After Buddhism was officially recognized in 527, the fourteenth year of King Beopheung’s reign, the Buddhist
faith spread rapidly throughout Silla society, from the king to his subjects. Such
rapid dissemination led to the construction of numerous temples throughout
Silla’s Acceptance of
The official recognition of Buddhism brought about tremendous changes in the political, social, and cultural landscape of Silla. Prior to the acceptance of the religion, Silla aristocrats are thought to have worshipped their own ancestors or the deities of mountains and stream and no religion represented the kingdom of Silla in its entirety. In contrast to such indigenous systems of faith, Buddhism presented a logical, organized doctrine and its deities with the Shakyamuni Buddha at the center emanated a charismatic essence. By officially recognizing Buddhism, the rulers of Silla sought to realize an ideological unification of their kingdom and deify the royalty.
Initially, such efforts to accept Buddhism were met with strong opposition from the conservatively minded aristocrats, but the martyrdom of Yi Chadon (502 or 506 ~ 527) enabled King Beopheung to formally recognize Buddhism in 528. Then, in 534, the first Buddhist temple in Silla, called Heungnyunsa Temple, was built in Cheongyeongrim Forest, considered a holy site by the people of Seorabeol.
This roof-end tile is vividly decorated by a face with round cheeks, a prominent nose, slightly protruding eyes, and a plump mouth curled up in an innocent smile. The face was likely meant to repel evil spirits. The tile was reportedly first excavated from Yeongmyosa Temple Site during the Japanese Colonial Period, and it was kept for many years by a Japanese man named Danaka Toshinobu until he donated it to the Gyeongju National Museum in October 1972. The wide rims along the edges, the high-temperature firing technique, and the full volume of the face have led experts to estimate that it originated during the Three Kingdoms Period.
This cuboid stone monument, known as the Monument to the Martyrdom of Yi Cha-don or the “Pillar for Yi Cha-don,” was moved to the museum from Baengnyulsa Temple, Gyeongju. It is thought to have been built in the 10th year of King Heondeok’s reign (818 CE), 290 years after Yi’s death. The monument has six sides, one of which memorably depicts the death scene: the ground shakes, and the world is showered with flower petals as a fountain of blood pours from Yi’s severed neck. These details were rendered in a simplistic manner onto a relatively small space. The five other faces of the monument were divided into a grid and inscribed with characters measuring approximately 3cm in height. Due to serious damage to the surface, only about half of the content has been deciphered, but the legible inscriptions coincide with records from the Samgukyusa(the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) and the Samguksagi(the History of the Three Kingdoms).
of the Kingdom through Temple Construction
After King Beopheung officially recognized Buddhism in 528, King Jinheung and Queen Seondeok had large temples built in the capital to concentrate and unify the powers of the kingdom. In 544, Heungnyunsa Temple, the first Buddhist temple in Silla history, was completed after ten years of construction during the reign of King Jinheung. In 553, the construction of Hwangnyongsa Temple began and was completed three years later. At this temple, a large sculpture of Buddha known as Jangyukjonsang was installed in 574. After ascending the throne, Queen Seondeok ordered the construction of Bunhwangsa Temple next to Hwangnyongsa; “Bunhwangsa” means the “temple of a fragrant ruler.” Then, in 643, she set in motion the construction of the nine-story wooden pagoda on the site of Hwangnyongsa Temple to strengthen the prestige of the ruler as well as overcome the precarious fate of the kingdom with the help of the Buddha.
A theft in 1966 damaged the śarīra reliquary enclosed in the space created for the reliquary in the heart stone of the pagoda. By a stroke of luck, the thieves were taken into custody, and various artifacts, such as gold and silver circular containers as well as an octagonal bronze śarīra reliquary, were recovered. The gold and silver containers were manufactured with metal that was pounded into thin sheets and it appears that the small gold container was placed inside the larger silver one, according to the rules of storing śarīra reliquaries. The recovered artifacts were found mixed with artifacts unearthed from other pagodas, and as such, it is difficult to accurately distinguish them. However, the Chalju bongi account that states that the śarīra was placed inside a glass or precious stone reliquary, which in turn was placed inside raised gold and silver settings at the time of the wooden pagoda construction, is helpful.
