Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Traditional brush paintings include realistic landscapes; genre paintings of flowers, birds, and the daily lives of ordinary people; and calligraphic presentations of Chinese phrases extolling Confucian virtues such as filial piety and loyalty decorated with designs and pictures. Traditional sculptures in bronze, stone, and rock were inspired by Buddhism. The Sakyamuni Buddha in the rotunda of the Sokkuram Grotto is regarded as a national masterpiece. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Among the earliest forms of Korean art are the paintings found on the walls of tombs of the Koguryo Kingdom (located in what is now North Korea) and around the China-North Korea border area. These paintings are colorful representations of birds, animals, and human figures that possess remarkable vitality and animation. Similar, though less spectacular, tombs are found around the old capitals of the kingdoms of Paekche and Silla in present-day South Korea. A number of gold objects, including a gold crown of great delicacy and sophistication dating from the Three Kingdoms period, have been found in South Korea. Early Japanese art, in the 7th and 8th century, was greatly influenced by artwork from the Korean Paekche dynasty. [Source: Library of Congress]

Buddhism was the dominant artistic influence during the later Three Kingdoms period and the Silla and Koryo dynasties. Themes and motifs that had originated in India passed to Korea through Central Asia and China. A number of bronze images of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas were made during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. The images are not mere copies of Indian or north Chinese models, but possess a distinctly "Korean" spirit that one critic has described as "as indifference to sophistication and artificiality and a predisposition toward nature." The striking stone Buddha found in the Sokkuram Grotto, a cave temple located near Kyongju in North Kyongsang Province, was carved during the Silla Dynasty and is considered to be the finest of Korean stone carvings. During the centuries of Buddhism's ascendancy, a large number of stone pagodas and temples were built, one of the most famous being the Pulguksa Temple near Kyongju.

Ancient Art in Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Korea's artistic tradition reaches back before recorded history to the people who inhabited northeast Asia in the New Stone Age. These people were part of a mosaic of tribal civilizations that settled in the area, and the things they made have been found in many parts of northeastern China, Siberia, and even Japan. The desire to decorate things and express an aesthetic appreciation even in prehistoric times can be seen in the simple designs cut into the clay of pottery items that lay buried for thousands of years until being discovered by archaeologists in modern times. The people who are descended from those early artisans today enjoy a vibrant artistic life.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Korean art began with the work of the prehistoric potters and matured during the Korean Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668). The Three Kingdoms, together with the later kingdoms of Koryo and Chosun, balanced local styles of art with much-revered Chinese examples, creating a dual tradition that blends both into something that is uniquely Korean. It is comparable to, but different from, what is found in China and Japan. Korea's oldest surviving paintings, for example, are hunting scenes on the walls of tombs in the territory once occupied by the state of Koguryo. Koguryo men were hunters, skilled horsemen who shot deer and other wild animals from the saddle with a bow and arrow. The leaders' tombs were decorated with scenes of their hunting prowess. Elements of the paintings such as mountains and trees are just like similar elements in Chinese paintings of that time. The hunting theme, however, is something that belongs to Koguryo, along with the deer and tigers in the paintings that were not typical of China but were part of life in Manchuria and northern Korea.

“The Three Kingdoms offer many examples of the dual tradition in Korean art. The southeastern kingdom of Silla, for example, crowned its kings with headdresses of beaten gold whose shapes were reminiscent not only of antlers but also of tree branches, one of the "tools" of Korean shamans who were ancient religious leaders in the forests of Manchuria. Another feature of the Silla crowns is the small, comma-shaped magatama jewels, looking like jade teardrops, that hang from delicate gold threads all around the crown. Magatama are found throughout northeastern Asia but they are not so common in China. Along with the crowns are numerous other iron and gold objects: belt buckles, harnesses, necklaces and pendants, bowls, and figurines. These hint at combinations of Korean and Chinese ideas of nobility, of nomadic and agricultural ways of life, and of the coming of Buddhism to Korea. No Korean buildings survive as such from the Three Kingdoms period, though there are many remains. Stone pagodas still stand on former temple sites, some of them with their carvings and decorative inscriptions still readable. Many of them suggest the care and skill of the stonemasons who created them.”

