fifteenth century.  Paradoxically, however, the work of these scholars has also tacitly exposed a lacuna in scholarship.  For the most part, South Asian (Indian) influence on European art during the Middle Ages has been left largely unexamined, precipitated in part by problems involving scholarly access to documentary sources. (note 7)

Fortunately, however, historians working on the issue of medieval commerce have begun to fill in the gaps, dispelling what Ranabir Chakravarti aptly refers to as the “cherished notion of the insularity of the subcontinent.” (note 8) For centuries, India was part of a vibrant international trade network operating on both land and sea. (note 9) India’s favorable trade winds, well-known since the first century, were ideal for maritime ventures, while its sizeable land mass and extensive coastlines made it a prominent stopover for merchants of many races). (note 10)  From 1000 AD on, Europeans, as well as a sizeable number of Arabs, Persians, and Chinese and others were situated in diaspora communities along south Indian shores. (note 11) With the Muslim penetration into northwest India, and the subsequent establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in the thirteenth century, India was assured a prominent place in the Islamic trade hegemony. (note 12) A century later, Muslims dominated maritime trade throughout South India, effectively establishing a transcontinental network that reached from China to Spain. (note 13)

Nor was this a one-way commercial enterprise for the subcontinent.  Indians had historically played an important role in Silk Road commerce, sending products north to filter into the East-West trade arteries, while also funneling incoming goods down into its southernmost regions. (note 14) From the first centuries AD, Indians had served as middlemen in the silk trade between Rome and China.  By the tenth century, Indian merchants were to be found in “polyglot emporia” in frontier towns such as Kabul and as far west as Kirman in southeastern Persia.  (note 15) Tribal chiefs actively encouraged trade relationships with outsiders, installing foreign merchants as governors of major western ports in order to attract more overseas commerce. (note 16) In the south, the Chola dynastic rulers put foreign merchants under their protection, using imported luxury goods to enhance their royal image through conspicuous display. (note 17)  Other enterprising natives profited from these commercial opportunities. From the eleventh century on, independent Indian ship-owning merchants sailed along the coasts to engage in joint ventures with the foreign traders.  By the twelfth century, Hindus began migrating well beyond contiguous terrestrial regions, establishing commercial bases in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and East Africa.

For the West, some of the most important players in the India trade were Jews, who traditionally acted as “neutral go-betweens” during periods when Christian and Muslim policies banned each others’ merchants from doing business in their territories. (note 18) Such was the case with the Radhanites, a highly mobile and multi-lingual company of Jewish merchants trading in luxury goods, spices, and slaves, operating between the sixth to tenth centuries. (note 19)  In his Book of Routes and Kingdoms (circa 870), Ibn Khurdadbah (working for the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad) described the Radhanites’ expansive overland and sea network: beginning and ending in Spain or southern France, it extended along the North African coastlines and throughout broad sweeps of Asia, including the west coast of India. (note 20)  These same traders are thought to have frequented the courts of Charlemagne and his son, a connection that has obvious implications for the importation into Europe of goods with an Indian pedigree. (note 21) We know much more about the activities of Jewish merchants operating in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, thanks to the “Geniza documents,” a cache of business communications discovered in Fustat in 1896.  These letters show that Western Jews moved freely between ports in Spain, Sicily and Egypt (where Fustat served as a major terminus for both Mediterranean and India trade).  They then traveled overland to Aden in the Red Sea, sailing on to the western shore of India and to Ceylon, and no doubt profiting from the Jewish settlements established along the Indian coast centuries earlier. (note 22)

Although Jews had a predominant share of the India trade, Christian merchants were not left out of the mix.  In the eighth and ninth centuries, Christians in Syria worked alongside the Radhanites, supplying Northern European courts with exotic goods.  By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, European Christians were engaged in business relationships with Jewish traders, thus expanding their opportunities for acquisition of Indian products. (note 23) Europeans were also to be found at Mediterranean ports of entry and exchange, as well as in the international merchant colonies situated in the Levant and throughout Asia, which served as transshipment points for trade with India. (note 24) One of the most significant was Aden, “treasury of the West, and mother lode of all trade wares,” a major medieval commercial center where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Africans, Persians, and Indians all participated in the trade network. (note 25) In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the most prominent European traders traveling directly to the subcontinent were the Venetians and Genoese, when the Pax Mongolica made it possible to engage in direct commercial dealings with the East. (note 26) Closer to home, Pisans, Catalans, and French merchants were involved in the international trade network, usually at ports of entry and exchange.  (note 27) Mediterranean port cities of Alexandria, Fustat, Cyprus, and Sicily, all saw direct or indirect merchant activity with India, as did Marseilles–of note since it was home to a large Jewish population (including the Rhadanites) and Christian shipowners. (note 28)

Merchants were not the only Europeans making the passage to India.  In this same period, they were often accompanied by Catholic missionaries–primarily Dominicans and Franciscans– who provided them with spiritual counsel, while the merchants served as the friars’ translators and guides. (note 29) Sometimes missionaries themselves acted as merchants, buying and selling items at both of ends of their voyage to finance their activities. (note 30) Chiefly interested in converting the pagan populations in the subcontinent and Ceylon, these religious wayfarers also went to minister to–and/or reconvert–some of the Christian cults residing there, such as the Nestorians and the St. Thomas Christians. (note 31) Well-entrenched along the Malabar and Coromandel coasts by the sixth century, both of these communities earned their livelihood by trade. (note 32) While Europe had known of the existence of the St. Thomas Christians for centuries, they got renewed attention in the twelfth century as a result of Crusader contact with Christians in Syria, with whom the Indian faction kept close religious–and mercantile–ties. (note 33)  Thus followed a visit by the alleged archbishop from the Malabar coast to the papal court in 1122, an event which shows us that contact with India was not one-directional–and would certainly have resulted in the transmission of honorific gifts from the homeland. (note 34)

This cursory (and by no means comprehensive) account of some of the ages-old commercial and religious connections in place permits us to see that there were any number of ways Indian goods could have entered Western regions, however circuitously depending on the vagaries of historical and cultural circumstance. (note 35) While we do know that these products included textiles (the “bread and butter” of India trade), ivory, pearls, gems, spices and pepper (the monopoly of which belonged to the St. Thomas Christians), what do we know about objects of an artistic nature? (note 36) The physical loss of such items from court and ecclesiastical treasuries (the destination of many luxury objects) has made the question difficult to assess, while inventories may not always be a good indication of when objects actually entered into such collections. (note 37)  As for finding documentary support through trade documents, this is equally problematic.  Indian texts are almost non-existent, detailed information on European trade activities can be difficult to unravel, and even those merchants and missionaries writing about their experiences in India–Marco Polo, Odoric of Pordenone, and the like–shed little light on the issue. (note 38)

A few relevant hints are contained in the chronicles of medieval theologians.  In the early ninth century Theodolphus, Bishop of Orleans, reported that Arab merchants were bringing into Arles (in southern France) such things as pearls, textiles, Indian ivory, and art objects from Asia, although the latter were not identified with any specificity. (note 39)  He may have observed this first hand, or he may also have profited from his time at Charlemagne’s court since remnants of Indian textiles were placed by the bishop himself between the pages of his manuscript to preserve the lettering. (note 40)  In England, writing around the beginning of the twelfth century, the monk Florence of Worcester recorded that King Alfred in 883 sent a bishop Sighelm to India bearing alms for the St. Thomas Christians.  His account was amplified a few years later by another monk, William of Malmesbury, who noted that Sighelm not only took many presents to India, but he also returned with exotic gems and “aromatic juices”, some of which ended up in the treasury of Sighelm’s own church upon his death. (note 41)

