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Korea in Focus: The Ten Kings of Hell and the Transnational Hellscape

November 27, 2020

The Fourth King of Hell, 1300s. Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk; image: 63 x 45.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund and museum purchase from various donors by exchange and Partial Gift of the Honorable Joseph P. Carroll and Roberta Carroll, M.D., 2019.224

Sooa Im McCormick, Curator of Korean art
Published December 1, 2020

The practice of worshipping the ten kings of hell and their specific infernos first developed in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907). The surviving works dating to this period are mostly found in handscrolls and murals excavated from ancient sites in the Dunhuang region of northwest China.

An important part of Buddhist rituals, the practice of worshipping the ten kings of hell, along with its corresponding visual culture, was soon introduced to Korea and flourished during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Throughout a 49-day mourning period, family members of the deceased made offerings to each of the ten kings of hell at proper intervals to ensure that the newly dead person could escape severe judicial torture and earn a pardon.1 Spirits whose families failed to make proper offerings were left to endure the worst trials and pay fully for past sins in their next lives.

According to various records including the 12th-century report by Chinese diplomat Xu Jing (1091–1153), A Chinese Traveler in Medieval Korea: Xu Jing’s Illustrated Account of the Xuanhe Embassy to Goryeo (1123), it seems that Buddhist temples affiliated with the Goryeo royal house were at the heart of this practice of worshipping the ten kings of hell, In his account, Xu recorded his visit to the Anhwa monastery 安和寺 where he saw the image of Kshitgarbha, the Bodhisattva of Salvation, displayed together with the ten kings of hell.2

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Fourth King of Hell scroll was originally part of a set of ten hanging scrolls. The entire set belonged to the Japanese temple called 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, this set (hereafter referred to as the former Packard set) was sold at Christie’s in 1992 to individual collectors, and remains dispersed among 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 Cleveland Museum of Art, and others.3

In its formative period, the specific iconography for each of the 10 hells faithfully followed the prescriptions of illustrated Buddhist scripture. For example, The Scripture Spoken by the Buddha in Preparation for the Sevens of Life in Preparation for the Ten Kings, dated to the early 900s, describes each hell and its distinctive attributes: the First King with a karma tree; the Fourth King with a karma scale; the Fifth King with a karma mirror; and the Tenth King with a wheel of six different types of rebirth.   

However, when the tradition of worshipping the ten kings of hell and the corresponding visual and material culture traveled across borders, and developed as an independent pictorial genre over centuries, significant iconographic variations occurred. For instance, the 13th-century Korean illustrated scripture titled Transformation Pictures of the Words Spoken by the Buddha Concerning the Sevens of Life to be Cultivated in Preparation for the Ten Kings 佛說閻羅王授記四衆逆修生七往生淨土經 in the collection of Haein Monastery (Hapcheon, South Korea) is an excellent example highlighting localization and mutation in the Korean peninsula.  

In this illustrated scripture, the association between the karma mirror and the Fifth King, and that of the wheel of six different types of rebirth with the Tenth King, remain unchanged from its 10th-century Chinese prototype, but significant changes can be also detected. A tree that holds the sinners’ clothing to measure their karma was originally associated with the Second King in the 10th-century Chinese scripture; however, in the Haein monastery scripture it was transferred to the First King’s court.

harvard 1974.77

Also, in the Haein monastery scripture, a larger number of the king’s retinue has been added as if each hell was a royal court, amplifying the grandeur of each king’s court.4 The king in each court is portrayed as extremely formal, calm, and even indifferent to the torturous scenes happening before him.


Some of the iconographic mutations first occurred in the Haein monastery scripture: the karma tree and its association with the First King were adopted for the former Packard set. Compared to the Haein monastery scripture, the size of the king’s retinue in the former Packard set was noticeably diminished, but formal and less emotional portrayal of the kings—as if they are striving to maintain an impartial attitude—still resonated with the 13th-century Haein monastery scripture.  


Nevertheless, the former Packard set introduces a new iconographic and stylistic language that reflects its distinctive 14th-century Korean cultural geography. In it, the Eighth King of Impartiality uses the karma scale once possessed by the Fourth King. Instead, a pot of boiling water was paired with the Forth King to demonstrate his authority as an unforgiving judge.  


As it developed as a popular pictorial genre in the Korean peninsula, Korean artists referenced Southern Song Chinese ready-made Buddhist paintings created in professional ateliers in the southeastern port city of Ningbo, especially the grotesque iconography and stagelike composition. Ningbo examples emphasize a grotesque drama through theatrical facial expressions among the king, his retinue, and the sinners. There is no doubt that the maker of the former Packard set closely adopted the theatricality of Ningbo examples that treat the kings’ hellish court as a stage, focusing on dramatic interactions between participants.


While inspirational sources from the Chinese Song and Yuan periods played a significant role in the iconography of the Korean version of the ten kings of hell, ample stylistic features, such as the subtlety of brushstrokes and use of colors, textile patterns such as the continuous scrolling vine of flowers and plants, roundels, and the generously applied gold highlights make this set uniquely 14th-century Korean.5

The same degree of attention to depicting intricate decorative patterns—rolling ivy, chrysanthemum vines, roundels, flying phoenix, and parrots rendered throughout textile motifs from the king’s robe to table clothes in the former Packard set—can be also found in the inlaid decoration of celadons of the Goryeo period. Since many court painters also decorated the surface of ceramic works produced in the state-owned kilns (Box and Cover with Inlaid Phoenix Design, 1916.1186; Water Ewer for Rituals (Kundika) with Incised Parrot Design, 1921.631), the overlapping decorative patterns between painting and ceramics is not out of the ordinary.

Detail of the Fourth King of Hell

Detail of Water Ewer (1921.631)

4th king detail

8th King detail

Finally, the light pink robe of each king of hell is unequivocally identical to the office uniform 常服 worn by Goryeo period government officials. The pink robe is also found in other 14th-century Goryeo-Buddhist paintings such as Kshitigarbha with the Ten Kings of Hell in the Horim Museum of Art, Seoul. In this work, the ten kings grouped on either side of the Kshitigarbha wear a pink robe with the black trim lavishly decorated with intricate patterns painted in gold ink. Although the painted realm is the hellscape, its luxury is the splendid material landscape of Goryeo ruling elites.


The Fourth King of Hell, which the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired in late 2019, is part of 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), when material luxury was profusely consumed to invoke both a torturous hellscape and a beautiful spiritual world.