Koguryo Art

The Koguryo (Goguryeo, Goryeo, 37 B.C. - A.D. 668) was a Korean kingdom located in the northern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula and the southern and central parts of Manchuria. From December 2002 to March 2003, Koguryo relics from both South Korea and North Korea were displayed at an exhibition called "Koguryo!" at the COEX Convention Center in Samseong-dong in southern Seoul. The JoongAng Daily reported: On display are 30 relics that belong to the Korea Central History Museum in Pyongyang and 140 museum-quality reproductions that were crafted by 2,000 technicians in North Korea. One of the reproductions is a 6-meter-high stone monument to King Kwanggaeto from Jian, China. The tombstone, bearing a gold inscription, is the largest ever discovered in Asia. Others include five life-size murals from 5th century tombs. [Source: JoongAng Daily, December 6, 2002]

“Koguryo relics have long been celebrated for their distinctive artistic characteristics, such as symbolic animals signifying the universe. A mythical three-legged crow, or Samjogo, represents the sun; a toad symbolizes the moon. Flame patterns, expressing the Koguryo Kingdom's powerful spirit, are common motifs. Halos are also an important element in Koguryo art. One of the most elaborate on display is a gilded nimbus with the inscription "Yonggang 7th year." The halo, from A.D. 551 was discovered in Pyeongcheon, near Pyongyang, and is one of four national treasures on loan for the exhibition.” One nimbus “has lotus petals and vines surrounded by a delicate relief of flames.

“Another unique relic on display is a queen's crown from the 4th or 5th century with a flame pattern on its brim. While several gold crowns from the Silla and Paekche kingdoms have been found, this is the only known example from the Koguryo Kingdom. It features a delicate, dynamic pattern of flames, and bears some resemblance to the queen's crown found in the tomb of King Munyeong from the Paekche Kingdom. Another exquisitely detailed piece is a gilt-bronze decorative panel in the shape of the sun that was part of a headrest. Believed to have been used by a king, the panel once was layered with the iridescent outer shells of black beetles and fastened to a piece of fabric.

“Also on display are two rare earthenware vessels. One is a steamer to make rice cakes, and the other is an urn for ashes.” The rice steamer is “particularly interesting. It is the earliest known example of a steamer with a drain in the bottom. It has numerous small openings. Later versions that have been discovered have fewer, but larger, holes.”

Koguryo Tomb Art

Yonson Ahn wrote in Japan Focus: “Mural tombs have decorative paintings inside the burial chambers. The mural paintings constitute their chief claim to glory. The murals are rich in content including the family life of noble lords, feasting, dancing, drama-playing and outings. Representative pictorial motifs of the wall paintings include the following: daily life scenes, such as farming, hunting, banquets and entertainment, wives and household retinue, stables, kitchens and storehouses. [Source: Yonson Ahn, Japan Focus, January 1, 2008]

“Among these motifs, daily life scenes are numerous. Popular decorative motifs include the spiral pattern, the “king” letter pattern, lotus-petals, clouds, intertwined dragons and honeysuckle. The contents of the mural paintings provide important information on Koguryo life, customs and beliefs; for example, the lotus-petal that appears in so many murals is indicative of the spread of Buddhism during the fifth and sixth centuries. Furthermore, these walls bear an exceptional and early witness to a culture, painting tradition and archaeology in East Asia, especially during the so-called “Northern and Southern Dynasties period” which falls between the Han and Tang periods, for which there was little information until the past decade.”

Outstanding works of art include: 1) the Hunting mural, Muyongch’ong Tomb (fifth century), Ji’an, China; 2) depiction of a kitchen, meat store and carriage shed, Anak Tomb No.3 built in 357, Hwanghae province, North Korea; 3) scenes of official duties and/or the ordering of socio-political status and military activities, thirteen government officials congratulating the tomb-owner, Jin, on his appointment to an important post, Tokhung-ri Tomb built in 408, Nampo, North Korea; 4) celestial, cosmological,or immortal ascent scenes and figures, such as the blue dragon and white tiger, the tortoise and the snakes, and the red phoenix, and scenes of filial piety and morality, the star constellations in Tokhung-ri Tomb built in 408, Nampo, North Korea;

“5) Red phoenix (one of the Four Guardian Deities, defenders of the four directions on each wall to guard the soul of the deceased against demons), Kangso Middle Tomb built between the second half of sixth century and the first half seventh century A.D., Nampo, North Korea; 6) Sun and moon deities, Ohoe Tomb No. 4 built between in the late sixth century and the early seventh century A.D., Ji’an, China; 7) Fire deity, T’onggu Sasinch’ong Tomb built in the sixth century, Ji’an, China; 8) Lotus flower and heavenly world, Ssangyongch’ong Tomb built in the late fifth century, Nampo, North Korea; 9) The first image of a Buddhist monk of the Koguryo period, Ssangyongch’ong Tomb built in the late fifth century, Nampo, North Korea; 10) Portrait of the tomb owner’s wife: Anak Tomb No.3, Hwanghae province, North Korea; 11) “Black warrior”, a combination of snake and turtle in one body, Kangso Great Tomb, Nampo, North Korea

In 1972, archaeologists discovered well-preserved murals inside the Takamatsu tomb at the Asuka archeological site near Osaka, Kyoto and Nara in Japan. Dated to the end of the seventh century, the murals contained images of tigers, dragons, and star constellations like those found in Korean and Chinese tombs. The people in some of the murals are wearing Korean-style clothes. Women, for example, depicted in murals in wore pleated skirts like those found in Korea at that time. Some historian believe this and other similar tombs provide evidence that rulers in the Asuka-period Japan (A.D. 538 to 710) were either Koreans or Chinese or strongly influenced by Korean or Chinese culture. Many Koreans believe they offer proof that Japanese Imperial family was founded by a Korean clan, something that Japanese nationalists vehemently deny is possible.

Transmission of Early Buddhist Art From Korea and Japan

On an exhibition called "Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art From Korea and Japan" at the Japan Society Gallery in New York in 2003, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Around 538, one of the three kingdoms of the Korean peninsula, Paekche, dispatched an embassy to the Japanese court with gifts that included Buddhist texts and an image of the Buddha. Embassies arrived again in Japan in 577 and 588. With them came monks, a nun, temple architects and a sculptor of Buddhist images. Japan — Jonathan Best writes in one of the essays that make the book accompanying the show (distributed by Harry N. Abrams) a must in any library — was won over. The military had something to do with it — in 587 the pro-Buddhist clan at the Japanese court decided to resort to force to make the good cause prevail. By the middle of the seventh century, the triumph of Buddhism was complete. What art demonstrates is how profound Korean influence was over Japan and how the intensity of a faith at times sparked an extraordinarily rapid evolution. [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, April 12, 2003]

“An abyss separates the Buddhist icons of Korea carved or cast in bronze in the Paekche Kingdom during the second half of the sixth century from those that may be dated to the mid-seventh. The earliest sculpture, a seated Buddha carved in soapstone, lent by the Puyo National Museum, illustrates a kind of sweet fairy-tale strain. A contented smile illuminates the chubby face, conveying a naive chirpiness. Another figure excavated on the mid-sixth-century site of the Wono-ri temple exudes a similar bonhomie. While it shares iconographic conventions with China under the Wei dynasty, the cheerful earthenware bodhisattva is far removed in spirit from the sophistication of Wei art.

“Some of that early charm lingered into the seventh century. The gilt bronze Infant Buddha from the Gyeongju National Museum has a broad smile on his rounded face that belies the solemnity of the teaching gesture. The simplicity of this phase contrasts with the art of mid-seventh-century Korea. A standing Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva, which came to light at Sonsan, belongs to an art at the apex of its first blossoming. The elongated figure seems to be swaying. The lips are closed, the eyes imperceptibly open to allow a glance not aimed at the visible world to filter through.

“Astonishing diversity was by now achieved by the Korean bronze makers. Serene elation emanates from the gilt bronze Buddha discovered in Hoengsong and lent by the National Museum in Seoul. The merest touch of gentle amusement may be read into his eyes as if aimed at the futility of human concerns. Perhaps the serenity of Buddhism occasionally triggered fits of rage among opponents from rival creeds. On a stele carved in 673, all the faces have been hammered away. Korean specialists say there is no known example of iconoclasm in the Korean history of Buddhism. Art, it would appear, thus bears witness to events that left no trace in written records.

“The Koreans migrating to Japan in large numbers transmitted the message and the art. One of the most admirable revelations in the show, displayed for the first time outside Japan, is the bodhisattva preserved in a shrine of the age-old Japanese Shinto cult at Sekiyama Jinja. How the object, which clearly suffered from a fire, came into that non-Buddhist shrine is not known. The art historian Yasuo Inamoto writes that the seventh-century bronze was made in Korea and brought to Japan, or, alternatively, made in Japan by one of the many Korean immigrants. The harmony of the body slightly tilted, the smile of blissful illumination, make it one of the great masterpieces of early Far Eastern art.

Similar questions arise several times in connection with seventh-century Buddhist figures preserved in Japan. A bodhisattva in "pensive posture" from Kanshoin is evidently the work of a Korean artist, but whether the execution took place in Korea or Japan is impossible to say.

Development of Japanese Buddhist Art From Korean Buddhist Art

Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Remarkably, the huge role played by Korean masters did not inhibit their Japanese disciples. Almost from the beginning, Japanese sculpture developed specific features even while remaining close to Korean sources. A seventh-century triad from the Yakushiji in Uchiuramachi displays characteristics — a lack of proportion, an excessive rigidity — typical of a "primitive" phase. Nevertheless, it has a precision in the rendition of the Buddha's features and a sharpness that was to remain constant in Japanese aesthetics. [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, April 12, 2003]

“An extraordinary Buddha Shakyamuni from a triad lent by the Horyuji temple at Nara confirms that this sharpness appeared early on. The Buddha is inscribed with a date equivalent to 628. The flames that rise rhythmically around the large halo are engraved with flawless precision. There is a rigor about the cast bronze group that is eminently Japanese.

“As Korea and Japan settled into the Buddhist way of life, something changed in the art of both nations. In Korea a new feeling became perceptible by the late seventh century. A kind of classicism within its own terms of reference is manifest in the balance, the symmetry and general harmony of the openwork triad cast and chiseled about 680. from the Gyeongju National Museum. The calm repose about the faces, the impeccable flow of the folds of the Buddha's drapes, strengthen the impression of a "classical" moment in the art. This classicism reached a climax with a seated Buddha from the National Museum in Seoul, steeped in irenic meditation, eyes closed. It is unforgettable.

“A similar point was attained a little later in Japan, with a sharper edge. The standing Buddha from the Shinnoin temple in Wakayama Prefecture illustrates the earlier stage of this classical development some time in the late seventh century, and the seated Buddha of Healing from the Nara National Museum signals its culmination in the eighth century. Formal perfection is not quite all there in the standing figure but it is consummate in the seated Buddha — too consummate perhaps. Formalism was about to take over.

“The Japanese masterpiece of the later period is not a Buddha, but the ninth-century wooden guardian of heaven, from Nara, seen in the guise of a warrior in Tang-style armor. Overwhelming in its power, it does not belong in the realm of ecstatic illumination. That unique moment in the history of Japanese and Korean Buddhism was over.”

Silla Art

Tombs of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. - A.D. 935) were similar to those of the Koguryo Kingdom but they art in them was much less spectacular. A number of gold objects, including a gold crown of great delicacy and sophistication dating from the Three Kingdoms period, have been found in South Korea.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered elaborate gold crowns and gold belts, indicating that the aristocracy was affluent. Silla sculpture and decorative arts were designed with simple, angular lines. Granite was a favorite material for both sculpture and architecture. Silla pottery was unglazed, grayish stoneware. Under state patronage, Buddhism flourished and many temples were built, including Hwangyong-sa, Pulguk-sa, and the grotto shrine of Sokkuram.

Burial mounds for Silla dynasty kings are the size of small hills. Objects discovered inside royal tomb have included jewelry, stone burial urns, horn-shaped drinking vessels, decorative eave tiles, Buddhas of stone, bronze, gold, iron and wood, ceramics, swords, gold bridles, crowns and a painting of a divine flying horse. Eggs for nourishment in the afterlife have been found inside the coffins of some of kings.

Buddhism was the dominant artistic influence during the later Three Kingdoms period and the Silla and Koryo dynasties. Themes and motifs that had originated in India passed to Korea through Central Asia and China. A number of bronze images of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas were made during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. The images are not mere copies of Indian or north Chinese models, but possess a distinctly "Korean" spirit that one critic has described as "as indifference to sophistication and artificiality and a predisposition toward nature." The striking stone Buddha found in the Sokkuram Grotto, a cave temple located near Gyeongju in North Kyongsang Province, was carved during the Silla Dynasty and is considered to be the finest of Korean stone carvings. During the centuries of Buddhism's ascendancy, a large number of stone pagodas and temples were built, one of the most famous being the Bulguksa Temple near Gyeongju.

