“Goryeo: The Glory of Korea,” a grand-scale exhibition organized by the National Museum of Korea, is the first comprehensive overview of the art of Goryeo, the unified medieval state that governed the Korean peninsula from 918 to 1392. The special exhibition, which opens on December 4, 2018 and runs until March 3, 2019, showcases some 450 artifacts from the collections of 45 institutions at home and abroad.
“Bronze Statue of Taejo Wang Geon” (detail). 10th–11th century. Height: 138.3 cm.
Excavated in 1992 from Hyonrung, a tomb complex in the Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong, the old capital of the Goryeo Dynasty, it is the only extant regal statue in Korea. The statue was found with only a jade belt as its original silk robe decomposed.
© Korean Central History Museum
From the outset, Goryeo respected diversity. It maintained multilateral diplomatic relations with neighboring states, and upheld openness and integration to such an extent that it appointed a foreigner as prime minister. As implied by modern Korea’s English name, meaning “the land of the Goryeo people,” the Korean identity germinated in this kingdom.
“Dry-Lacquered Wooden Statue of Huirang Daesa.” 10th century. Dry lacquer on wood. Height: 82 cm.
The image of Great Master Huirang (889–966), who was the patriarch of Haein Temple, is the only extant statue of a Buddhist monk carved in his lifetime. Treasure No. 999. © Haeinsa Seongbo Museum
However, a large swath of Goryeo’s five-century history is veiled in mystery. Today, a majority of South Koreans find it difficult to remember any of the kingdom’s place names or important relics. This is a phenomenon related to an unfortunate period in the country’s modern history, from Japanese colonial rule to the Korean War and the subsequent division of the nation. The ancient kingdom is quite obscure in the collective memory of South Koreans because they have no access to the remains of its capital, Gaegyeong (today’s Kaesong, also spelled Gaeseong), and most of the historic sites of political, religious, cultural and commercial importance, which are in North Korea.
In 919, the year after the founding of the kingdom, King Taejo (birth name Wang Geon) built a palace at the southern foot of Mt. Songak. Called Manwoldae (“Full Moon Terrace”), the palace was the main abode of Goryeo kings until 1361, when it was burned down during the invasion of the Red Turbans from China. A 1918 photograph, taken during the Japanese colonial government’s survey of Korea’s historic sites, shows the ancient palace in ruins. The year of the photograph marked the millennial anniversary of the kingdom’s founding, but Koreans, then living under Japanese rule, were unable to stage an official celebration. Consequently, the 1,100th anniversary in 2018 will be remembered as an especially meaningful occasion, coming 100 years after that lost opportunity.
To commemorate the anniversary, various exhibitions and academic conferences were held across the country throughout 2018, to shed new light on the history of Goryeo. The highlight may arguably be the special exhibition at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. It melds a substantial portion of Goryeo relics scattered around the world — in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan — as well as the two Koreas.
The highlight of this exhibition is expected to be the reunion of Wang Geon, the founder of Goryeo, and Great Master Huirang. The king from North Korea and his mentor in the South will likely meet in Seoul after 11 centuries of separation.
Goryeo did not reject the cultural traditions of the previous kingdoms;
it integrated them into its own culture with a pluralistic attitude.
Sometimes with intensity and sometimes with delicate elegance,
the art of Goryeo overwhelms the viewer.
The King and His Mentor
“Bronze Statue of Taejo Wang Geon,” unearthed from Hyonrung (“Hyeonneung” in South Korean Romanization), the tomb complex for the king and his primary consort Queen Sinhye, is the only extant regal statue in Korean history. The 138.3 cm bronze image is part of the Korean Central History Museum in Pyongyang. Sculpted to pray for national prosperity, the statue was temporarily housed in a Buddhist temple and worshipped with sacrificial rites. Later, it was buried in its outfit of a silk robe and a jade belt, but by the time it was excavated in 1992, the robe had decomposed, leaving only the naked statue and the jade belt. Hyonrung is part of the Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“Printing Block of Avatamsaka Sutra: Shouchang Era Edition.” 1098. Wood. 24 × 69.6 cm.
