Ceramic objects illustrate the technological developments, influence of religion, and changing societal aesthetics in successive periods of Korean history.

During the Three Kingdoms period (1st century BCE–7th century CE), stoneware was used for ritual and funerary ceremonies. The high-firing production process for stoneware required the development of climbing kilns, considered one of the greatest technical achievements in the history of ceramics. 

During the Unified Silla period (676–935), Buddhism became an established religion in Korea. Burial urns were used to store ashes from Buddhist cremations. The elaborate, stamped geometric patterns; delicate looped handles; and singular knobbed cover reflect advancements of ceramic technique and form.

Beatrice Chan, curatorial assistant for Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Buried in tombs, storage jars contained offerings of grains to serve the deceased in the afterlife. The vertical pattern was imprinted on the surface of the jar while the clay was still damp. Incised horizontal lines created defined registers, enlivening the surface texture. This combination is known as mat pattern.

Korean potters built upon their sophisticated stoneware tradition and began to experiment with a grayish blue-green glaze known as celadon during the Goryeo period (918–1392). Aristocrats and commoners had access to celadon ware, but elaborate forms and decorated vessels were reserved for the elite. 

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Goryeo celadon resembled animals and plants found in nature. The cover of this tripod incense burner takes the form of a goose. The open beak animates the animal, and it also serves as an opening for incense.

Hear from Beatrice Chan, curatorial assistant for Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Sophistication and precision were required in order to produce the jadelike color of the celadon. Only one in 10 fired celadons met the high artistic standards; the rest of the vessels were discarded.

The crackled surface of this jar required additional technical achievement in the control of the kiln temperature.

Video Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art and Icheon City Hall, Korea.

These refined wares exhibit the sanggam technique developed during the 11th and 12th centuries.

The technique requires precise shallow incisions on the semi-dried pottery. Color slip in white and black is then inlaid to create a pictorial pattern.

The clouds and cranes are auspicious symbols of immortality.

Hear from Beatrice Chan, curatorial assistant for Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Buddhism was officially sanctioned during the Unified Silla period (676–935) and became a burgeoning religion during the Goryeo period (918–1392). Goryeo kings commissioned the building of temples, copying of Buddhist religious sutras, and production of ritual objects.

Initially, ewers with these forms were used to purify the ground for Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. A long neck extends upward from the body of the vessel and is topped by a disk and an octagonal finial.

The Korean term for this object is "jeongbyeong," but in Sanskrit it is "kundika."

The celadon "kundika" (ewer) appropriates the shape of the bronze ritual vessel. The surface of this kundika is decorated with an incised peony and arabesque pattern, another decorative technique found on celadons.

During the Goryeo dynasty, these ewers were also used in daily rituals by nobles and aristocrats.

During the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), King Sejong (1397–1450) declared exclusive use of white porcelain as royal ware. The pure white porcelain reflected Neo-Confucian principles, specifically the translation of Confucian ideals of humility, purity, and righteousness into aesthetic design.

During the Joseon dynasty, court artists were invited to visit the official kilns of Bunwon to paint designs on white porcelain jars. This jar features the auspicious symbol of the phoenix and stylized cloud or “mushroom of longevity” pattern ("yeouidu-mun").

The phoenix also serves as a symbol of the feminine forces of the universe (Chinese: Yin; Korean: Eum) counterbalanced by the male forces (Chinese & Korean: Yang) symbolized by the dragon.

Along with the cobalt blue underglaze, the artist added details in iron-based underglaze that turns into a brownish-red upon firing.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is part of the Portal to Korea project at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, generously supported by the National Museum of Korea.

Credits: All media
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