The Silla Kingdom is particularly noted for its Scythian-style jewellery forms — its royal crowns are said to be of Scythian design and indications of contacts with Central Asian steppe peoples. Research has shown Koreans to have lineages possessing the genetic type haplogroup A5, which is thought to have evolved in central Asia between Caspian sea and Baikal lake and have moved through Manchuria to the Korean peninsular before reaching Japan.

White Granite Buddha in Sokkuram Cave

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The crown jewel of Kyongju is the eighth-century granite image of Buddha that sits majestically in the Sokkuram Cave near the top of Mount T'oham. Built during the reign of King Kyongdok (r. 742-65), the image is about eleven feet high and sits on a pedestal facing the entrance and is surrounded by images of guardians, disciples, and bodhisattvas carved into the granite panels that line the cave. At certain times of the year the rising sun shines in through the entrance and lights the Buddha, who seems to be serenely watching over the valley and seacoast beyond. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The Sokkuram Cave is on the opposite side of Mount T'oham from Pulguksa Temple. It is generally assumed that there was a relationship between the two, and that probably the cave temple was a religious retreat for monks or possibly Silla kings. It is not even clear exactly which manifestation of the Buddha the statue is intended to represent, whether the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) or the Buddha "of life and light," as a nearby inscription suggests. A further dimension was added to the mystery when marine archaeologists discovered the stone structure of the tomb of King Munmu (r. 661-81) in the water off the seacoast. The structure was located in a line with the gaze of the overlooking cave Buddha, suggesting that the image was intended to watch over the dead king's grave. However, no one can be sure, since there is no surviving documentation to bear out the relationship. In fact, the cave was almost forgotten over the intervening centuries.

“Under the Chosun dynasty and its policy of suppressing Buddhism, Pulguksa Temple and the Sokkuram Cave fell into decay. The cave itself was overgrown with weeds and trees and virtually lost to memory until it was accidentally discovered in 1909 by a man seeking shelter from a storm. The cave has now been repaired and sealed from the elements to spare the interior carvings within from further damage from erosion and the effects of industrial air pollution. The Sokkuram Cave now ranks as a Korean National Treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Treasure.

Koryo Dynasty

The Koryo Dynasty is best remembered for its celadons, or bluish-green porcelains, considered by many specialists to be the best in the world, surpassing even the Chinese porcelains upon which they were originally modeled. Many have intricate designs of birds, flowers, and other figures rendered in light and dark-colored clay on the blue-green background; some are delicately formed into the shapes of flowers, animals, and objects. Chosun Dynasty pottery tended to be simpler and more rustic and had a great influence on the development of Japanese artistic appreciation from the late sixteenth century on. After the attempted Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s, Korean potters were taken back to Japan.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “After Silla, Buddhist art further distinguished the Koryo period (9181392), as the state and the wealthy estate owners patronized temples and contributed funds to build elaborate buildings and beautiful Buddhist images and objects of worship. Chief among these were the main images in the temples, which sat, usually in threes, on a high platform in the center of the main temple hall. Various materials were used to make these images: wood, iron, and bronze. The larger wood images are now gone, but some of theStone-carved images of Maitreya on a cliff near P'aju (Koryo period). metal ones have survived. Most are painted, but some are gilt. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

As with present-day Buddhist images in temples from the later Chosun period, the images from the Koryo period represent the various manifestations of the Buddha. One is the historical Buddha who actually lived. Another is the Buddha of the present age (Amida). Others are the Buddha of power and light (Vairocana), the meditating Buddha (a favorite of the Zen sect, shown with his hands folded in a position of meditation), and Maitreya, the Buddha (or more properly, bodhisattva) of the future. When images of the Buddha are flanked by a pair of smaller figures, the other two are bodhisattvas, images of saints who have reached the stage of Buddha-hood but have elected to remain in the temporal world to help other sinners find the way. Koryo Buddhism is also remarkable for the paintings that are found on walls of temples, both inside and out. One type illustrated famous stories from the life of Buddha. Another depicted the moral universe, showing heaven at the top and hell at the bottom. Heaven was full of light and beauty and signs of the Buddha welcoming souls to paradise. Hell was dark, filled with demons, and showed horrible suffering. In between was the plane of temporal existence, with people living ordinary lives but subject

