"Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings," from the St. Petersburg album signed by Bichitr India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1615–18. (Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art)

In 1556, at age 13, Akbar became the third Mughal emperor, reigning for about 50 years. Then his son rose to power, taking the name Jahangir, or the “World Seizer.” By the next generation, Jahangir’s son was given the title Shah Jahan, or “King of the World,” when he succeeded to the throne in 1627.

This family was not without great ambition.

Ruling from 1526 to 1857, they controlled most of today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and had enormous power and influence in the Islamic world. These men also matched strength with sophistication to be become great patrons of the arts, the subject of the exhibition “Worlds Within Worlds, Imperial Paintings From India and Iran” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The show offers an excuse to bring 50 works from the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler to light and present the intricate history of the Mughals, named from the Persian word for Mongol and the origin of the term “mogul.” These conquerors legitimized their dynasty and etched themselves into history through the arts, particularly during the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

Though the paintings they commissioned — mostly pages that were originally part of manuscripts — are small and require visitors to extend their average 30-second look to explore the details (and use the magnifying glasses provided), the decadent scenes are filled with the saga of a dynasty, as sons rise up against their fathers and cultures and religions merge into one.

The Mughals were collectors first — a ruler in the Islamic world was measured by the breadth of his library. By his death in 1605, for instance, Akbar was reported to have had 24,000 books in his library. The emperors also commissioned ambitious texts filled with paintings and stacked courts with Persian-trained artists, including Mir Sayyid Ali. His scenes show stacked, meandering narratives where every surface is covered with flat patterning and color. Such art, painted in watercolor using milled pigments and then compressed against a stone, laid the foundation for Mughal art.

The next step was an infusion of local style. During his reign, Akbar embraced the different people that made up his empire, accepting all religions. So the art followed, as the lively figures and bold colors of Indian traditions merged with the Persian style, as seen in Akbar’s great commission, the Hamzanama. The large paintings, filled with Persian folk tales, demonstrate this Mughal approach and move toward naturalism as the figures are more volumetric and packed together and the architecture more concrete, emerging from space.

Akbar’s time also saw an engagement with the West, as English and Jesuit ambassadors were hosted at court. One work of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child shows this collision, as it was probably copied from an engraving brought by the Jesuits. Much of Akbar’s exploits were recorded in his biography by courtier Abu’l Fazl. Included with the text are scenes that show the emperor presiding over people of many nationalities with distinguishable characteristics. Akbar’s attachment to this contemporary history, to make legitimate the Mughal dynasty, found refinement under Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

Surrounded by the wealth and stability of his father’s empire, Jahangir was raised a connoisseur, as evidenced by the luxurious details in his imperial pictures. In one portrait, he stands on a gold platform, wearing gold armor and sheer gauze and balancing a globe — the world itself — on his fingertips. Behind him, barely visible in fine detail, is his victorious army. The portrait records Jahangir’s defeat of his son Shah Jahan’s rebellion in 1623. While Jahangir’s delicately painted face seems stern, almost sad, this event mirrored his own past, as he also challenged his father, Akbar, in a failed attempt in 1600.

But the conflict is barely visible in the serenity of these imperial images, where Jahangir is shown in positions of power. He stands on a globe with a golden halo or sits above other rulers, including King James I of England (whose likeness was copied from a painting by John de Critz, a gift from the ambassador) to show his preeminence.

This fixation on imperial opulence culminated with Shah Jahan, best known as the patron of the Taj Mahal. His portraits are formal, even stiff, and filled with flowers and jewels. In one youthful image, he stands on a grassy field beneath a sunset-filled sky with hands clasped and covered in elaborate dress. He is surrounded by angels, wildlife and courtiers as he asserts his divine position as conqueror.

The Mughals were driven by ambition, as reflected in the art of their courts. As a result, they left behind a history of forgotten lifestyles for future generations, a clue into the personalities of this dynasty’s great rulers, and a marvel of fine details for the eye to behold.

O’Steen is a freelance writer.

Worlds Within Worlds, Imperial Paintings From
India and Iran

Through Sept. 16. at Arthur M. Sackler

Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW.