Goryeo Buddhist Paintings: A Closer Look

head and shoulders of a round faced figure wearing an elaborate headdress with a pale gold halo
  • Dates

    February 25, 2012 to May 28, 2012

  • Location

    Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

  • Collection Area

    Korean Art

Inspired by subjects and compositions originating in China, religious icons of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) illustrate a distinctly Korean achievement that was not duplicated elsewhere in East Asia.

Buddhism was introduced to the Korean peninsula by Chinese monks in the late fourth century CE. Within two hundred years, the faith was flourishing under court patronage that lasted nearly a millennium. The three paintings featured in this exhibition were created during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, toward the end of this long era of royal support. Not made for grand temple halls, in which monumental murals were painted directly on the walls, these detailed images were intended for closer viewing in more intimate settings.

All of the icons in this show promise salvation, release from the karmic cycle, and rebirth in a Buddhist heaven, or “Pure Land.” Modern scholars believe that these images were produced both to aid private meditation and to symbolically guide mortal souls to paradise at death. For both functions, the works would have been displayed in close proximity to the believer.

The paintings’ visual appeal results from precise draughtsmanship, saturated mineral pigments, extensive use of gold, and detailed designs representing woven textile patterns. The painters added depth by simulating transparency and translucency, both by adjusting color values—as seen on Kshitigarbha’s “wish-granting jewel” and Avalokiteshvara’s crystal beads— and superimposing gauzy fabrics executed with fine networks of thin white lines. To model surfaces and make them appear more three-dimensional, the artists experimented with applying pigment to both sides of the silk surface, allowing the viewer’s eye to blend the colors and visualize more rounded forms.

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