Other pertinent clues are contained in the Geniza papers. (note 42) Letters indicate that Jewish merchants did business with the famed bronze and brass industries in southwestern India, sending vessels there for repair, as well as commissioning new objects to be sent home, some presumably for the gifts that were an essential part of their commercial transactions. (note 43)   Since we have documentary evidence that metal objects were being imported by Jewish traders, we can certainly imagine that bronze statuettes and other works in metal were among the goods making their way into Europe from India.  Similarly, along with the high-profile trade commodities, such things as terracotta or stone sculptures, ivory carvings, and architectural fragments must have also filtered in from the subcontinent. (note 44)  Whether acquired or received as novelty items, luxury gifts, religious curios, princely tributes, or booty, these foreign objects would have dazzled their beholders, their rarity and exoticism earning them a special place in royal, aristocratic and ecclesiastical collections. (note 45)   For European artists and craftsmen, Indian arts must have presented them with a tantalizing array of motifs, fantastical figures, and novel bodily postures from which to draw on.  But in addition to these tangible opportunities for artistic exchange, we should also be mindful of the power of travelers’ own impressions to inform the design process.  In the case of building, for example, Mack observes that cross-cultural architectural transfer could be inspired as much by itinerant architects and craftsmen as by the travelers who brought home memories or sketches of structures they had seen in situ. (note 46)

This comment reminds us that just as important as the goods emanating from India during these periods of interaction were ideas. (note 47) Examining the origins of western medieval technology, some fifty-odd years ago Lynn White posited that the process for crafting damascened swords, the big-toe stirrup, and the concept of perpetual motion all derived from Indian sources. (note 48)   The latter was transmitted to Europe by Islamic middlemen in circa 1200 as Hindu numerals and astronomical notions were making their way West. (note 49) An illustration in the 1235 sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt betrays his familiarity with the perpetual motion prototype

Inset 2. Perpetuum Mobile of Villard de Honnecourt, ca. 1230. Public domain, Wiki Commons

[Inset 2] which I propose he may have encountered on a sojourn in Hungary, perhaps during the same period he apparently saw a model of a Buddhist stupa (the reliquary for Buddha’s remains), and an Indian ceiling roundel as suggested by other sketches in the corpus. (note 50)   White also hypothesized that a description of the Hindu buffalo used as a symbol for death inspired a completely new iconographical treatment when it “suddenly invaded Tuscan art” in the mid-fifteenth century. (note 51) These examples are characteristic of what I term  the phenomenon of “Sudden Appearances,” in which–seemingly inexplicably–stylistic changes and/or alien motifs abruptly appear in the art and architecture of one culture during periods of contact with another.

Recognizing the role that religion plays in the exchange of ideas–and remembering the role that trade has traditionally played in the spread of religion–perhaps it is of little surprise that some early examples of putative Indian influence appear in churches constructed along European pilgrimage routes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (note 52)  Deviating from past practice, Romanesque builders introduced stone vaulting, which made churches more fireproof and provided excellent acoustics for music, as well as chapels radiating around the apse (designed to house the holy relics acquired during the Crusades).  This spatial configuration allowed pilgrims walking along the columned side aisles to go behind and around the altar to view the relics on display without disrupting church services, innovations used at St. Sernin in Toulouse (constructed circa 1070-1120). With the addition of ribs to the barrel vaulting, the Romanesque church interior resembles the Buddhist chaitya hall, such as seen at Karle on the heavily-traveled western coast of India.  Constructed a thousand years earlier, the Indian structure has a ribbed, barrel vaulted ceiling and is carved from rock, which made for excellent acoustics for devotional chanting.  The pillared ambulatories at each side also enabled worshipers to circumambulate the stupa in the apse.  In conception, function, and design, the similarities between the two buildings are striking. Given the strong European (and Christian) presence along the west coast of India, the question of cross-cultural influence cannot be discounted, especially when we consider that travelers were often the very same individuals involved in the design and patronage process.  As Janet Marquardt has observed, “during the Middle Ages clerics were some of the best-traveled members of society and it was their observations of buildings, ceremonies and documents in foreign parts that helped spread knowledge, artistic styles and liturgical standards throughout Europe.” (note 53)

Another change in Romanesque church construction occurs with the “sudden appearance” of carved sculptural portals.  Although art historical texts have interpreted this innovation as a throwback to Roman triumphal arches, I suggest that the inspiration may again lie in India, or more specifically, in Ceylon, intermittently under Chola control during this same period. We see a ready resemblance in the Buddhist moonstone [Inset 3], a semi-circular stone panel with carved bands of relief which in its native setting was placed at the foot of steps leading into temples, palaces, and shrines, and flanked on either side by posts carved with figural reliefs (not present in this particular example, Inset 3).

Inset 3. Anuradhapura. Creative Commons license.

Romanesque churches exhibit an inversion of this scheme, similarly employed at the entrance leading into sacred space.   At the Crusader church of La Madeleine in Vézelay (circa 1120-32), the half-moon panel, or tympanum, has been elevated to a position above the entrance, while the figural reliefs on each side of the entry remain.  This portal is also noteworthy since the archivolt depicts the legendary “monstrous races”–cynocephali, panotti, pygmies, and the like–those very creatures in need of salvation who were thought to reside in India as the spate of medieval writings makes clear.(note 54)  While the existence of this race of monsters had been reported by Ctesias, Pliny and others, it is surely significant that they were given visual expression during the same period of increased interactions with India.

Equally curious–and new–to the medieval and Romanesque pictorial vocabulary is the introduction of unusual figural conventions such as expressed in bony, jerky limbs and/or the cross-stepped pose.  In the Vézelay tympanum, the sculptor depicted a seated Christ with elongated proportions reminiscent of Byzantine figures, but with his stick-like legs bent at an acute angle, their swirled drapery covering serving only to accentuate this tubular effect.  Nearby, at the contemporaneous church of Saint-Lazare at Autun, Christ is similarly endowed, although in this instance his legs have been splayed outward.  The sharp contours and contrived angularity of the legs finds parallels in Hindu artistic conventions.  Also novel for the Romanesque visual language is the cross-step pose, a contrived bodily posture used for Jeremiah on the trumeau of Saint-Pierre in Moissac (and for Isaiah in the nearby church of abbey church at Souillac, perhaps done by the same craftsmen). (note 55) This convention was also used for the cynocephalus shown in the archivolt sculptures at Vézelay (as above).   Whatever special symbolic or semiotic meaning such poses were meant to convey (which might be contradictory), they nevertheless bear a striking resemblance to postures that appear with regularity in Indian art. (note 56) For the medieval craftsman working on articulating a new vision for worshipers, visiting luminaries, and resident monks alike, should we assume that such anomalous depictions were a result of their idiosyncratic approach toward rendering the human figure, or is it possible that the stimulus for these stylized renderings may have their origins in Indian prototypes? (note 57) When we consider that the patrons in charge of church works were often the very ones who would have had interest in and access to goods coming from foreign lands, such a suggestion must surely lie within the realm of possibility. (note 58)

The subsequent development of Gothic architecture, which held sway in northern Europe from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, presents another interesting, if not radical, departure from the European paradigm–which may once again betray the fruits of contacts with India.  Originating in Paris with the French royal court–the patrons who traditionally reaped the benefits of international trade–the aesthetics of Gothic cathedrals are at complete antipodes with the harmonious and symmetrical relationships found in Greco-Roman architecture. With their upsurging architectonic masses, profusion of exterior sculpture, and other gratuitous embellishments, the general effect of these metaphorical mountains of stone bears much resemblance to Hindu temples. [Inset 4] Moreover, the leafy ornamental spikes called crockets [Inset 5], new to the European decorative vocabulary and a mainstay of Gothic ornamentation, are characteristic features of Hindu statuary, such as appear in this Chola statue of Shiva.