“But it is celadon pottery that has done the most to make Koryo famous in the world of art. The techniques and basic design inspiration are clearly from China and some of the Koryo potters themselves were Chinese. However, Korean glazes and shapes evolved away from the Chinese style. The blue-green celadon hue was the result of careful calculation when the potters mixed the glazes. Korean shapes were more natural, with references to bamboo, flowers, the lotus, and gourds and melons. The Koreans made celadon headrests ("pillows"), water bottles, and vases. Some of these were decorated with painted designs under the glaze. But Koryo potters also excelled at a new kind of inlaid decoration. They cut designs such as cranes and pine trees into the wet clay and then filled the cuts with clay of a different color, usually black or white, to bring out the design. The pot with its inlaid design was then baked, taken out and covered with glaze, and then baked again. The most highly prized Koryo celadons are pots with elaborate designs of this inlaid type, a celadon color that is exactly the right combination of green and blue, and a pattern of hairline heat cracks in the glaze over the entire surface of the vessel. Koryo celadon pottery is a good example of the way Korean artisans adapted ideas that originated in China. This blending of the Chinese "great tradition" with the Korean local tradition occurred in many forms of art. Korean Buddhist temples, for example, include elements of Korean shamanism such as the Shrine of the Mountain Spirit that is always found in a special shrine building up on the hillside behind a Korean temple.

Chosun Dynasty Art

During the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), Buddhism was no longer a source of artistic inspiration. The art, music, and literature of the yangban were deeply influenced by Chinese models, yet exhibited a distinctively Korean style. Korean scholar-officials cultivated their skills in the arts of Confucian culture — Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and landscape painting. Poetry was considered to be the most important of these arts; men who lacked poetic ability could not pass the civil service examinations. Scholars were expected to refine their skill in using the brush both in calligraphy, the ornamental writing of Chinese characters that was considered an art in itself, and in landscape painting, which borrowed Chinese themes and styles. However, scholarly calligraphers and landscape painters were considered amateurs. Professional artists were members of the chungin class and were of low status, not only because their painting tended to diverge from the style favored by the upper class but because it was too realistic. Particularly among the yangban, Chinese dominance of cultural expression was assured by the fact that Korean intellectual discourse was largely dependent on Chinese loanwords. Scholars preferred to write in Chinese rather than in native Korean script. [Source: Library of Congress]

The influence of Buddhism didn’t die out completely. According to the Asian Society: “Buddhism flourished until the Chosun dynasty (1392 – 1910), when Neo-Confucianism became the state ideology. Buddhism, however, remained a spiritual force in Korean society, and private devotional objects and works for monasteries and temples continued to be made throughout the centuries. Large-scale banner paintings, for example, were popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Buddhism was more widespread, in part because of the loosening of government prohibitions against it. The size and iconography of this painting suggest that it came from a worship hall of the highest level of sanctity, that is, one that enshrined an image of Shakyamuni Buddha. “

On an exhibition called the “Art of the Korean Renaissance: 1400-1600” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “Change was the essence of the Chosun dynasty, which was founded in 1392, around the time the Renaissance began in Europe, and lasted for more than five centuries. Chosun means “fresh dawn,” and the dynasty perceived itself as a broom sweeping the country clean of tired old ways, which in its early phase it did. The end of the 14th century was a heady time in East Asia. In 1368 China finally rid itself of Mongol occupiers and established the Ming dynasty. In the process it revived neglected art traditions and asserted neo-Confucian thinking, with its concepts of philosopher-kings, government by scholar-officials and a code of ethics based on loyalty to state, community and family. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

“Three decades later a similar shift happened in Korea. An old governing aristocracy was pushed aside to make way for a state-trained bureaucratic elite known collectively as yangban. Institutional Buddhism, a political and spiritual force for the better part of a millennium, was officially suppressed in favor of Confucian secularism. As in China, traditional art forms were revived and revamped to convey new meaning.

“But history is rarely cut and dried. As often as not, it’s a story of coexistence, not replacement; of retreat, not defeat. So it was in Korea. Buddhism didn’t go away. Like a pilot light on a stove, it may have been hard to see, but it kept burning, its flame sustained primarily by the ruling elite that had banned it. And it is Buddhist art of the early Chosun that gives the exhibition its flashes of color and spectacle. A large hanging scroll painting of the Healing Buddha, his skin gold, his robes purple, his throne wreathed by a tangle of celestial bodyguards, is especially magnetic. It looks both old and new. Prototypes for it go back centuries in China and Korea, but details of the Buddha’s persimmon-shaped face — the tiny slit eyes, the beanlike mouth — blend Chosun and Ming styles, making the painting very much of its 16th-century time. It was of its time too in being both illegal and a royal commission, paid for by an avidly Buddhist dowager queen whose son was a neo-Confucian king.”