This is the oldest extant woodblock with a known date of production in Korea. It is part of the collection of ancient woodblocks kept at Haein Temple.
© Ha Ji-kwon
Known to be carved earlier than 930, on the other hand, the “Dry-Lacquered Wooden Statue of Huirang Daesa” from Haein Temple in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsong Province, is Korea’s only extant statue of a Buddhist monk carved in his lifetime. Noted for its realistic depiction of the monk’s human aspects, the statue is making the first trip since its enshrinement at the temple. The significance of exhibiting these precious relics together is underscored by the special relationship between the two figures. Great Master Huirang, who was a spiritual support to Wang Geon, helped him when he was in political trouble and served as the king’s mentor after Goryeo was established.
Since their creation, the statue of Goryeo’s founding monarch and that of the preeminent Buddhist monk have never been displayed together. Therefore, the reunion of the two historical figures as statues, if it is realized across the inter-Korean border, will be seen as a highly symbolic event.
No less remarkable are the woodblocks of the “Tripitaka Koreana,” inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Goryeo had a glorious history of printing, producing the world’s first metal types. Like Christian monks in medieval Europe, who copied the Bible by hand day after day, transcribing scriptures was also an important task for the Buddhist monks of Goryeo. The transition from the long tradition of hand-copying to printing amounted to a major paradigm shift in world history. Both in the East and the West, printing flourished in temples and monasteries where sacred texts were in great demand. The Gutenberg Bible is an icon of the revolution that opened the age of printed books in the cultural history of the West. Similarly, the “Tripitaka Koreana” is the quintessence of Buddhist scriptures and an innovative publication that compiled the wisdom and knowledge of contemporary Asia.
“Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha.” 14th century. Ink and color on silk. 104.3 × 55.6 cm.
The painting depicts Ksitigarbha who is believed to save denizens of hell. It follows the standard composition of Goryeo’s Buddhist paintings with the imposing presence of the main Buddha at the top and various figures arranged along the bottom. Treasure No. 784.
© Leeum, Samsumg Museum of Art
Metal Types and Woodblocks
China’s “Kaibao Tripitaka,” carved between 971 and 983 under the auspices of the first Song emperor Taizu as a project to establish the legitimacy of the empire, was almost completely destroyed by fire. In contrast, Goryeo had the Buddhist canon published three times in national projects. The first edition of the “Tripitaka Koreana,” the world’s second-earliest carving of the canon next to the “Kaibao Tripitaka,” was produced during a national crisis in 1011, when the Khitan invaded Goryeo and seized its capital. After the war, the northern invaders produced the “Khitan Tripitaka,” inspired by the Goryeo canon.
Tripitaka was undertaken based on the original version, the Kaibao version and the Khitan version. The outcome were some 160,000 pages of the canon carved on both sides of some 80,000 woodblocks, which is why its Korean name is Palman Daejanggyeong (“Eighty-Thousand Tripitaka”). Preserved for 700 years at Haein Temple, the “Tripitaka Koreana” is a comprehensive compilation of East Asian Buddhist literature and the most complete set of the extant printing blocks of the Tripitaka.
According to Professor Robert Buswell Jr., a renowned U.S. Buddhist studies scholar, the closest comparison to the enormous commitment that was required to produce the Tripitaka in medieval East Asia are the U.S. missions to the moon in the 1960s. In Goryeo, the publication of the canon was a grand-scale project that demanded an all-out effort. Mass production of scriptures and their distribution to temples across the kingdom was an important means of reinforcing royal authority and integrating the nation. Internationally, the kingdom boasted of its cultural superiority and seized the diplomatic initiative by presenting the printed scriptures to neighboring countries. Historical literature recording the process of countries requesting the Tripitaka and Goryeo bestowing the scriptures on them as well as their futile attempts to obtain the woodblocks demonstrates the power Goryeo wielded in international relations by means of the “Tripitaka Koreana.”
