Following Emperor Akbar’s (r.1556–1605) first recorded encounters with Europeans in 1573, the multiple exchanges of embassies led to an extraordinary influx of new artistic ideas and inspirations. Notably, the three Jesuit missions that visited Akbar’s court before 1600 brought with them a large number of religious paintings and prints (Stronge 2010, p.114).
Among these were prints by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, who had produced some of the most famous engravings of the period, including one entitled St Eustace in circa 1501. The print features a Roman general (later St Eustace) who converted to Christianity following his vision of the crucifix between the antlers of a stag that he was chasing. The similarities between Dürer’s stag and the present example can be seen in the construction of the head, the protruding, wood-like antlers, ears flared back and gentle eyes, suggesting that a copy of this print may have been known to the artist who produced the dagger.
An interesting parallel may be drawn between St Eustace’s vision and the Emperor Akbar’s own divine revelation or mystical experience in 1578. This event is beautifully illustrated in the Akbarnama with an attribution to Miskina (circa 1595), depicting the Emperor ordering the freedom of many animals that were destined to slaughter after a hunting expedition: “When the stewards of the Divine decrees had for the sake of the government of the world brought down again him who had obtained his desire in the spiritual kingdom, he in thanksgiving for this great boon set free many thousands of animals” (Abu’l Fazl quoted in Losty and Roy 2012, pp.47-48, fig.12).
Another page from the Akbarnama (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. no.IS.2.55-1896 and IS.2.56.1896), attributed to Miskina and Mansur, depicting Akbar taking part in a qamargah - a type of hunt in which the animals were pushed towards a circular central area for the Emperor and his entourage to hunt - displays a naturalistic depiction of a stag, its horns pushed forwards from its fall. The stag appears again on another page from the Akbarnama also in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no.IS.2:112-1896), depicting “general Husain Quli Khan Jahan presenting his prisoners to the emperor Akbar in 1572, after the victorious military campaign in Gujarat. The prisoners have been made to dress in animal skins to add to their humiliation and have chains around their necks” (Victoria and Albert Museum website: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O9429/husain-quli-and-akbar-painting-basawan/). The artist Mansur’s mastery at depicting animals is apparent in the rendering of the stag-skin prisoner, also with fine, branch-like horns like this example. Another painting by Mansur now in the Staatliches Museum fur Volkerkunde, Munich, inv. no.77-11-309, again features the characteristic stag with fine horns and ears set back in the border.
Under Akbar’s son Jahangir (r.1605-27), the stag reappears again in a miniature, this time in the form of an automaton held in the hands of the Emperor’s courtier, Khan Alam (Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas, from the St. Petersburg Album, attributed to Bishandas, circa 1618, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., inv. no.F1942.16a). Milo Cleveland Beach has noted that the automaton depicts Diana at the hunt and must be from Augsburg, the Southern German city specialising in such courtly drinking objects (Milano and Lugano 1996, p.114, plate 204, Freer 42.16 recto). This painting is important because it proves that three-dimensional objects, notably one representing a stag, were present at the Mughal court, and probably accessible to its artists. A further automaton from Augsburg, by Matthias Walbaum, circa 1600-10, is now in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (see Dr. Ursula Weekes,
https://www.britac.ac.uk/blog/closer-look-mughal-emperor-jahangir-depicted-hourglass-throne). Another similar model is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. no.2004.568.
This dagger, with is finely-rendered stag's head hailing from European models, both printed and three-dimensional, is an exceptional survival, speaking to the wealth of European influence at the Mughal court and the local craftsmen’s mastery at depicting the noble stag in multiple media.