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Korea in Focus: Buddhist Paintings, Patrons, and Rituals in the Late Joseon Period

February 16, 2021
1918-541

Assembly of Buddhist Deities (detail), 1846. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Handscroll; ink and color on silk; overall: 78 x 216 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Director’s Contingent Fund, 1918.541

By Ghichul Jung, PhD
Director, Sustainable Korean Culture Institute

Published February 16, 2021

The Buddhist paintings of the Joseon period in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art are mostly dated to the 1800s. They are excellent examples that feature significant stylistic and iconographic changes that occurred in the late Joseon period (1600s–1800s).

Changes in Materials, Patronage, and Style

Buddhist paintings of the late Joseon period give us a clear and distinct impression, because artists used bright complementary colors such as vermilion and green, directly applying them to the recto side. This effect is partly associated with the fact that hemp replaced silk as the most common painting surface in the late Joseon. As a painting surface, silk allows natural pigments applied on the verso to be seen through the front, achieving the delicacy of colorful hues that features the signature visual effect of Goryeo Buddhist paintings. Hemp, however, is not appropriate for such a technique because it is thick and coarse.1

The prevalence of hemp as a painting surface during the late Joseon period is directly related to its price and availability; it was cheaper and more accessible than silk. This indicates that there was a significant change in patronage in late Joseon Buddhism. Toward the 1600s, Buddhist clerics found it increasingly hard to secure great sponsors from the members of ruling-class elites, who once were major patrons of Buddhist art and architecture. Instead, socioeconomic minorities ranging from women and bond servants to monks, nuns, and commoners came to the fore as new patrons. In this milieu, hemp was chosen as the material that the new patrons could readily afford.

During the shift in material and patronage in the late Joseon period, various changes occurred in the size, format, and composition of Buddhist paintings. Large paintings, which often measure more than 10 meters high, were executed on hemp. Rather than fixed mural paintings, detachable and portable altar paintings formatted in hanging scrolls or screen panels started to furnish Buddha halls. And the altar painting, increased in size, is featured as a peculiar late Joseon composition in which the main icon in a frontal posture is encircled by a considerable number of attendants and guardian deities, creating a tightly packed composition.2

With those stylistic changes, the impending liturgical needs from newly recruited patrons and the extensive transformation of the monastic community in subsequent periods ultimately contribute to the distinctive formation of the late Joseon Buddhist painting.

Art in the Water-Land Rite

The 1600s in Korea was an era plagued with both man-made and natural calamities: the century started with the devastating and horrendous aftermath of the war against Japan (1592–98); all efforts for a three-decade recovery were bitterly smashed by a crushing defeat in the war against the Manchu invaders (1636–37); and unusual climate disasters such as cold waves, droughts, and flooding frequently occurred during the second half of the century. Buddhist clerics felt an urgent need to give religious solace to countless souls who unfortunately encountered death, while promising good health and long life to survivors. Indeed, the large-scale, outdoor Buddhist mortuary ritual called the Water-Land Rite (수륙재) grew in popularity over the 1600s.

The water-land rite is the wholesale deliverance ritual intended for the salvation of solitary souls and hungry ghosts—all the souls of the unfortunate dead on earth—who persist in wandering on land and water. As a special ritual in which huge merits would be generated and distributed to participants—a key factor attracting a large number of devotees—the water-land rite is “very large, very long, and very expensive.”3 During this ceremony, various ritual paraphernalia including many paintings, icons, banners, and tablets were enshrined in the altar space. The ritual space consists of the primary (upper, middle, and lower) altars and additional altars arranged in a manner reflecting their hierarchy in the Buddhist pantheon. And the altars were laid out in the courtyards of the monastery compound.

Such outdoor ritual performance, which involves a large audience, created a special condition of artistic production and reception fundamentally different from the indoor ceremony, the manner conducted in the early Joseon period. This necessitated clear and distinctive icons painted on as big a surface as possible, and of choosing a painting surface as cheap and readily attainable as possible for small donors. Moreover, those paintings would have been stored for reuse once the water-land rite was finished. Thus, it would also have been necessary for them to be executed in a format easy to carry and store. The most relevant example in this regard is the large hanging scroll type of painting called gwaebul (괘불, literally, the Buddha hanging in the sky)—arguably the most characteristic Buddhist painting of the late Joseon period—which would be installed in the courtyard before the hall to represent the Buddhist saints invited to the upper altar, and, after the rite, kept in a rolled state within the hall.

The Thatāgata Buddha (1918.542) may have been used in outdoor Buddhist rituals. Done in bright colors with a clear outline, measuring more than two meters high and executed on paper, this painting may have served as a banner, once installed in the courtyard where the middle altar was laid out during the water-land rite. The Buddha, with his hand gesture (close to the “low class–low life” mudrā), can be identified as Amitâbha, a member of the Seven Thatāgata Buddhas, each of whom can bring all kinds of worldly benefits, Buddhist teachings, and ultimately rebirth into paradise for the invited souls. Thanks to their powerful efficacy, the Seven Thatāgata Buddhas became dominant in the late 1700s, replacing the previously favored Five Thatāgata Buddhas, to which Amitâbha did not belong.

Art in Branch Temples

By the latter part of the 1700s and onward, an important monastic culture developed and came to feature Korean Buddhist art. Monastic communities became extensively and actively reorganized into a number of branches derived from the supposedly orthodox lineage of Seon Buddhism (Chan in China, Zen in Japan). By the 1800s, many branch temples and hermitages (암자)—a kind of hereditary temple—were built near their parent monasteries. The monastic members of parent and branch temples formed a pseudo kinship relationship, yet each had their own lay congregation and financial source and conducted its own independent ritual and devotional programs. This change in monastic communities considerably affected the devotional practices and the manner of production and reception of Buddhist icons, creating the peculiar features of 19th-century Buddhist paintings.4

For example, Buddhist paintings with a horizontal scale must have been hung on the altar under the low ceiling hall of a branch temple or hermitage. Popular Buddhist deities known for their powerful efficacy across different Buddhist schools were ecumenically painted together on a single picture plane. Furthermore, various deities from folk beliefs such as the mountain deity and the kitchen fireplace deity, and astral deities and immortals from Daoism, came to be integrated into the late Joseon Buddhist pantheon and, accordingly, into Buddhist paintings.

The Assembly of Buddhist Deities (1918.541) dated to 1846 and painted on silk, for example, might have been hung on the altar of a branch temple or hermitage in the 1800s. This painting demonstrates a horizontally long composition and the ecumenical integration of devotional objects. The inscription, even though partly erased, tells us that the location of the painting might be related to the monks’ hall, which must be a type of residential hall with a low ceiling.

The central figure can be identified as Śākyamuni Buddha from his earth-touching gesture and the surrounding disciples including Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa. Among the four attendants, however, the two bodhisattvas right next to the Buddha are identified as Avalokitêśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta, who are the two canonical attendants of the Amitâbha Buddha. The Śākyamuni Buddha’s attendants, Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra, are located at the outermost sides. Given that Śākyamuni was regarded as the apical ancestor by the Seon or Meditation masters in the late Joseon, this painting shows how the cult of the Pure Land was integrated within the doctrinal and ritual framework of Seon Buddhism.

The Assembly of Tejaprabhā Buddha (1998.120) is an excellent example of the syncretic iconography of Buddhist and Daoist art much popularized toward the late Joseon period. Seated at the center of the painting, the deified North Star, Tejaprabhā Buddha (literally meaning Effulgent Buddha) was known for his special efficacy to crush all kinds of calamities through blazing light emanating from his body. With two attendant bodhisattvas, Sunlight and Moonlight, both in reverence posture, the central Effulgent Buddha is flanked by the Seven Buddhas, the deified Seven Stars of the Great Dipper. Below the Seven Buddhas stand the Daoist counterparts, the Seven Prime Astral Deities. Even Tejaprabhā Buddha and his two accompanying bodhisattvas have their own Daoist counterparts here. This syncretic iconography marks a typical composition of the Seven Star painting established in the 1800s. In this painting, both the Seven Buddhas and the Seven Primes appear as the central deities of the popular worship, which aims to extend a devotee’s life.

The inscription placed at the bottom center of the painting not only reveals that the painting was produced in 1878 to be enshrined at the royal votive temple for King Gyeongjong (1688–1724, r. 1720–24), but also unveils that its patrons were women, particularly court ladies who had their own dharma names. In late Joseon, a dharma name was granted to laypeople by the ordination of bodhisattva precepts. This shows that court ladies were more than simple Buddhist devotees; rather, they were ardent patrons who supported the production of Buddhist art. The use of gold also indicates that the sponsors came from the royal court.

Finally, the Portrait of the Great Master Yeongwoldang Eungjin (1990.16) is a ritual icon used for the funeral ceremony and then memorial services for the Buddhist master Eungjin. From the inscription character hwi (), applied only to call the name of the deceased, one can surmise that the portrait was executed after the monk’s death. The portrait subject, seated on the floor with an exquisite fly whisk in his left hand, is presented in a three-quarter view. On a tiny desk are a set of ink stone and brush and some books.

The monk Eungjin was a disciple of Powol Chomin (포월 초민), who was a disciple of Hwanseon Jian (환성 지안, 1664–1729), the Seon master who was very famous for his lecture on the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. Under the rubric of the Chomin lineage, Eungjin and his disciples had settled down for many generations at Bongjeong Monastery (봉정사) in Andong, Korea. Indeed, another portrait of Eungjin, dated to 1766 and probably executed just after his death, is still enshrined at the monastery. The presence of two portraits at least suggests that there occurred a bifurcation of his disciples and a development into separate memorial services. This shows an aspect of the extensive lineage ramification of monastic communities that took place during the late Joseon period.

Much overshadowed by the highly prized Buddhist paintings of the Goryeo and early Joseon periods, Buddhist paintings of the late Joseon period have been little studied in North America up to now. It is undeniable, however, that they made a significant contribution to today’s Korean Buddhist visual and material culture, making a clear distinction from contemporary Chinese and Japanese counterparts.