The exhibition itself is small and made up of small things, “with four dozen objects. Most of them — ceramic jars, lacquer boxes, scroll paintings — are compact enough to be stashed in a closet. What the show lacks in grandeur, though, it makes up in fineness, and in rarity. All of the art dates from a period of cultural efflorescence and innovation in Korea. Experimental art was on the boil; utopian ideas were in the air. Yet much of what was produced then was lost in the series of invasions and occupations that began at the end of the 16th century. For practical reasons the Chosun court declared fealty to the Qing... At the same time Korean artists and scholars pondered, more intently than before, the lineaments of Korean culture — what it was, had been, could be — and turned their hands to advancing a national art.”

Book Art and Folk Painting in the Chosun

One uniquely Korean style of painting that developed during this period was found in the usually anonymous folk-paintings (minhwa), which depicted the daily life of the common people and used genuine Korean rather than idealized or Chinese settings. Other folk paintings had shamanistic themes and frequently depicted hermits and mountain deities.

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “An industry of books in Hangul flourished. In a beautiful painting of a Buddhist narrative in the show, lines of white-painted Hangul script trickle down like curtains of soft rain. The tale depicted seems to be one invented in Korea, and certain forms of art are specifically Korean in content or style too. One type of painting — there are three examples in the show — is the equivalent of a class-reunion photograph of government bureaucrats who had taken their rigorous civil-service exams in the same year. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

“In each picture the men, often elderly, attending the reunion are portrayed enjoying one another’s company in breezy pavilions, with their names, biographical updates and occasional sentiments (I’m still working hard, I miss so-and-so, old age is hell) written below in Chinese. Many identical paintings were made so that each scholar could carry home a souvenir.

Chosun Pottery

Chosun Dynasty pottery tended to be simpler and more rustic and had a great influence on the development of Japanese artistic appreciation from the late sixteenth century on. After the attempted Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s, Korean potters were taken back to Japan.

Korean pottery is typically divided into three groups: Cheongja (blue-green celadon), Buncheong (slip-coated stoneware), and Baekja (white porcelain). Korean celadon is marked by an attractive jade blue surface and the unique Korean inlay technique used to decorate it. Gangjin of Jeollanam-do and Buan of Jeollabuk-do were its two main producers during the Koryo Period (918-1392). White porcelain ware represents the ceramic art of the Chosun Period (1392-1910). While some of these porcelain wares display a milky white surface, many are decorated with a great variety of designs painted in oxidized iron, copper, or the priceless cobalt blue pigment imported from Persia via China. [Source: Korea.net]

The Royal Court of Chosun ran its own kilns in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, producing products of the very highest quality. The advanced techniques used in the production of white porcelain wares were introduced to Japan by Chosun potters kidnapped during the Imjin Waeran (Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598). Treasures from this era include White Porcelain Bottle with String Design in Underglaze Iron (Chosun, 16th century) and Buncheong Bottle with Lotus and Vine Design (Chosun, 15th century)

Buncheong Stoneware

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “The most distinctively Korean art forms were developed in ceramics, specifically in the stoneware now called buncheong. At the start of the Chosun era buncheong was the luxury ware favored by an elite clientele. Its novel refinements are evident in the show in a set of funerary dishes, replete with an inscribed memorial tablet, covered with feathery white crosshatch patterns stamped on a gray-brown background. On loan from the Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, South Korea, the set is, for obvious reasons, registered as a national treasure. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

“After a few decades court-controlled kilns began to turn out a rival product, an exquisite white porcelain that quickly became, in aristocratic circles, the thing to have. Buncheong, its prestige diminished, passed into the general market.

“Maybe because of its release from the restraints of class decorum, this stoneware became the fantastically zany art that it is. Based on squat everyday items like water flasks and baskets, buncheong forms tend to look squashed and bashed, their glazes slathered and spattered on, their surfaces dug-into and scarred with abstract scribbles like those in a Cy Twombly painting.

“Buncheong was a hit, but by the end of the 16th century it had more or less ceased production. A lot of art started to disappear. In 1592 a Japanese army attacked Korea and stayed to loot and pillage; Buncheong potters were shipped back to Japan to make tea-ceremony wares. Some 30 years later the Manchus invaded Korea for the first time on their way to conquering the Ming dynasty in China and setting up one of their own, the Qing.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.