Gilt bronze; Finial: L. 15 1/2 in. (39.4 cm), Chime: H. 15 1/4 in. (38.7 cm)
Purchase, The Vincent Astor Foundation Gift, 1999 Benefit Fund, and The Rosenkranz Foundation Inc. Gift, 1999 (1999.263ab)
This expertly cast, lavishly gilt bronze finial in the shape of a dragon's head and the accompanying bell are among the finest pieces of metalwork of the late Goryeo dynasty to Joseon dynasty, when Korean art had digested Chinese influence and developed a mature native style characterized by refinement and sumptuousness. The imposing dragon's head originally graced one of the corner rafters of a Buddhist temple or a royal hall. The bell, which functioned as a wind chime, would have been suspended from the iron loop at the dragon's mouth by an S-shaped iron hook, which is now corroded but intact. In contrast to larger bells, which were sounded by striking the surface with a wooden mallet or stake, this small bell had a metal-plate clapper (now lost) attached to its interior.
An auspicious symbol as well as a decorative motif, the dragon is one of the most popular images in Korean art and culture. It is viewed as a guardian figure that protects humans and wards off evil spirits. The dramatic features of this examplelarge staring eyes, flaring nostrils, wide-open mouth with protruding sharp fangs, and single hornconvey a fierceness and invincibility in keeping with such apotropaic functions. The theme of protectiveness is echoed in the decoration on the bell, which features a svastika, a Buddhist symbol of safety and peace.