For readers seeking a peaceful interlude at the start of the new year, I would suggest visiting the renovated celadon gallery at the National Museum of Korea. A moment of tranquility and self-reflection in aesthetic ambience may help reset and recharge for the challenging times ahead.
The gallery has been carefully remodeled to emphasize the beauty of outstanding celadon objects from the Goryeo period (918-1392), the zenith of traditional Korean art. The centerpiece of the gallery is a room named “The Jade Hues of Goryeo,” where 19 masterpieces of sculptural celadon are exhibited in ways that highlight their celebrated artistry calmly and confidently. Slow ambient music accompanies their mystic charm.
In the room full of jewels, an unexpected delight is a trio of tiny but mighty rabbits carrying an exquisite incense burner on their backs. An iconic piece of Goryeo celadon, the censer has a round body appliqued with finely modeled lotus petals and a reticulated ball cover. The extremely delicate design rests on a foliated base supported by the rabbits crouching with their forelegs piously gathered in front. Glass encased at the center of the room, each part of the vessel is a technical and artistic wonder.
The rabbit trio is a lovely motif for kicking off the eponymous zodiac year that begins in a few weeks. Anyone who associates the rabbits’ burden with Atlas holding up the world in Greek mythology doesn’t need to worry about their never-ending labor. Despite their hefty load, the cute animals show no signs of stress or anxiety. Instead, they appear to be content and at peace with their fate.
Curators at the museum find it wondrous how the anonymous medieval potters achieved the feat of constructing the censer. “We’ve been able to unveil secrets of ancient ceramic art through modern scientific methods, such as computed tomography and 3D scanning. But we have yet to unravel the mystery of how this object of highly vulnerable structure could be made in such a beautiful form,” said the museum’s head curator, Lee Ae-ryung.
Lee noted it was a nerve-racking struggle to find the best possible lighting solution for the incense burner and all the other masterpieces. “Once again, we realized how intricate the hues of Goryeo celadon glazes are,” she said. “We did our utmost to bring the subtle tints of each piece to the optimal visual effect, hopefully enlivening the potters’ intentions.”
“We want visitors to be comfortably immersed in the beauty of these divine pieces of art, relishing a moment of pure sympathy,” she said.
Goryeo was a devout Buddhist state, so the rabbit motif was apparently derived from the Indian jataka about the previous births of the historical Buddha. According to the ancient folk tales, in one of his numerous previous lives Sakyamuni was a rabbit and offered his body as a meal for a wandering mendicant. The starving ascetic was Indra in disguise and moved by the rabbit’s selfless sacrifice. He drew the rabbit’s image on the face of the full moon to make his virtue known eternally.
Korean potters started producing high-grade porcelain around the 10th century. Initially they employed China’s advanced technology, but during the ensuing century and a half the Korean potters developed the technology and craftsmanship for elegant celadon ware decorated with subtle jade-colored glazes.
At the time, the Chinese especially admired the sculptural objects modeled in animal, plant, or human shapes. “First under heaven” is among the oft-quoted Chinese phrases praising the serene jade hues of Goryeo celadon. The expression comes from an undated catalogue of the most-desired antiques in China, written by Taiping Laoren (Old Man of Great Peace) during the late Song Dynasty.
“A lion emits incense and is likewise ‘kingfisher colored’: The beast crouches on the top, supported by a lotus. This is the most distinguished of all their wares,” Xu Jing, a Song diplomat and scholar, wrote in his 1123 book, “Illustrated Account of the Xuanhe Embassy to Goryeo.”
Godfrey St. G. M. Gompertz, British collector and scholar of Chinese and Korean pottery, authored milestone books about Goryeo celadon as well as buncheong and white porcelain of the Joseon period. In his 1963 book, “Korean Celadon,” Gompertz wrote, “Koreans owed much to the Chinese in developing their ceramic art but finally succeeded in producing distinctive works of their own.” His gifts to the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge make what is known to be the best collection of Goryeo celadon outside of Korea.
Gompertz described “excellence in ceramic sculpture” as the crowning achievement of Korean potters, which preceded their peerless inlaying technique. Regarding the incense burner with triple rabbit foot, he wrote, “It has rightly been called a tour de force of the potter’s art: at first sight it is so elaborate as to produce almost a shock of surprise.”
Gompertz had to rely mostly on Japanese sources because the Japanese virtually monopolized archaeological research during their 35-year rule of Korea. They included Shozo Uchiyama, an expert in Korean pottery, who said, “Goryeo wares are a religion to me. … Whenever I hold one in my hand, my weariness is relieved, my sternness relaxed, my irritability alleviated, my parched feelings quenched, and my ugly heart purified … Because of this noble moment, I am able to endure and even enjoy this confused life in our world today.”
Uchiyama’s remarks were made in the 1930s, as the seeds of world war were being sowed. Almost a century later, perhaps visitors to the remodeled celadon gallery at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul may also be soothed by the Goryeo celadon wares.
The noble ambience of the gallery’s permanent exhibition is attributed to the museum’s intrepid, innovative curators. The aura replicates their previous landmark project, “A Room of Quiet Contemplation,” where two historic Pensive Bodhisattva images attract endless streams of visitors pursuing peace for their soul in a mysterious atmosphere of time travel. I send cheers for their next creative project.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.