Inset 4. Kandariya Mahadeva temple, Khajuraho, India. Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Inset 5. Crockets. (Photo courtesy the Author)

The same period witnessed the rising popularity of St. Thomas, the apostle who had made his way to India in the first century, and from whom the St. Thomas Christians claimed descent. (note 59) While it is true the Crusades helped to bring this group of Christians to European attention, I would suggest that the heightened religious and commercial interactions with India in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries must have been the impetus for stimulating interest in Thomas himself.  An apocryphal story from his life was contained in the Golden Legend (1260), and is depicted in the contemporaneous tympanum of the church of Notre Dame at Semur-en-Auxois, some sixty kilometers from Vézelay. (note 60)  In one section  Thomas is shown attending an Indian marriage feast where, as legend had it, he converted the bridal couple and a Jewess to Christianity; adjacent to this, another scene depicts him watching as builders construct the palace he designed for the king of India. (note 61)   Known in this epoch as the “architect apostle,” Thomas became the patron saint of masons and architects, his attribute a gold builder’s square “emblematic of spiritual masoncraft.” (note 62) Given his recognized association with India, we should find it significant that he was elevated to some importance in architectural practice, particularly when masons were building these grand monuments in stone so reminiscent of Hindu temples.

Also in the Gothic age, another  innovation appears in Marian imagery produced for the French royal court. Statues of the Virgin portray her as the Queen of Heaven, standing and holding the infant Christ, and with a sharp twist to her hips in what has been termed the “Court Style” or “Gothic sway.”  We see this new convention in the statuette made for the French queen, Jeanne d’Evreux, which she donated to the church of St. Denis. (note 63) The pose appears in Hellenistic art, albeit without the accompanying baby, while the motif of a standing Madonna holding up the Christ Child was popular in Byzantine imagery in the mid-tenth to eleventh centuries; however, the Byzantine prototype poses the figure in a rigid frontal mode.(note 64)  In the case of the French statuette, there may have been a more immediate source in statues of the Matrika, a Hindu mother goddess, such as seen in this sixth-century example from Rajasthan.  Her “halo” and the charming addition of the baby would have served as a most suitable model for the Gothic Virgin and Child, despite (or because of) her ample breasts.  A similar (if not the same?) model–probably housed in the royal collection–seems also to have inspired the unusual figural convention later used by Jean Fouquet for Agnes Sorel, the mistress of King Charles VII, portrayed in this 1451 altarpiece as the Virgin herself.  Although she is seated, the way she holds up the Christ Child (also shown nude) who seems to be implausibly balanced on her drapery, suggests the artist may have actually been consulting a sculptural prototype. More importantly, echoing the Hindu prototype, the bodice of Agnes’ dress gives way to reveal melon-shaped breasts, their unnaturally round shape and wide placement reminiscent of the feminine figure type common in Indian sculpture, but alien to European imagery.

Inset 6. Public domain image. Wiki Commons

A few decades earlier, a Book of Marvels created for the king’s relation, the Duke of Burgundy, offers another interesting connection with India and Hindu statuary. (note 65) A compilation of medieval travel reports on India, the manuscript features illustrations of pepper harvesting in the southwest, and of St. Thomas preaching to Hindus, while another illumination depicts a rendition of the cynocepheli, the dog-headed members of the monstrous races mentioned earlier. (note 66)  [Inset 6]  The artist has apparently modeled these figures on a statuette of the Hindu monkey deity, Hanuman, interpreting the monkey’s snout and elongated ears as a dog’s head, while also reproducing the curvature and slim torsos–and even the upraised hand–of the sculptural prototype.  Following on an observation advanced by Arnold, for such exotic depictions it makes perfect sense that the artist would have gone straight to the source, in this case deriving inspiration from an Indian sculpture which was likely in the ducal collection. (note 67)

A similar borrowing seems to be at work in the illumination of the Petrarchan-inspired triumphal chariot of Death drawn by buffaloes, done by an anonymous artist in Rouen.  Aside from the introduction of the buffalos, which as White suggested above was derived from a Hindu convention, this illustration is of interest for the corpse-like figure standing atop the recumbent deceased woman.  This macabre figure has a skull-like head and its lower torso has been cut away to reveal its innards, while a snake-like form curls around its limbs.  These same distinctive features are present in the eleventh-century sculpture of Chamunda,the Hindu goddess associated with death, whose iconographical attributes include snakes and a skeletal torso, and a scorpion on what is left of her stomach.  Here it is reasonable to ask, if a Hindu buffalo was considered a suitable motif for its symbolic associations with death, isn’t it equally possible that an image of this terrifying goddess could have served as a model for Death itself?

Meanwhile, in Spain, a late thirteenth-century manuscript of poetry made for Alfonso the Wise presents another dramatic example of motifs with a purported Indian pedigree.  In the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of the Virgin Mary), a two-part scene of a Jewish money-lender shows a curtain decorated with Arabic writing and two hexagrams. (note 68) At the far right, an open box reveals an Islamic brass tray inside, while the coffer itself is decorated with the cintamani motif, a three-dot configuration of Buddhist and Hindu origins which was transmitted along the Silk Road centuries earlier, and which became popular in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. (note 69)  But also within the scene is a wall hanging emblazoned with a swastika. (note 70)  Although the swastika is found in ancient Western art, given the context—and the fact that it appears to serve here as an apotropaic marker–I suggest that its representation derives from an Asian source, the swastika traditionally serving as the Buddhist and Hindu symbol of auspiciousness.  Its  appearance on a wall hanging attests to the importance of textiles in the India trade, even as the inclusion of the various multi-cultural motifs speaks to the cosmopolitan nature of Alfonso’s court where Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars were in attendance.  At the same time, such exotic details underscore the patterns of artistic exchange that resulted from the presence of these merchant groups in Spain doing business with India for centuries past.

Before concluding, I would like to briefly touch upon Africa–not the eastern regions that historically saw direct contact with India–but West Africa, traditionally viewed as being out of the medieval cultural mainstream.  In an article on trans-Saharan trade, Pekka Masonen has challenged the notion that West Africans were passive participants in their encounters with other cultures and that they rarely moved beyond the Sahara desert. (note 71) Masonen also presents evidence of some of the artistic objects and influences found in the regions of Niger that had their origins in North Africa and the Mediterranean. (note 72) In Jenne, along the Niger River in what is now Mali, for example, archaeologists have discovered foreign beads dating to the second century AD, while a second-century Hellenistic statuette from Cyrenaica (modern day Libya) has been found in the Republic of Niger.  Masonen proposes that such objects were probably brought there by nomadic Berbers, “real initiators of trans-Saharan trade,” who used Roman luxury objects to barter for gold in the south. (note 73)

More substantial contact with West Africa was stimulated by the arrival of Arabs and Islam to North Africa in the late seventh century.  Taking advantage of pre-existing trade routes across the Sahara, Arab commercial enterprises were soon joining up with the internal West African trade networks, with Jenne, and Gao, another city on the Niger River, becoming important nexus of commerce. (note 74)  Recognizing the importance of cultivating relationships with these African regional powers, rulers in the north curried favor through honorary tributes.  In the ninth century, the imam of Tahert (in modern-day Algeria) sent a delegation with precious gifts to the “King of the Blacks” (thought to refer to ruler of Gao). (note 75)  Along with proliferating trade relationships, Islam was gradually absorbed into West Africa, where by the late eleventh century it was adopted by courts and commercial centers involved with the caravan networks. (note 76) In the early fourteenth century, the king of Mali, Mansa Musa became a convert to Islam.  By that time, Mali was the richest and largest empire in West Africa, made wealthy from gold mining operations and trade centers (including Jenne and Gao) and establishing diplomatic relations with Tunis and Egypt (both important entrepots for India trade).  Mansa Musa also began attracting Islamic traders and scholars to his court, establishing the first university in West Africa and inviting an architect from Andalusian Spain to construct it. (note 77)   The king himself made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-5, returning via Cairo, where the sumptuousness of his entourage became legendary, bringing him to European attention.

