BOOK REVIEW: Silla, Korea’s Golden Kingdom

100313_specex_glamReview by Jonathan Ciliberto

Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom
by Soyoung Lee and Denise Patry Leidy; With contributions by Juhyung Rhi, Insook Lee, Ham Soon-seop, Yoon Sang-deok, Yoon Onshik, and Her Hyeong Uk

Nov 26, 2013
240 p., 8 x 10
205 color + 16 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300197020

This major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum until February 23, 2014, presents objects primarily from the 4th to 8th centuries, when the small Silla kingdom flourished on the Korean peninsula. Broadly, it fits into a larger trend in Asian art history of recognizing the place of Korea in the transmission and development of visual culture.

The Silla kingdom was remarkably long-lived, from 57 B.C. until 935 A.D., and was known as “The Golden Kingdom”. Its association with gold and silver was recognized as far off as Europe: the Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq al-āfāq (“the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands”), a description of the world created by the Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, in 1154 for King Roger II of Sicily, notes that in Silla: “even the dog’s leash and the monkey’s collar are made of gold”. Much of the Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom has gold’s luster, in  bowls, jewelry, crowns, ornaments, belts and sculpture fashioned from the precious metal.

silla1The majority of the exhibition is not directly concerned with Buddhist art. During the time period considered, Buddhism was a relative newcomer, and both local and Central Asian influences are more prominently represented. However, Buddhism’s influence was eventually thorough.

Silla officially sanctioned Buddhism in 527, “completely transform[ing] Silla society and culture, spurring both changes in burial customs and the creation of new artistic traditions.” A single, long essay in the catalog is devoted to Buddhist art, with mention of the transforming action of Buddhism upon  Silla and its culture appearing in the other essays. Placed in historical context, however, this transformation is striking, and the sites and objects presented are powerful statements of the changes Buddhism  wrought on Korea. From a kingdom whose culture reflected local qualities and Central Asian influences, Silla became another East Asian power under strong Buddhist influence, from the myriad temples and monasteries founded during the period considered, to the influence of Buddhist thought on its political life.

As with other cultures into which Buddhism was introduced, Korea had a range of existing ideas about spirituality. Since most of the archaeological evidence comes from tombs, objects related to death and the afterlife dominate the exhibition. The extensive use of gold by early kings, and their emphasis on attributes associated with war (e.g., horsemanship), is gradually replaced by the use of gold to create Buddhist art, and the redefinition of kingliness “as secular-religious leaders [who sponsored] Buddhist activities, such as the construction of temples.”

This transition, however, is evident in the catalog’s objects as well as by reference to the cultural setting that preceded the period considered. Many of the objects in the catalog derive from mound tombs. The 5th and 6th century Silla tombs’ structure “can be traced ultimately to steppes traditions,” and this connection between the Korean kingdom and Central Asia is evident too in Silla aesthetics. The mound tombs of Scythians, Huns, and other nomadic peoples, contain crowns and headdresses sufficiently similar to those found in Silla tombs to posit a direct connection between the two regions. This is not surprising: the Korean peninsula stands at the end of a very long road, stretching from Europe and the Roman Empire, across the Silk Roads and Asia to terminate at the Pacific Ocean. Sea trade also brought distant objects to Korea, and excavations of Silla tombs have revealed  glass vessels from Syria and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the often fractious relations between Korean and her Eastern neighbor, Japan, are contrasted with evidence of substantial trade between Silla and Japan in late 5th and early 6th centuries.

The international network of trade and communication that helped create the rich culture of Silla is one of the catalog and exhibition’s main themes. One instance of this trade is the rhyton, the horn shaped drinking vessel which has its source in the Mediterranean of the second millennium BC, and transmitted via the Silk Road to Korea by the 7th century AD. Several examples in various materials are included in the catalog. Also found in 4th and 5th tombs are numerous examples of Roman glass. One such bowl, translucent glass decorated with glass beads, is linked to an 8th century wall painting from the silk Road site Dunhuang, in which a bodhisattva is depicted holding a similarly designed object.

One marvelous story describes how, in the 6th century, a foreign boat (said to have sailed to many countries, over hundreds of years) arrived, bearing a large amount of bronze and gold, as well as a letter describing how King Asoka, of India, had attempted to cast a large Buddha, but failed. The letter indicated Askoa’s wish to accomplish this “in a land of favorable conditions.” This casting apparently refers to the central image at Hwangnyongsa Temple, built in the middle of the 6th century and “one of the largest Buddhist temples in contemporary East Asia.” The story lends prestige to Silla’s early Buddhist kings by references to Asoka (who reigned in the 3rd century B.C. and is a figure closely associated with the origins of Buddhist art) and to an international recognition of the high level of skill possessed by Korean metal workers.

silla3The intertwining of Central Asian and Buddhist elements is present in Buddhist tombs, around which relief panels carved with the twelve zodiac figures were placed. The most famous, and spectacular, example of this is the well-known cave-temple of Seokguram.

The catalog includes sculptures that represent several key styles, and iconographic elements, from Buddhist art of the period. The wonderful, small gilt bronze Buddhas with attendant bodhisattvas from the 6th century derive from Northern Qi styles, and were transmitted from Korea to Japan. These figures feature open, smiling faces; large, flaming mandorlas, and heavy drapery. A second significant  sculptural form considered is the seated figure of Maitreya, in the so-called ‘pensive pose’ (also referred to as ‘royal ease’): with right foot pendant on left knee, and right hand touching the cheek. Two examples of this thin-limbed, fluid sculptural form are included. This pensive pose is tied directly to Northern Qi aesthetics, as well as to its politics, in the volume’s useful essay on Buddhist art, by Denise Patry Leidy, curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

silla4This is a marvelous, and much-needed, exhibition illustrating the place of Silla as a repository and pivot-point for traditions of visual culture. The Buddhist art included is of the highest quality, representing the wide range of influences and techniques present in Silla from the 4th through the 8th centuries.

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