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Now in the Korean Gallery: Of Salvation and Punishment

By Sooa McCormick, Associate Curator of Korean Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art

In the Buddhist view, death for an ordinary person is the beginning of a new cycle of rebirth; in contrast, one who attains enlightenment during his or her lifetime is no longer subject to rebirth. While being reincarnated as a human being is still considered karmic punishment, the concept of salvation and punishment simultaneously prevailed as Buddhism reached a wider audience in medieval East Asia.

Selected works now on view in the Korean gallery (236) — such as a hanging scroll that depicts Buddha Amitābha descending from the Western Paradise to welcome repentant souls and another that features the terrifying purgatory of the king of hell — highlight human beings’ universal concern with death and the world after death.

Sacred Mantra

Devotees of the Pure Land Buddhist school, for which the painting, Amita Triad, (above) was made, held the belief that if a person verbally intones the six syllables Namo Amituofo with the utmost sincerity, he or she can successfully visualize the apparition of Buddha Amitābha descending along with two celestial attendants. Those who sincerely recite this sacred mantra, successfully evoking Amitābha to visit their deathbed, are believed to be reborn in the Western Paradise.

This hanging scroll, which must have served as a visual aid for such ritual practice, is divided into two parts: the sacred words repeatedly written ten times in the upper half, and the descending Amitābha, Mahāsthāmaprāpta (the one with a white lotus), and Avalokiteśvara (the one with a lotus-shaped incense burner) in the lower half.

Severe Sentencing

The compelling depiction of the King of Five Courts, the king who governs the fourth hell, shows the dark side of human concern with the afterlife.

The tradition of worshipping ten kings and their infernal tribunals first developed in China during the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) and was introduced to Korea later. Many Korean temples dedicated a special hall for the ten infernal judges. During funerary rites, the family members of the deceased made offerings to them so that the deceased could avoid their severe verdicts. In this work, the king with bulging eyes is seated at the center, overseeing the execution of his verdict. In the foreground, sinners suffer in a giant cauldron filled with boiling water, and one is pierced by a guard’s burning spear.

“While being reincarnated as a human being is still considered karmic punishment, the concept of salvation and punishment simultaneously prevailed as Buddhism reached a wider audience in medieval East Asia.” — Sooa McCormick, Associate Curator of Korean Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Another theme underlining this rotation is international cultural exchanges and their contributions to transnational artistic vocabularies of East Asian Buddhist visual culture. As Buddhist teachings spread across political and cultural borders via trades, diplomatic missions, and human migration, so did the art.

Crossing Cultural Borders

A miniature gold-gilt statue that renders the image of Gwaneum, the bodhisattva of compassion placed at the center of the gallery, demonstrates how the Indian Gupta–period (about 320–540) sculpture style, which emphasized an idealized naturalism and a great sense of movement, captivated Korean artists during the Unified Silla dynasty (AD 668–935). A number of pioneering Korean monks who traveled to India must have brought their sketches that detailed colossal stone carved statues of Indian temples, or they brought small terracotta statues with them from India.

The Fourth King of Hell, introduced as an icon of a popularized Buddhist belief in the purgatorial afterlife, can serve as another excellent example that testifies to international trades between Southern Song–period China (1127–1279) and Goryeo-period Korea (935–1392). Readymade Buddhist paintings, created in professional workshops in the Chinese port city of Ningbo, became one of the popular souvenirs for Korean tourists and are believed to have been prototypes for this Korean scroll’s grotesque realism.

Such cross-cultural melding constitutes one of the fundamental languages of Buddhist visual culture yet simultaneously has become a stimulating challenge to modern art historians in determining “national” origin. The three hanging scrolls (in the south case) were once identified as Korean works but now have been reattributed as Chinese through a collaboration between overseas scholars and the CMA curators.

Catalysts for Cultural Understanding

As the art in this rotation demonstrates, the concept of salvation and punishment prevailed in medieval East Asia as Buddhism continued to reach more people. Through the selection of Korean Buddhist works on view in the gallery, I hope our visitors will not only come to understand the rich visual culture of Buddhism in Korea but also to appreciate fair and open international trade, diplomatic relationships, and human migration as stimulating catalysts that make any society and its art become more diverse and colorful.

Check out a series of images from the new installation below, and see these works in person NOW!

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