Thus we see that West Africa in the medieval period did not exist in cultural isolation.  In this respect, we might be prompted to reevaluate an artistic anomaly that presented itself in the region during this same period.  Between the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, the Ife culture in Nigeria produced a series of bronze and terra cotta sculptures unlike anything seen before.  The works exhibit the “sudden appearance” of realism, which is completely alien to the African aesthetic. We see this new move towards naturalism in the statue of an oni, or king, posed frontally with an enlarged head, truncated legs, and rounded belly protruding slightly over his garment.  In bodily form and posture the figure bears a striking resemblance to male figural types represented in Indian sculpture such as the yaksha, a nature deity. Although the proportions are different, the frontal stance, swelling belly, position of the arms and hands (one holding an upright object), and even the ankles peeking out below the asymmetrical hemline, are all duplicated in the Ife statue.  In fact, given the unusual proportions of the Ife figure, where the head comprises one-quarter of the body, it may owe more to the dwarf figures that are common to Hindu religion and art such as appear in a twelfth-century Chola statue of Vamana, a manifestation of Vishnu. (note 78) More amazing–and what may be the epitome of the proverbial “smoking gun”–is the Tada bronze statue of a seated figure dated to the thirteenth- to fourteenth centuries. (note 79) Its realistic treatment along with the unusual positioning of his legs–once again virtually unknown in African art–show an uncanny kinship to the “royal ease” pose found in Hindu (and Chinese) statuary (note 80) This statue and others were discovered in Tada and Jebba along the Niger River, near an important trans-Saharan caravan route and not far from Timbuktu and other Islamic-controlled territories. (note 81) As the Ife culture tapped into the vast trade network linking West Africa to the Mediterranean, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which a few Indian works made their way to this region, carried along by trade, diplomacy, or other happenstance, to be used as models by the indigenous sculptors.

The Ife sculptures serve as a fitting summation for the issues raised at the beginning of this essay.  There are no documents to inform us about the making of these works, whose origins, researchers concede, are “mysterious” at best.  Yet, surprisingly, while scholars have observed that the “flowering of Ife art coincided with the commercial expansion of . . . a trading center that channeled goods coming down the Niger River,” they have stopped short of making connections, preferring to see the works as an isolated artistic phenomenon unrelated  to contemporaneous events. (note 82)   In the case of these sculptures, and indeed, for the other European examples I have presented, more investigation is needed. (note 83) I have not given ample coverage  to the role played by intermediaries and those on the periphery, nor have I discussed the mobility of artists, including those that were displaced involuntarily (actual craftsmen or even slaves, who might be taught the craft). (note 84) I have also not addressed the issues of portability pertaining to the actual transport of art objects (e.g., having to do with size, weight, etc.), and the related issue of direct versus indirect influence. (note 85)  Likewise, I have touched only briefly on the territorial permutations where foreign connections and interconnections were made. (note 86) The very issue of cross-cultural connections is extraordinarily complex.  But in the face of such overarching similarities of European and African arts with Indian arts–and in view of the expansive trade and religious contacts established with the subcontinent during this seminal period–I suggest that the visual evidence deserves our serious reconsideration.  As Jonathan Hay reminds us, “contact between cultures always brings us back to the geographical transfer of makers, objects or images.” (note 87) Acknowledging the importance of merchants and missionaries in effecting artistic exchange moves us in the right direction for understanding and perhaps explaining some of the dramatic changes to prevailing artistic canons–especially when the answers are not always “written.”


About the author: 

Robin O’Bryan, Ph.D., serves as adjunct faculty of art history at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.  She has published in academic journals and is currently working on a book on dwarfs in Italian Renaissance art and culture. Contact her here.


* Please see “OIA Statement on image use in articles” (click here) for more information. 


1.  In fact, there other tholos-type structures shown in the Damascus mosaics, but their roofs lack the conspicuous vegetative finials.

2.  According to Finbarr Barry Flood, there are three conflicting theories regarding the workmanship on the Damascus mosaics.  Some scholars disregard Byzantine input altogether, others see the mosaics as inspired by Byzantine models, and yet others claim that they were done by Byzantine mosaicists; see The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 20, n. 29.

3.  While Byzantine monks were certainly in China by 550 (when they are reputed to have smuggled silk worms back to Byzantium), the earliest formal mission to China is dated to 635 at Ch’ang-an (Xian); see Philip Jacks, The Lost History of Christianity, The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died (New York: Harper-Collins, 2008).  Also see Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), for an excellent overview of the religious and cultural transformations that were effected by Silk Road activity.

4.  Although there is some scholarly disagreement on the timeline for the construction of the  Xian mosque (and minaret), most sources date it to the mid-seventh century, that is, several decades before the mosaics, which were fabricated in 706-715.

5.  I use the term “India” here to denote the large territorial land mass that also at times encompassed parts of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan (e.g., the Sind), recognizing that the subcontinent was not “monolithic” to use Finbarr Flood’s terminology (see note 7).           

6.  See Lauren Arnold, Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures, The Franciscan Mission to China and Its Influence on the Art of the West, 1250-1350 (San Francisco: Desiderata Press, 1999); Rosamond Mack, Bazaar to Piazza, Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600 (Berkeley; Los Angeles: UC Press, 2001); and Deborah Howard, Venice and the East, The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture, 1100-1500 (New Haven: Yale UP, 2000).   More recently, historian Roxann Prazniak has tackled this issue from the Mongol perspective in her article “Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350,” Journal of World History 21, 2 (2010): 177-217. 

7.  Over seventy years ago, for example, Lynn White, Jr. observed that scholarly neglect of the history of technics (a major area of East-West exchange) was “largely due to timidity in the face of the extraordinary diversity of materials bearing on the subject,” a situation that must equally apply to issues of art historical provenance and foreign influence; (“Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 15, 2 (Apr. 1940): 156-57).  Finbarr B. Flood, Objects of Translation, Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009), makes a similar observation about a lacuna in India scholarship, which “reflects not only the paucity of materials that might be used to craft the cultural history of the [eighth to early thirteenth] centuries, or the difficulties entailed in the fact that such a project would cut across national and disciplinary boundaries that have traditionally set the limits of scholarship, but also a more insistent focus on the glories of the Mughal period in South Asian historiography. . . Consequently, there has been a tendency when dealing with the period between 800 and 1250 in South Asia either to ignore it or see it as an undifferentiated monolith within which fragmentary monoliths (and even fewer objects) subsist at random” (2).  Because India’s hot and humid climate has destroyed most paper documents written before the sixteenth century, Arabic accounts, supplemented by Chinese writings, have traditionally been the main sources for information on the medieval India trade, but those writings not translated into English have presented problems for scholarly investigation.  Aside from Flood’s excellent study, other scholars have made recent contributions to this dialog; see for example, Pius Malekandathil, Maritime India, Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean (Delhi: Primus Books, 2010).

