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The other major exhibit I was very glad to catch this winter at the Metropolitan Museum is one entitled “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” featuring artifacts from the Korean kingdom of Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE), including a number of National Treasures.

The exhibit, located in a special gallery I don’t think I knew existed, off of the Greco-Roman galleries, begins with this expansive video screen, providing a beautiful view of the Hwangnam Daechong tomb mounds, in Gyeongju, a nod to the idea that you’re actually visiting this sunny, green, public park and entering into the tomb mounds yourself. This was surely expensive, and is only there for spectacle and atmosphere, but boy does it succeed in making the exhibit look/feel top-notch and cutting edge. I also appreciated, snarkily, how all the video screens in the exhibit were not only provided by Samsung, but included brief blurbs on the gallery labels explaining why Samsung’s technology is so amazing. You’d think you were at an industry show, or living inside a commercial or something. “Samsung’s newest such-and-such monitor includes the latest in swiveling, anti-glare, and touchscreen technology, making it the ideal device for any museum exhibition.” You can almost imagine the “wink” and plastic customer service smile at the end of it. Haha.

Tumuli Park (Daereungwon) in Gyeongju. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, back to the artifacts. The exhibit begins with a brief explanation of the chronology and geography of the kingdom, and a short video clip showing how the tomb mounds were constructed. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the early 6th century, Silla’s royal tombs tended to be made of wooden caskets in above-ground wooden chambers, covered over in earth and stones, creating a mound with no direct passageway or entrance. Various grave goods, including pottery, objects in gold, and even glass imported from as far away as Rome (via the Silk Road), were incorporated into the mounds, meaning (I gather) that as one excavates, it’s not a matter of simply digging down to the burial chamber and finding things laid there, but, rather, that these goods are mixed right in with the earth and stones that form the mound. I don’t know enough about the details of kofun in Japan to draw a comparison, so I’ll have to leave that alone…

Right: National Treasure 191, Queen’s crown and belt from Hwangnam Daechong. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Most of the objects on display in the first portion of the exhibit were these sorts of grave goods, including some heavy, and extremely finely detailed & elaborate golden earrings, with huge, thick rings, and then finely intertwined and filigreed elements dangling from the rings. Perhaps most interesting for me was the queen’s golden crown and belt, each with pendants, altogether sporting tens of jade gogok, or magatama as they’re called in Japanese. My friend who studies shamanism in Japan could surely speak more informedly to this, but throughout the region (Korea, Japan, Ryukyu, though I’m not sure if anywhere else), this particular shape of bead, like a comma, or half a yin-yang, is traditionally, especially in more ancient times, a major spiritual item. One such stone, the Yasakani no Magatama, supposedly housed at the Tokyo Imperial Palace, is one of the Three Imperial Regalia of Japan – that is, one of the three most sacred artifacts associated with the legitimacy of Imperial rule. In Ryukyu, large magatama were the central pendant item on necklaces worn by priestesses and queens, and I gather from this exhibit that similar practices & beliefs were current in Silla as well. Having seen smaller magatama before, of a much more typical size for necklace pendants today (half an inch? just a very rough guess), though I can’t quite remember where, I was surprised at how large some of the gogok were in this exhibit. Those hanging from the queen’s crown were mostly of that smaller size, but the ones on the necklaces were serious hunks of stone, maybe half the size of a fist. I’ve seen pictures of similar crowns, one of the most classic or standard canonical examples of Korean style of that time, and of the similarities between Korean and Japanese styles especially of Japan’s kofun period. So, it was really nice to get to see such an object, and especially one in such excellent, almost complete, restored(?) or conserved condition, in person.

Once Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China, burial practices shifted to more closely emulating the Chinese mode. The tomb mounds became a thing of the past, and burials became much smaller, centered around stone caskets, in stone chambers, with definitive entrance passages, and “spirit paths,” rows of pillars, stelae, or sculptures leading up to the entrance on the exterior. Cremation rather than bodily burial became more common, and ceramic figures of servants, horses, mansions, boats, and the like, included directly in the burial chamber, much as in the Chinese fashion, became common. The exhibit includes a number of these figurines, as well as a few stone sculptures from “spirit paths.” The Chinese zodiac may have been introduced at this time as well, and it’s believed that it was relatively standard to have sculptures of each of the twelve zodiac animals (rat, cow, tiger, snake, monkey, dog, etc.) arranged along a tomb’s spirit path.

Korean National Treasure #83. Maitreya (K: Mireuk), c. 6th-7th century, bronze. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Moving forward, much of the rest of the exhibit consisted of Buddhist artifacts. The true highlight of the exhibit comes at this point. Situated in its own dedicated alcove, I feel so genuinely privileged to have gotten to see, in person, Korean National Treasure Number 83. A gilt bronze sculpture of Mireuk (Maitreya, J: Miroku) dating to roughly the 6th or 7th century, and roughly three feet in height, it sits in the pensive pose, with one hand up to its cheek, and one leg crossed over. An extremely similar sculpture, likely also originally from Korea, and today housed at the temple of Kôryû-ji in Kyoto, was (I believe) the first object designated a National Treasure of Japan. I do not know if I will ever get to see that sculpture, but to see this one is by no means second best.

I do not know whether it’s simply the fame, or something inherent in the sculpture, aesthetically or otherwise, but I found it truly breathtaking. My heart jumped as I gazed upon it, and I felt like I wanted to look at it, examine it, appreciate it, forever. I didn’t want to leave. I think part of the reason it had such impact was because I was surprised by its size, expecting for some reason for it to be closer to handheld in size – something so valued for its age but not for its size – when in fact it is a rather respectable size for a sculpture. I’m not myself Buddhist, but something in the design or aesthetic of the object, from the gentle curves of the bodhisattva’s body, to its gentle gaze through tiny slits of eyes, made me feel such a sense of calm, benevolence, and beauty. The following day, I was privileged to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection (up through Jan 19), but this did not provoke in me any special response at all. Intellectually, of course, I’m glad to check it off my list of famous paintings to be able to say I’ve seen, but, sadly, for whatever reason, the actual experience of seeing it felt like nothing special. It looks just like it does on the Internet. I was fortunate, too, to see many National Treasures and other stunning, beautiful, and incredibly historical significant objects this past summer in Japan, and eagerly look forward to doing so again.

The exhibition closes with a video showing the Seokguram Buddhist grotto, an incredible cave temple built in stone in the 8th century, and also counted among Korea’s National Treasures. A large stone Buddha is surrounded on all sides by stone slabs, which form the circular walls, floor, entrance corridor, and domed roof of the grotto, all of which where then covered over in earth to form a natural-looking cave. In the late 20th century, a wooden temple building was built before the cave entrance, expanding, or enhancing, the site. Though this grotto, clearly, cannot be removed from its location and brought into the museum, in the final room of the exhibit, they show a cast iron Buddha statue, all alone in that final room, evoking the idea, or the feeling, of the cave temple.

Between this exhibit, the one I saw at the Asian Art Museum a few weeks ago, and the comicbook/manghwa anthology Korea: As Viewed by 12 Creators, I am really eager to visit Korea… though I cannot imagine when that might come to pass.

Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom is on display at the Metropolitan Museum through Feb 23, 2014.

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