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The King and His Hell: Exploring the CMA’s Recently Acquired 14th-Century Korean Buddhist Scroll

By Sooa McCormick, Associate Curator of Korean Art

The Fourth King of Hell, late 1300s. Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold ink on silk; image: 63 x 45.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art

The Fourth King of Hell, which the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired in late 2019, is from the only complete surviving suite of Korean scrolls that depict the ten kings of hell. Further, it is among 160 exceedingly rare pieces dated to the Korean Goryeo period (918–1392). Sooa McCormick, associate curator of Korean art, who worked more than two years on the successful acquisition of this scroll, plans to organize a special exhibition that reunites all ten awe-inspiring scrolls along with other masterpieces from the Goryeo period. In the essay below, McCormick explains more about this stunningly rare artwork.

The practice of worshiping the ten kings of hell along with their accompanying visual representation first developed in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907). Soon after the practice was introduced to Korea and flourished during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) as an important component of Buddhist rituals, particularly as a blessing for deceased family members’ journey to the afterlife.

Throughout a 49-day mourning period, family members of the deceased made offerings to each of the ten kings of hell at proper intervals in order to ensure that the deceased could escape severe judicial torture and earn a pardon. Spirits whose families failed to make proper offerings were left to endure the worst tribunals and pay fully for past sins in their next lives. It seems that Buddhist temples affiliated with the Goryeo royal house were at the heart of the practice of worshipping the ten kings of hell. In the official report of his visit to Korea in 1123, the Chinese envoy Xu Jing (1091–1153) testified that a special hall in a Buddhist monastery affiliated with the royal family housed a painting of Ksitigarbha, the Bodhisattva of Savior, along with the ten kings of hell.

The Fourth King of Hell scroll was originally part of a set of 10 hanging scrolls. The entire set belonged to a Japanese temple named Hōshō-in as late as 1961, and at some point was sold to Mr. Harry G. C. Packard (1914–1991), a renowned dealer and collector of Japanese art. After Mr. Packard’s death in 1991, the set was sold at Christie’s in 1992 and was separated and dispersed into various collections including the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Denver Art Museum, the National Museum of Korea, the CMA, and others.

Left: The Fourth King of Hell, late 1300s. Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold ink on silk; image: 63 x 45.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art; Right: Chin’gwang Wang, First of the Ten Kings of Hell, late 1300s. Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold pigment on silk; image: 61.5 x 45 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Nathan V. Hammer, 1974.77. © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Each hell depicts distinctive gruesome tortures. In the fourth hell, the governing king sits behind a desk, staring impassively at the sinners suffering in a giant cauldron filled with boiling oil, constantly pierced by a beastly guard’s burning spear. Other scrolls, such as the one at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, show sinners attacked by vicious snakes and hawks, and in another in the collection of the National Museum of Korea, a sinner is forced to witness his own past sins — possibly abusive behavior toward animals through what is called a karma mirror.

Painting of Yeomna, the Fifth King of Hell, late 1300s. Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold ink on silk; image: 62 x 45.2 cm. National Museum of Korea, Gu 7479. Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Regarding the visual language that constructed the Goryeo period’s ten kings of hell, some scholars have proposed that ready-made Buddhist paintings created in professional ateliers in the port city of Ningbo in China might have served as prototypes for the iconography and style of this Korean scroll.

Left: The Fourth King of Hell (detail), late 1300s. Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold ink on silk; image: 63 x 45.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art; Right: Painting of Pyeongdeung, the Eighth King of Hell (detail), late 1300s. Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold ink on silk; image: 61.2 x 45 cm. National Museum of Korea, Gu 7480. Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea.

Although the iconography of the ten kings of hell scrolls may have been directly inspired by Chinese Ningbo products, the high degree of sophistication in the composition; subtlety of brush strokes and use of colors; design motifs such as the continuous scrolling vine, chrysanthemum blooms, and flower roundels; and generously applied gold highlights all reveal that the set is a uniquely Korean, rare surviving product of the royal painting workshop of the Goryeo dynasty.

Sooa McCormick, associate curator of Korean art, who worked more than two years on the successful acquisition of this scroll, plans to organize a special exhibition that reunites all ten awe-inspiring scrolls along with other masterpieces from the Goryeo period. Visit the CMA’s collection online to explore the museum’s collection of Korean art, and stop by the CMA to see works in person. The collection of Korean art rotates its light-sensitive works every six months and has a permanent display of celadon works.

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