8.  Ranabir Chakravarti, “Nakhudas and Nauvittakas: Ship-Owning Merchants in the West Coast of India (ca. AD 1000-1500),” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient,   43,  1 (2000): 34-64 (37).

9.  S. D. Goitein, India Traders of the Middle Ages, Documents from the Cairo Geniza (“India Book”) (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 3, refers to the India trade as the “backbone” of the medieval international economy. India had foreign trade relations (with Mesopotamia, e.g.) in the third millennium.  Greek ships were also trading with India, bringing in glass, gold, and horses, in exchange for gems, pepper, ivory, etc., while Alexander the Great’s penetration into the Indus  established a Macedonian presence that profited from inland trade networks.  Evidence of Roman trade stations has also been uncovered in southern India, and diplomatic relations were established between the two nations in 20 BC. Mediterranean amphorae and Roman coins, and a Roman bronze statuette have been discovered in India,  indication that works of art were also making their way to the subcontinent; see V. Begley and R. D. De Puma, eds., Rome and India: The Ancient Sea Trade (Wisconsin Studies in Classics, Jan. 1992),  and Romila ThapurEarly India: From the Origins to 1300 (Berkeley: UC Press, 2003) 242.  The third-century apocryphal Acts of Thomas also records that Solomon’s ships may have gotten “gold and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks” from India (II Chron 9:21); cited in Hazel E. Foster, “Contributions of India to Bible Knowledge and Understanding,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1942): 211-16 (212).

10.   See especially Subhakanta Behera, “India’s Encounter with the Silk Road,” Economic and Political Weekly 37,  51 (Dec. 21-27, 2002): 5077-5080.

11.   V. K. Jain, Trade and Traders in Western India (AD 100-1300) (Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1990), 77.  Of course, the European and Islamic trade networks were only one part of the equation, with the Chinese historically using the subcontinent as a major transit point for their mercantile activities in the Persian Gulf and north Africa.

12.   The cultural interactions taking place between Muslims and Hindus is the subject of Flood’s Objects of Translation. 

13.   According to André Wink, in the eighth and ninth centuries, the Indian Ocean “became very much an ‘Arab Mediterranean’”; Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World (Leiden: Brill, 1991), Vol. 1, Early medieval India and the expansion of Islam, 7th -11th centuries, 65; and for Muslim dominance in South India, 70.

14.  As Stanley Wolpert has observed, “North-West India’s Gandharan bridge to East Asia and Persia was to emerge as the ancient world’s most vital artery of cultural exchange as well as trade”; India (Berkeley: UC Press, 1991), 37.

15.  Flood, Objects, 17.

16.  Thus helping “to generate sufficient wealth to assert their power and authority in the region”; see Malekandathil, xvi.

17.   The Chola ruled in south India from the tenth to early thirteenth centuries.  See Kenneth Hall, “International Trade and Foreign Diplomacy in Early Medieval South India,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient,  21, 1 (Jan. 1978): 75-98.  Muslims were also an important presence at the Chola court.

18.  Julia Brauch, et. al., eds., Jewish Topographies, Visions of Place, Traditions of Space (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 184.  Muslims were excluded from European markets and Christians were virtually barred from Islamic waters; only Jews could travel as commercial agents in both realms.  Mack, 21, also notes that in Egypt, foreign merchants mostly dealt with Jewish and other minorities.

19.  The Radhanites were especially important players in the spice trade in the ninth and tenth centuries.  As Matthew Goodman has observed, “for over one hundred years, every bit of spice that entered Christian Europe did so as a result of Radanite trade”; in “How the Radanite Traders Spiced Up Life in Dark-Ages Europe,” Forward, May 30, 2003; cited in Kevin Alan Brook, The Jews of Khazaria, 2nd ed.. (US: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 76.

20.   Originally from Persia, Ibn Khurdadbah served as overseer of mail services and spy for the Abbasid caliph.  His text was a compendium of Arab trade routes. 

21.  Charlemagne’s court also shared diplomatic relations with Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, offering further opportunities for amassing exotic goods from Asia (through honorary gifts).

22.   Jewish settlements were on the Kerala coast from the second century on, and  Jewish communities were also established along the great trade routes, probably by the Rhadanites (The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, Vol. II, Trade and Industry in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987), 416). 

23.  Goitein, 25.

24.  Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria were all beneficiaries of the transit trade with India (Goitein, 3).   

25.   The quote was given by the Arab geographer, al-Muqaddasi in the tenth century; see Roxani Eleni Margariti, Aden & the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port (Chapel Hill: UNC Press,  2007), 27.

26.  The Venetians were trading with India by the early tenth century, while the Genoese are thought to have had their own ships in the Indian Ocean by the late thirteenth century;  (J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998),  97.  According to Mack (16), the Venetians and Genoese had the largest commercial fleets in the Mediterranean and the most significant and influential merchant colonies abroad.  Their dominance in this period was no doubt strengthened by the expulsion of Jews from England in 1291 and from France in 1306.             

27.  Mack, ibid.

28.  Although as noted above, Jews were expelled from France in 1306.

29.  There are several notable missionaries who visited India during this time, some having to pass through India on their way to China.  The Franciscan John of Montecorvino left Rome in 1289and visited both the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, including the Shrine of the Apostle Thomas; he was accompanied by another friar and an Italian merchant named Peter Lucalongo, who also served as his benefactor.  Odoric of Pordenone went to southwestern India in 1323 and also visited St. Thomas’ tomb in Madras (Chennai) (see note 32), and Ceylon.  A Dominican, Jordan of Severac (accompanied by Genoese merchants) recorded his observations on India in his Mirabilia Descripta of 1329; he was appointed Bishop of Quilon (modern-day Kollum) by the pope.  John Marignolli stayed in Quilon for fourteen months in 1347-1348.  The four Franciscans who were martyred at Tana in 1321 were also accompanied by a Genoese merchant.  According to James Ryan (“European Travelers before Columbus: The Fourteenth Century’s Discovery of India,” The Catholic Historical Review, 70, 4 (Oct. 1993): 648-70 (664), the friars lacked the language skills, making them somewhat dependent on their merchant “escorts,” although Mack also indicates that the friars served as the merchants’ translators.

30.  Consistent with what Arnold refers to as an artistic exchange of goods coming from both ends.  Philip Beaujard and S. Fee, “The Indian Ocean in Eurasian and World Systems before the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of World History, 16, 4 (Dec. 2005): 411-65 (444), comment on the propensity of religious men to become traders, quoting A. Sheratt,  “The missionaries teach the natives that they are naked and then the missionaries sell them cloth.”

31.  Missionaries also traveled to Asia during this period to convert the Mongols, and some, like Odoric of Pordenone and Thomas of Tolentino, were forced to travel through India on their way to China.

32.  Christian merchant activity was also sanctioned by local rulers, such as in the ninth century when Christian mercantile leaders in Quilon were granted special commercial privileges in order to bring more trade (and profits) to the city; see Malekandathil, xvii.  Claiming descent from St. Thomas himself, these Christians kept in touch with the churches of Persia and Mesopotamia and used Syriac as the language for liturgy, as did the Nestorians.  In the first century, the apostle Thomas (believed by St. Jerome to be the “Apostle of India”) was allegedly martyred in Madras which houses his tomb, although later reports told of his remains having been brought by a merchant to Edessa (modern-day Turkey).  Nestorian missionaries also spread to China by the seventh century. 

