Exhibitions/ Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom/ About the Exhibition/ Buddhism: A New Tradition

Buddhism: A New Tradition

Officially adopted about 527, the Indian religion of Buddhism completely transformed Silla society and culture, spurring both changes in burial customs and the creation of new artistic traditions. The use of gold provides a visual clue to this shifting cultural landscape. Once crafted into regalia and personal adornments, this precious material, used especially as gilding on bronze, became a medium for Buddhist icons and reliquaries.

By the time it entered Korea, Buddhism, founded centuries earlier (ca. 400 B.C.) by the historical Siddhartha Gautama, had become extraordinarily multifaceted, with a wide range of practices and traditions and related texts and images. In addition to representations of Siddhartha (also known as Shakyamuni), Buddhist imagery includes other Buddhas, transcendent beings who have achieved a state of enlightenment; bodhisattvas, spiritually advanced entities who have chosen to remain accessible to others in the phenomenal world; and a range of attendant, often protective, deities.

Silla Buddhist art shares stylistic traditions with that found in China, which in turn evokes earlier imagery from India and Central Asia. Korean representations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas from the sixth and early seventh centuries are characterized by round, unarticulated bodies sometimes covered with thick, cascading drapery. Later Buddhist icons have sensuous physiques with articulated chests and waists and wear thin clothing that defines, rather than hides, the body.


Bodhisattva in pensive pose, probably Maitreya (Korean: Mireuk), Korea, Silla kingdom, late 6th–early 7th century. Gilt bronze; H. 36 7/8 in. (93.5 cm). National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 83

Better known as National Treasure 83, this magnificent statue represents a bodhisattva seated in the "pensive pose": his proper right leg is crossed over his lowered left leg, and his elegant right hand gently touches his cheek. This posture is often used in representations of the bodhisattva Maitreya, an important deity throughout East Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries. The extraordinary balance between his contemplative aura and the sense of energy captured by the drumming fingers of his left hand and the upturned toes of his right foot explains the iconic position of this engaging sculpture within Korean art history.

Parallels between Maitreya and a group of young Silla aristocrats known as the "flower boys" (hwarang) also help explain the popularity of the pensive bodhisattva in the Silla kingdom. These elite young men, who were trained in horseback riding, martial arts, literature, dance, and music, undertook arduous pilgrimages in remote and mountainous locations to advance their physical and spiritual development. As devotion to Buddhism grew in popularity, members of this group were sometimes identified as manifestations of Maitreya.

Buddha, Korea, Silla Kingdom, late 8th–early 9th century. Said to be from Bowonsa Temple site, Seosan, South Chungcheong province. Cast iron; H. 59 1/8 in. (150 cm). National Museum of Korea

The physique of this impressive statue, with its broad shoulders, narrow waist, and long legs, illustrates a style of Buddhist art that first developed with the support of the Chinese court in the late seventh and early eighth centuries and appeared immediately thereafter in Korea. This cast-iron Buddha is one of the best examples of the continuation of this style in Korea from the late eighth to the tenth century.

Cast-iron Buddhas appear to have been made earlier in Korea than elsewhere in Asia, and in greater numbers. While this no doubt reflects the availability of iron on the peninsula, the use of the material for Buddhist sculpture also has historical undertones: the mining and working of iron was one of the many factors that contributed to the initial flowering of the Silla kingdom in the late fourth century.

Buddha, probably Amitabha (Korean: Amita), Korea, Silla Kingdom, ca. 706. From the pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple site. Gold, H. 4 3/4 in. (12.2 cm). National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 79

This beautiful cast-gold Buddha was found as an offering in a pagoda, placed with other objects inside a bronze box. The long inscription on the box's cover helps identify the Buddha as Amitabha, a popular celestial Buddha. A prominent East Asian practice focuses on rebirth in his personal paradise, or Pure Land, where conditions are conducive to the quest for enlightenment.