Ornamental tiles like this were placed at both ends of a roof ridge. They were believed to ward off evil spirits, and so represented a wish for safety, and they also symbolized authority and power. Their use became widespread in the construction of palaces and temples in the Han Period of China, and they were first made on the Korean Peninsula during the Three Kingdoms Period. This particular tile was found in shattered pieces around the Hwangnyongsa Temple site, but it was restored to its original shape, which is like an ancient helmet. The design of the lotus flower is different from roof-end tiles of the Unified Silla Period, so it is thought to date from the Silla Period.
In 646 CE, Queen Seondeok ordered the construction of a nine-story wooden stupa in Hwangnyongsa Temple , which had been built during the reign of King Jinheung of Silla. The reliquary from the foundation stone for the wooden stupa site was stolen, but was recovered in 1966. The inner chest of the reliquary was formed by the base pillar of the stupa, which was built in 872 CE when the stupa was reconstructed. To make the inner chest, gilt-bronze plates were connected with hinges to form a cuboid box, with a knob on one side for opening the reliquary. The front and back sides of the door are decorated with incisings of the Vajrapanies and Guardians . On the front and back of the other three sides of the reliquary, the story of the construction of the stupa is recorded in detail, along with a list of names of officials and monks who participated in its construction.
This tile, which was used for flooring, features an elaborate floral medallion design on its face and a dynamic dragon design on its narrow sides. In the center of the top face, a lotus flower is ringed by a large floral medallion design, which is in turn surrounded with vine designs embossed onto the surface in perfect symmetry. On the sides, the body of the engraved dragon is bent at sharp angles for enhanced dynamism, while mysterious clouds are meticulously arranged to maintain the overall balance of the design. This tile is believed to date from the late 7th century, when the production of such aesthetic tiles from the Unified Silla Period reached its peak, with designs combining perfect symmetry and elaborate technique.
Buddhist Temples for the Protection of the Kingdom
After King Beopheung officially recognized Buddhism in 528, it became the central ideology of Silla. As warfare with neighboring states continued, Silla put forth the ideology of “State Protection Buddhism.” Under this ideology, numerous temples were constructed and Sacheongwangsa Temple is representative of such temples.
In India, the Four Heavenly Deities were originally the native gods of the four directions, but when Buddhism was founded, they became the guardians of Buddhist sutras and sattvas from the four directions of Mt. Sumeru. At the time when Silla unified the Three Kingdoms, the four deities were widely regarded as the guardians of the laws and the state. Broken pieces of these brick tiles, embossed with the Four Heavenly Deities, were retrieved from two stupa sites at the site of Sacheonwangsa Temple during the Japanese colonial period. They have since been restored to reveal the lower half of a balanced, well-proportioned body clad in meticulously detailed armor. The detail of the armor and the pained expressions of the evil spirits being trampled by the muscular legs of the Four Heavenly Deities are a model of realistic sculpture from the early Unified Silla Period.
This reliquary was discovered in 1959 in the upper part of a three-story stone stupa to the west of Gameunsa Temple site. A similar reliquary was also found in the stone stupa to the east of the temple site in 1996. Gameunsa Temple was built in 682 CE at the order of King Shinmun, to commemorate his father King Munmu. The reliquaries found at the temple site attest to the very high standard of metal craftwork technologies from the Unified Silla Period. Inside the cuboid outer chest was a house-shaped sarira case, and inside the case was a flame-shaped ornament that held the crystal jar containing the sarira. The four sides of the outer chest are decorated with elaborate renderings of the Four Heavenly Deities, while the four corners of the base plate of the sarira case were engraved with images of muses playing musical instruments.