33.  Sometime before 590 St. Gregory of Tours (Glor. Mart.) reported that a pilgrim had advised him on a community of Christians living in India. ( The Anglo Saxon Chronicles also recorded that in 883 two monks “Sighehelm and Aethelstan took to Rome, and also to St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew in India, the alms that the [King] Alfred had promised to send thither”;  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, trans. and ed. Anne Savage (New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1983), 97, cited in Robert E. Frykenberg, Oxford History of the Christian Church, Christianity in India: From the Beginnings to the Present (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008), 112.

34.   Notably, the archbishop described the existence of Prester John, the legendary rich and powerful Christian ruler in the East, who came to signify the allure of eastern climes; see Malcolm Barber, The Two Cities, Medieval Europe, 1050-1320, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2004), 386.

35.  Mitigating factors such as the end of the Pax Mongolica (1361), papal embargoes, the bubonic plague, war, piracy, etc., all played a role in inhibiting the flow of goods at one time or another.

36.  India had traded in ivory since ancient times.  In Pompeii, an ivory carving of a female figure (part of table leg), was discovered in a house thought to have been that of a wealthy merchant involved in the long distance trade; see Grant Parker, The Making of Roman India (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008), 162-63.   Moreover,  in the early Christian era, Indian (and African) ivory was used for statues, book covers, and musical instruments; see Kamala Vasudevan,“The Ancient Art of Ivory and Bone Carving in India and the decline of Ivory workers today” (; accessed January 2012).  Karl-Heinz Spieβ discusses the importation into medieval European courts of such Indian exotica as gems, coconuts, and nautilus shells, which were then fashioned into luxury items. In the case of the nautilus shells, since they were exclusively owned by European royalty and the popes, and since they are not mentioned incargo documents, he suggests they were probably diplomatic gifts (although see note 38 following); “Asian Objects and Western European Court Culture in the Middle Ages,” in Artistic and Cultural Exchanges between Europe and Asia, 1400-1900, rethinking markets, workshops & collections, ed. Michael North (England: Ashgate, 2010), 9-28 (24). Although not considered art objects per se, Jewish merchants were also procuring Indian copperware utensils, cotton bedding and bed-covers, costly fabrics such as red silk, and furniture for their homes, of note since such items would have transmitted decorative motifs.

37.   A case in point is the ninth-century Indian ivory dubbed “Charlemagne’s Elephant” which, according to legend, was given as a gift by the Abbasid caliph to the Carolingian emperor.  However, it was only recorded in the inventory of St. Denis in the sixteenth century.  See discussion below, note 59.  Moreover, some goods, such as silk were not even mentioned in medieval inventories; on this point, see Spieß, ibid., 10.

38.   As well as the loss of Indian paper documents due to humidity (see note 7), there was also the deliberate destruction of Nestorian documents, which may have shed insights into the pepper trade.  According to Robert S. Lopez (“European Merchants in the Medieval Indies: The Evidence of Commercial Documents,” The Journal of Economic History,  3,  2 (Nov. 1943): 164-184), the Genoese were very secretive, not only refraining “from leaving accounts of their travels, but often refus[ing] to mention the final destination of their trips.” Venetian traders were also notoriously reticent to discuss their business operations.  (Contrast this with Arab writers on trade activities, such as the   geographer al-Masudi (died 957), who gave a first-hand account of the culture and trade of northern and southern India based upon his travels; see Flood, Objects of Translation, 19.)  To be sure, sifting through the documents on medieval trade maintained in Italian, French, and Spanish archives would doubtless yield fruitful information.  As Goitein notes, these records deal with European trade activities with countries in the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean basin, the locus of import and subsequent re-export of Indian goods (3).

39.  Gene Heck, Charlemagne, Muhammad and the Arab Roots of Capitalism (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006), 178.           

40.  On this see “Discovery of ancient Piece-Goods and manufactured Stuffs,” Journal of the Franklin Institute 22 (1838): 356.

41.  Adolphus E. Medlycott, India and the Apostle Thomas (London: David Nutt, 1905), 82-83.  . Both Florence and William were repeating the earlier account of Sighelm as contained in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; see above, note 33.

42.   Given the Jews’ historic role as traders, it is not surprising to find ancient Talmudic and Midrashic tradition also acknowledging the goods–spices, perfumes, animals, and gems– that were being imported from India.  See Abraham Melamed, “The Image of India in Medieval Jewish Culture: Between Adoration and Rejection,” Jewish History 20, 3/4 (2006): 299-314; 305.

43.  On the bronze and brass industry, see Goitein, 16, who also observes that the Indian industry was so well regarded that Jewish merchants took the trouble and risk to order from India.  Some of these presents, sent home for family, relatives, and business associates included such things as spices, textiles, Chinese porcelain, and even slaves (11). 

44.   This finds confirmation in the fact that precious and highly-coveted objects sometimes served as money and were spread along commercial routes; see Beaujard and Fee, 450

45.   For example, the Chola metal sculptures made during the period 1000-1300, are considered to be some of the world’s finest sculptures, and would have no doubt impressed Europeans by their exquisite workmanship.

46.   Mack, 8.  We might here mention the peregrinations of master masons, whose metier was dependent upon traveling to locales where their expertise was needed.  Villard de Honnecourt, author of the famous sketchbook discussed earlier and sometimes referred to as a mason, collaborated on the construction and decoration of the Gothic cathedral of Reims, which has interesting implications in terms of his acquaintance with Indian artifacts and architectural elements as we saw above.   Michael T. Davis has also commented on the notion of emulation, which “remained a powerful stimulant behind masons’ travels and the transmission of architectural ideas”;Masons and Architects as Travelers,” in Trade, Travel and Exploration, ed. John Block Friedman and Kristin Mossler Figg (New York: Garland Publishers, 2000): 380-82 (381).

47.   Chakravarti, 37, for example, has noted that “lesser attention is paid to the fact that ideas as well as goods, were emanating from India.” For as Beaujard and Fee have observed, trade “implies not only an exchange of goods, but also an exchange of knowledge, beliefs, and values.” (412)

48.   Lynn White, “Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology,” The American Historical Review,  65, 3 (1960): 515-526.

49.   Fibonacci’s (Leonard of Pisa) Liber abaci, which introduced the Hindu-Arabic numerical system to Europe, appeared in 1202. Fibonacci, born in Pisa, lived in an Algerian port with his father (a customs agent), and traveled throughout the Mediterranean to study under the leading Islamic mathematicians.  According to White, the perpetual motion concept was probably “consonant with . . . and rooted in, the Hindu belief in the cyclical and self-renewing nature of all things” (523). Villard’s proposal for a perpetual motion machine used mercury, which indicates he was familiar with the work of the Hindu astronomer and mathematician Bhaskara, who recorded his ideas in 1150.  Bhaskara’s works were picked up by Islamic scholars.

50.  WhereJewish and Muslim traders were also in residence; on these traders, see Nora Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and “Pagans” in Medieval Hungary, ca. 1000 to ca. 1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), 112.

51.  Which White, 221, indicates is a western translation of Yama [the Hindu deity ruling the dead] and his buffalo [which served as his mount]; see “Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo Della Morte,” Speculum 49,2 (April 1974): 201-221.

