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Scenario

One of the paintings of the Water Moon Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, considered to be the pinnacle of Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings, was returned to Korea from Japan.
About 160 Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings are extant today worldwide, and a few of these rare artifacts are in Korea.
Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings have been beautifully preserved despite the passage of 700 years.
I wonder what secrets these amazing Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings conceal

What is the secret behind the 700-year longevity of the exquisite artistry of Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings?

The Goryeo Dynasty, which lasted for almost 500 years, was the golden age of Buddhist culture in Korea.

Among the Buddhist artworks, Buddhist paintings depicting the world of Buddhism are considered representative of Korean art.

Water Moon Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is one of the most popular themes among Goryeo Buddhist paintings, which mainly portray scenes from the Tripitaka.
Paintings of the Water Moon Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva often portray that Bodhisattva on Mount Potalaka and Sudhana in search of the truth.

When the painting of the Water Moon Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, which was painted in 1310, was featured in the exhibition, newspapers printed only the highest praise for the painting, even saying, "It’s the equivalent of the Mona Lisa." What is it about the painting that touches the hearts of people irrespective of race and nationality? The answer lies in the singular characteristics of Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings.

Characteristic No.1. Stable composition, elegant and delicate expressions

Characteristic No.2. Rich colors and exquisite technique

The stable composition and relaxed appearance capture the eyes of the viewer
while the elegant facial expressions and detailed depictions exemplify the beauty of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva.
Its vibrantcolors and exquisite technique reveal an unrivaled artistry.
So how were these Buddhist paintings created?

The secret to the rich colors, one of the distinguishing features of these paintings, lies in their ingredients.
It is surprising that only a few colors are used to create the vivid hues that make the Buddhist paintings come alive.

After natural minerals are ground into powders, they are mixed with glutinous waterextracted from animal skins to create pigments.

Various tones from dark to light are expressed through different concentrations of pigments.
This technique allowed the artist to paint using soft yet vivid colors.
And here! Radiant gold is added, creating a glamorous yet elegant effect.

The Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings are created by a unique process.
This is called the back-painting technique.
Paint is applied to the back of a silk canvas allowing the colors to show through in a subtle and indirect way.
In this way, the colors are more subtle than when painted on the canvas’ front surface, and this technique is also advantageous in that the paint is less likely to break off.

But there is more to Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings.
Elaborate spirals that are 1-2 mm in size within small circles
as well as the eyelashes and facial hair are realistically depicted in fine detail.

The depiction of the cloth that drapes Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva evokes a sense of wonder.
Lines less than 1mm-thick were drawn using a brush to express a sense of transparency.
It reveals agreat attention to detail difficult to reproduce even today.

The diverse patterns drawn in detail exhibit the elaborate beauty of Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings.
The patterns are diverse, featuring over 120 themes, including plants, animals,and natural phenomena like clouds and waves.

Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist Paintings were made with expensive pigments such as gold and elaborate techniques that only professional artists knew how to use. We can extrapolate that they were created through the patronage of members of the royal family, nobility, government officials, high-ranking Buddhist monks,and general believers.

The costumes used in historical dramas are based on historical references.
The clothing and accessories commonly worn in the Goryeo period were recreated based on historical research done on that era.

“We can reproduce clothing from the era using references from historical documents and the Illustrated Account of Goryeo, but the depiction in Goryeo Buddhist paintings of the real clothing worn by common people, or the outfits worn by the King, court ladies, and servants, provide insights into the refined colors and styles of clothing during the Goryeo period. We should be grateful to Buddhist paintings because they help us recreate the attire from that era.”

Professor Lim Myeong-mi / Goryeo Clothing Expert, Professor Emeritus at Dongduk Women’s University

Let’s take a look at what life was like in the Goryeo Dynasty through Buddhist Paintings.

Buddhist Paintings, a Trip Back in Time to the Goryeo Period

Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist Paintings are very important cultural heritage because they show what life was like back in the Goryeo Dynasty.

Lotus-shaped incense burners, which were used in Buddhist rituals, are a leading example of metal craftsmanship in the Goryeo Dynasty. These are the real-life models for the incense burners seen in Buddhist paintings.

Kundikas are water bottles used to offer clean water to the Buddha.
This looks just like the ones frequently seen in Buddhist paintings.
This is proof that Buddhist Paintings used real-life objects as models

It is the same with architecture.
Palaces depicted in Buddhist Paintings are based on the palaces in the Goryeo Dynasty.

Gambrel roofs decorated with brackets propping up between the roof and columns and showy balustrades as well as ornaments are illustrated in detail.
If you look closely, you can see that the bracket of the building and the bracket in Geungnakjeon Hall of Bongjeongsa Temple look similar.

Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist paintings are also important historical data for modification when trying to recreate what life was like in the Goryeo Dynasty.
Clothes reflect the differences in social classes.
The clothes worn by those belonging to higher social clothes are made of silk and decorated with elaborate embroidery. The also wear their hair up high, decorated with jewelry.
However, people of low social standing such as maids wear clothes in simple colors and only use daenggi, hair ribbons, in their hair.
It is a glimpse of the social dynamics in the Goryeo Dynasty, which had a strict caste system.

"Metal bells hung from multi-colored silk ropes, and they wore silken bags filled with incense. The more a person had accessories such as these, the more proud they were."

- From Xu Jing’s Illustrated Account of Goryeo

Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist Paintings are like mirrors that show us vivid glimpses into what contemporary life was like in the past Goryeo Dynasty.

[Epilogue]
Must-know Facts on Culture and Art from Korean History

1. Buddhist Paintings are a leading example of Goryeo's advanced Buddhist culture.
2. Buddhist Paintings were commissioned by the members of the Royal family, high-level officials, monks and general believers.
3. The secret behind the beauty of Goryeo Dynasty Buddhist Paintings lies in natural pigments and the back painting technique.
4. Buddhist Paintings offer a vivid glimpse into contemporary aspects of life.

Buddhist Paintings of the Goryeo Dynasty
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