Inclusion and Integration
Running for three months, the exhibition is divided into three themes. Part 1, “International City Gaegyeong and the Royal Collection,” surveys the kingdom’s active seaborne trade and abundant local products. Goryeo’s capital was an international city frequented by an array of foreigners. In 1123, during the reign of King Injong, a delegation of over 200 envoys was sent by Emperor Huizong of the Chinese Song Dynasty. Xu Jing (1091–1153), a Confucian scholar and member of the delegation, described his one-month stay in Goryeo in his “Illustrated Record of Chinese Emissary to Goryo during the Xuanhe Era” (Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing). Xu submitted the book to the emperor with detailed descriptions and illustrations of the customs and culture that he observed in the capital city. However, the illustrations were lost in war when the Jin Dynasty destroyed the Northern Song a few years later, and only the text has been handed down. Visitors stepping foot in this part of the exhibition will time travel to Gaegyeong, the heart of Goryeo that they cannot visit today.
Part 2, “Temple Art,” introduces artworks for Buddhist temples, which were major consumers of art along with the royal court. Buddhism was Goryeo’s state religion and philosophy, as well as the center of life and spirituality, or life itself. The kingdom derived its brilliant cultural achievements from Buddhism. No other state before or after Goryeo appreciated and promoted Buddhist philosophy and values more thoroughly.
Finally, Part 3 shows the “Arts and Crafts of Goryeo.” Goryeo was capable of independent existence, but for over 200 years, it also made sure to maintain diplomatic relations and cultural exchanges with the changing dynasties of China, including the Song in mainland China as well as the Liao of the Khitan and the Jin of the Jurchen in the northern region. During late Goryeo, China was ruled by the Yuan Dynasty, which constructed the largest empire the world had ever seen up to that time. Throughout the period, the circumstances surrounding the kingdom constantly changed and numerous wars erupted in the process. Ironically, however, the roads of warring armies also served as the routes for cultural interactions. Consequently, in this age of turmoil, Goryeo’s superb artworks and handicrafts were created and circulated widely through the exchange of skills and integration of heterogeneous elements.
Recordings of these transactions in historical literature are fragmentary. However, the extant artworks vividly show that Goryeo engaged in cultural exchanges with various kingdoms of China and Japan. Focusing on this international quality, this exhibition presents Goryeo’s artworks in a way that illustrates its distintive cultural achievements in relation to other East Asian countries.
“Gilt Silver Ewer and Bowl.” 12th century. Gilt silver. Height (overall): 34.3 cm; Diameter: 9.5 cm (ewer base), 18.8 cm (bowl top), 14.5 (bowl base).
The exquisite kettle with the lid decorated with sumptuous lotus flowers and a phoenix and its matching bowl demonstrate the level of artistry achieved by Goryeo’s metal craftsmen. It shows that celadon and metal ware of Goryeo had many similarities in terms of form and decoration. © Museum of Fine Arts Boston
“Celadon Incense Burner with Openwork Geometric Design.” 12th century. Height: 15.3 cm; Base diameter: 11.5 cm.
A masterpiece of Goryeo celadon before the development of the inlay technique, the incense burner consists of three parts: the openwork lid, the body and the base. The elaborateness of decorations is balanced by the overall shape with pleasing proportions. National Treasure No. 95. © National Museum of Korea
Rediscovery of Immutable Worth
Goryeo did not reject the cultural traditions of the previous kingdoms; it integrated them into its own culture with a pluralistic attitude. The Goryeo people captured human emotions and sensibilities, and expressed them in distinguished works of art through their ingenious use of colors, materials and techniques. Sometimes with intensity and sometimes with delicate elegance, the art of Goryeo overwhelms the viewer. In this exhibition, visitors will rediscover the forgotten Kingdom and the timelessness of its art.