52.   The relationship between Romanesque sculpture and architecture and Indian prototypes is rarely observed/acknowledged by art historians, although Wayne Dyes has noted that a copulating couple (seen on the capital of a church in Passirac) has a parallel only in India; “Art, Language and Romanesque,” Gesta 28 (1989):3-10.   Also see note 57 below

53.  Janet Marquardt, “La Pierre-qui-vire and Zodiaque: A Monastic Pilgrimage of Medieval Dimensions,” (Peregrinations, International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art II, 3,4 (Summer 2009): 118-29 (121).

54.   For an excellent discussion on the monstrous races, see especially John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge: Harvard UP), 1981, and Rudolph Wittkower, “Marvels of the East, A Study in the History of Monsters,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5 (1942):159-97.  The twelfth and thirteenth centuries also saw a revival of interest in the exploits of Alexander the Great, producing a genre of romance literature such as the Epistola, in which the hero takes a journey to India.  Such accounts may have even stimulated some of the travel undertaken by traders such as Marco Polo, who traced the route and even included some of the same descriptions in his Milione.  See Krystyna Secomska, “ The Miniature Cycle in the Sandomierz Pantheon and the Medieval Iconography of Alexander’s Indian Campaign,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes,  38 (1975): 53-71.  Mention should also be made of Hebrew writings, which must have also contributed to European perceptions of India.  As Melamed, observes, “The myth of India’s marvels, from natural wonders and great wealth to the ethical values, mysterious knowledge, and superior spirituality of its sages, is mentioned in passing in many medieval Jewish texts, including in narratives, poetry, philosophy, theology, and travel literature”; appearing initially in elite texts, the myth also penetrated Jewish popular culture. (304)

55.   See Janetta Rebold Benton, Art of the Middle Ages (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), 86.

56.   According to Meyer Schapiro, “The crossing of limbs in Romanesque art is not only a phenomenon of the body; it is also a mode of presenting ideas, of relating concepts and symbols.” (176) Interestingly, he does introduce a Chinese sculpture of a boddhisatva, which displays a similar treatment of the legs, but not as sharp as Indian prototypes.  His essay on the “The Human Figure” is contained in Romanesque Architectural Sculpture: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, ed. Linda Seidel (Chicago: UC Press, 2006), 154-84.

57.  The sculptural decoration at Autun betrays more of a possible connection with Indian prototypes.  In the tympanum, to the right of Christ, Gislebertus depicted a harrowing vision of demons weighing the souls of the deceased.  The mouths of these demonic figures are opened in a wide grimace, while the figure holding the scale with prominent ribs and striations on his legs has a snake-like claw curling around his lower leg.  Here the demonic figure(s) bear a resemblance to the Hindu demon goddess Chamunda (see link), the wide-mouth grimace, the striations and the curling snake around her limbs all repeatedin the tympanum.  Elsewhere in the church, Gislebertus depicted a nude Eve lying down in a type of crawling position, a pose so unprecedented that it led one scholar to remark upon its similarity to Indian reliefs; see Gloria Fossi, Romanesque and Gothic, trans. Angela Arnone (Milan: Giunti, 2005), 32.  In terms of the dignitaries who might be the audiences of such imagery, Pope Urban II had planned to launch the first Crusade from Vézelay in 1095, while in 1147 Bernard of Clairvaux, accompanied by King Louix VII of France, preached for the second Crusade.  In 1190, Richard the Lionhearted of England and King Philip Augustus of France used the church as the starting point for the Third Crusade.

58.  For example, Bishop Etienne de Bâgé, who was a patron for the Autun cathedral, was an intellectual, a writer, and an artist himself.  According to Luther Link, he apparently decided on the iconography of the tympanum, while his vision was achieved by Gislebertus; see The Devil: A Mask without a Face (London: Reaktion Books, 1995),  121.

59.   Thomas’ importance is also indicated by the construction of cathedrals bearing his name in Leipzig (1212-22) and Prague (consecrated 1379).  That in Leipzig allegedly contained a relic of Thomas bestowed by a troubadour, while at St. Denis outside Paris, a relic of his hand was placed in the church treasury.  St. Denis was home to “Charlemagne’s elephant” an ivory display piece made in India in the ninth- to tenth centuries, which has an Arabic inscription but is clearly of Indian workmanship (e.g., figures, etc.).  According to Flood, it may have been a product of the Sind ivory industry, and was probably brought to Baghdad along with other Indian exotic objects in the same period; Objects, 52-55.  The work is currently housed in the Cabinet des Medailles in Paris.

60.   There is some disagreement on the dating of this relief, which some scholars have indicated was done in 1250, that is, before the Golden Legend.            

61.  According to the legend, St. Thomas was paid to complete the palace, but he gave the money to the poor instead.

62.  Elizabeth Boyle O’Reilly, How France Built her Cathedral: A Study in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1921), 444.

63.  The concept of the Virgin as the “Queen of Heaven” is also derived from Buddhist tradition (Mâyâ Dêvî being the mother goddess), as were European religious practices regarding monasticism, relic worship, etc.; see The Quarterly Review 142, 283 (July & October 1876): 154; (in Review of James Fergusson, Rude Stone Monuments in All Countries; Their Ages and Uses (London: 1872), 126-60).                                      

64.  The Byzantine modelshows the Virgin holding the Christ Child and gesturing toward him with her hand, thus giving the name to this type of image, Hodegetria, meaning “she who points the way”.  

65.  The manuscript was commissioned by John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, and presented to his uncle, Jean, Duke of Berry in 1413.

66.  As Joan-Pau Rubies (Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance, South India through European Eyes, 1250-1625 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 39), observes, the travel accounts of merchants and missionaries stimulated the creation of illuminated manuscripts such as this, which were created for aristocratic audiences.

67.  Consistent with what Arnold, 128, has observed about western artists using actual Chinese scrolls for their medieval depictions of Chinese landscapes, etc.

68.  The motifs were to be read as hexagrams since the Star of David did not become a Jewish symbol until the nineteenth century; see Deirdre Jackson, Marian Antisemitism in Medieval Life and Legend: A Study based on Alfonso X’s Cantigas de Santa Maria, M.A. thesis (University of Victoria, 1997), 60.  . The image appears in Isidro Bango, Remembering Sepharad: Jewish Culture in Medieval Spain, exh. cat., State Corporation for Spanish Cultural Action Abroad (Washington National Cathedral, 2003), 52. 

69.  Originally derived from the Sanskrit, “chinta mani,” for “auspicious jewel,” Jaroslav Folda indicates that the term “is found in the religious beliefs and artistic works of Hinduism and Buddhism with the connotation of a magic jewel with special powers”;“Crusader Artistic Interactions with the Mongols,” in Interactions:Artistic Interchange between the Eastern and Western Worlds in the Medieval Period, ed. Colum Hourihane (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007), 147-66; 155.  

70.  Bango, 52, identifies the swastika as representing either a Jewish or Christian symbol and also refers to the object as a pillow; he further identifies the script on the curtain as Hebrew.  However, based upon the single diacritical marks and more specifically on the curvature and upward patterns of the letters, I suggest the text itself was meant to be read as Arabic script.  Since it is unlikely that the artist himself was Jewish (the Cantigas contains several unflattering images of Jews), and since the artist has purposefully surrounded the figure with design elements having Islamic and Asian pedigrees, it seems more likely he was attempting to convey the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Alfonso’s court–if not the expansive mercantile interests of the money lender himself. On a related note, Melamed, 311, indicates that there was traditionally a connection and confusion between Jews and Indians even in medieval times, a mistake which appears in this manuscript (although he does not indicate where).  In this respect, it may be that the swastika above the money lender’s head gives a nod to this conflation. Moreover, Pamela Patton suggests that the pseudo-Arabic inscription above the money lender’s head may have served to conflate Jews and Muslims as enemies of the faith; see “Constructing the Inimical Jew in the Cantigas de Santa Maria: Theophilus’s Magician in Text and Image,” in Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture, ed. Mitchell Merback (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 233-256 (240).  Also see note following.

71.   Textiles embroidered with motifs such as swastikas, Arabic inscriptions and hexagrams served an apotropaic (or talismanic) function.  Their specific placement within the scene reflects the use of such textiles at portals to prevent evil spirits from entering; see Jackson, 60.   Patton, ibid., also suggests that their magical content may have been meant to associate the Jew with black magic.

71.  “Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean World,” in Ethnic Encounter and culture change, ed. M’hummed Sabour and Knut Vikør (London: Bergen, 1997): 116-42.

72.  In Fezzan, modern day southern Libya and an important area of ancient Trans-Saharan trade routes, rock paintings depicting two-wheeled chariots seem to have been a diffusion of art from the north; see Masonen, 119-20.  .

73.  As Masonen, 129, also notes, before the discovery of the Americas, gold from West African mines was the most important single source of gold for both North Africa and Europe.

74.   Gao was part of the kingdom of Songhay, which was founded by North African merchants in the mid-eighth century.

75.   Masonen, 137.

76.   Islam essentially remained a “cult” since rulers did not want to undermine their power by imposing a change in belief systems on their subjects. By the twelfth century, West African Muslims with financial means were making the hajj to Mecca, presenting other opportunities for acquisition of foreign goods to be brought back to their homeland. 

77.   The most well-known of his visitors was the peripatetic Ibn Battuta from Morocco, whose journeys took him not only to Timbuktu, but also to Granada in Spain and as far away as the western coast of India and up to Delhi.  A discussion of his travels is contained in Stewart Gordon, When Asia Was the World; Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the “Riches of the East”(De Capo Press, 2008),  97-115.              

78.   Similar visual relationships are apparent in the Ife head and sculptures of the head of Buddha, both of which display down-turned eyes, solemn expressions and rather sensuous closed mouths. Interestingly, Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art, (7th ed.) comment on this similarity noting that the Ife head was “close in feeling to contemporary Buddhist art in India or Southeast Asia”, but noted that as there is “no evidence of direct contact”  this “West African art was an indigenous growth conditioned by the need for lifelike images of royalty . . .”; (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005), 522.

79.   This statue is dated by thermoluminescence to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. The material is actually an alloy of copper with lead or zinc, materials which may have been imported along the trade routes. 

80.   Two other Tada bronzes which adopt the same pose, yet betray a less sophisticated approach in rendering the human body, suggest- that the sculptors were intrigued with the posture enough to reproduce it, however less realistically. 

81.    When this statue and others were discovered in Tada and Jebba along the Niger River, the local Islamic population was worshiping them in the belief they had been sent by the mythical founder of the royal dynasty.  Oyo Ife was evidently the terminus of a  major trans-Saharan trade route, with part of its importance stemming from its control of access to forest products.  As well as Islamic traders, there is also evidence that Jewish, Genoese, and Venetians traders were also involved in equatorial Africa; see Robert Lopez, “European Merchants in the Medieval Indies: The Evidence of Commercial Documents,” The Journal of Economic History, 3,. 2 (Nov. 1943): 164-184 (168).

82.   Of course, proposing theories of outside influence carries with it the inherent risk of criticism for perpetuating the traditional euro-centric arrogance that the peoples of the sub-Sahara were incapable of such development on their own.  However, it is disingenuous to cast aside evidence that shows cross-cultural contact and to dismiss the notion that foreign art objects would not have been used by skilled African carvers as models, especially those that presented novelties of form.  For the Ife sculptures see Alice Apley, “Ife Terracottas (1000–1400 A.D.)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001)  

83.   Other areas of investigation might focus on the hypothetical relationship of Buddhist mandalas to the popularity of labyrinths appearing in Gothic cathedrals.  At Amiens, the tile work on the floor of the nave not only reproduced the swastika pattern but also included next to it, a large labyrinth.   During this same period, Hindu-like corbeled capitals also appear in  Franciscan architecture, such as seen in the convent of Santa Croce in Florence.    

84.   Intermediators such as Persians, Armenians, Sogdians, Nestorians, Chinese, Buddhists, Berbers, etc.  In terms of artists’ mobility, during the period of Mongol domination, artists and craftsmen were often taken by Mongol rulers and transported to work for them in different regions.  Slaves were a big part of Jewish trade, and slaves were also exported from West Africa in large numbers to the north as a result of the expanded Arab trade networks.  In the case of artists migrating voluntarily, Elizabeth Lambourn has discussed the putative mobility of stone carvers from Gujarat on the Indian Ocean who may have traveled to Java, e.g.; “Carving and Communities: Marble Carving for Muslim Patrons at Khambhat and around the Indian Ocean Rim, Late Thirteenth- to Mid-Fifteenth Centuries,” Ars Orientalis 34 (2004): 99-133, especially 124-26

85.   For example, although the vast distance between Europe and India might seemingly preclude the transport of heavy stone, Lambourn, ibid., has shown that carved marble grave memorials made by Gujarat craftsmen were then shipped to Muslim patrons in locales across the Indian Ocean, including Aden and Java.  As these works were decorated with Arabic inscriptions as well as Hindu and Jain motifs, they serve as an excellent example of the stylistic transmission that could occur even on large and heavy items.  This is similar to the fusion of Islamic and Hindu styles that were seen in Sind, where both Muslims and Hindus were engaged in artistic production; see Flood, Objects.

86.   E.g., locales such as Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Persia, Sicily,  Spain, and northern Europe

87.   “Toward a Theory of the Intercultural,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 35 (1999):5-9;  cited in Flood, Objects of Translation, 8.


Text copyright 2012 Robin O’Bryan



O’Bryan, Robin. “Merchants, Missionaries, and the Allure of India: Speculations on Cross-Cultural Contact and Artistic Exchange in the Middle Ages.” Open Inquiry Archive 1, no. 1 (2012).

3 thoughts on “Merchants, Missionaries, and the Allure of India

  1. I enjoyed reading Robin O’Bryan’s article, Merchants, Missionaries and the Allure of India, but have a comment regarding note 69. If Robin could find the time to read my article on Cintamani, the triple-dot motif, I hope to show that the motif appears in the West many centuries before it travelled East. Please click on:
    to see my on-going work on this fascinating subject. Alternatively, glance through the images here:
    Best, Julianna Lees

    • Hi Julianna,

      Thanks for your comment and for giving the link to your very interesting article. While you provide abundant evidence to show that the three-dot motif was present in the West well before the Middle Ages, I would still argue that the cintamani of Asian origin is the one that inspired the reuse of this motif as seen in the Alfonso manuscript. Indeed, I do not think that artists of that era were consulting Greek or Etruscan artifacts, but rather were seeing the cintamani on the exotic goods that were filtering in from the Crusades and other cross-cultural interactions (as Folda argues). The same situation occurs with the swastika, which was also present in ancient Etruscan and Roman arts, but whose Asian form was the one which medieval artists were consulting (as seen also in the Alfonso illustration). All this to say, the issue for me was not really who used the cintamani first, but rather what was the catalyst for its popularity in the Middle Ages.

      Fascinating topic to be sure!


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