Green glaze, which is applied to the surface of earthenware, is made by adding minium to lye or silicic acid, and mixing it with iron for the pigment. Green-glazed tiles were excavated from royal palace sites such as Wolseong and Wolji, as well as the sites of Sachonwangsa Temple and Gameunsa Temple, which suggests that tiles of this type were used exclusively for royal palace buildings or large-scale temples built by the government. Double-layered lotus petals are the representative design of the convex roof-end tile of Unified Silla.
When the Gameunsa Temple Site was excavated, this artifact was found lying on a bronze gong inscribed with Goryeo dynasty records dating back to 1351. Its shape resembles that of Buddhist temple bells from Silla, with the surface of the top part bearing the traces of what was once a crown and small holes in the center of the main part. It is as large as the bronze wind bell discovered at the Hwangryongsa Temple Site.
This ornament was used as a door handle. A loop connected the two holes at the corners of the tough-looking lion’s mouth. A long tip protruding from the rear of the lion’s head was used to attach this ornamental handle to a door.
of the Buddha Land
After the acceptance of Buddhism, Silla sought to support Buddhism at the state level. Legends about Silla’s connection to the historical Buddha abounded and in Gyeongju, the “Seven-Structure Layout” of the capital was established. An ideology developed to encompass the idea that Silla was the land of the Buddha, a significant factor in the naturalization of the religion in the kingdom that propelled the growth of Buddhist culture.
The extent to which the Buddhist culture in Silla flourished can be verified in the Samguk yusa, which states that at the height of the kingdom, the royal capital of Silla contained “temples as numerous as the stars in the sky and pagodas that looked like a large flock of seagulls.” Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple, both constructed in the mid-eighth century, are artifacts of such a flourishing Buddhist culture.
These pillars were originally taken from Gyeongjueupseong Fortress, and were only rediscovered when the fortress walls collapsed. The four square stone pillars, which had once been used as a part of an architectural structure, can be combined to form an embossed design of an erect “arhat” (enlightened practitioner) on two sides. The arhat is rendered in profile, walking to the right on a lotus pedestal; his head is bowed in deference and he holds an incense burner with handle in his hands. The tips of his shoes are bent upwards, much like those of the arhat in the “Image of Ten Disciples” in Seokguram, which was built during the Unified Silla Period in the mid-8th century.
Buddhist Sculptures of
Silla during the Three Kingdoms Period
In Silla, stone sculptures of the Buddha began to be constructed in the seventh century and remained popular throughout the Unified Silla Period. Korea developed and discovered original techniques for carving solid granite different from India and China. Representative of such techniques are the smiling Maitreya Buddha Triad of Jangchanggol Valley in Mt. Namsan, the Buddha Triad of Bae-ri also fully exercised its unique aesthetic sense in gilt bronze sculpture.
This Triad was moved from a stone chamber in Jangchanggol Valley near Mt. Namsan, Gyeongju, in 1925. Among the three statues, the main Buddha is especially unique; it is the only Buddha statue dating from the Three Kingdoms Period that is seated in a chair. Other Buddha statues sitting in a similar posture, mainly Maitreya Buddha statues, originate from 6th~7th century China. Based on the records f rom the Samgukyusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) and the Chinese examples, the main Buddha is presumed to be the Maitreya Buddha. To each side of the Buddha, a smaller Bodhisattva stands with a lotus flower in his hands. The Bodhisattvas are each wearing a jeweled crown decorated with three flowers, and they each have an innocent smile on their face, which is rather large in proportion with the body. Despite being carved from hard granite, this representative Silla stone Buddha emits a warm and lively aura.
This Buddha statue was moved from Inwang-dong, Gyeongju, but the exact location where it was initially discovered is unknown. The Buddha’s body, halo, and pedestal were carved from one large stone. The large protuberance on the top of Buddha’s head is an “ushinisha,” representing wisdom, and there is a large cloth draped across the shoulders. Despite partial damage, the face exudes an air of calmness and serenity. The right hand is held up with the palm facing outward, while the left hand is lowered in the Varada Mudra, although some of the fingers have been lost over the years. Judging from the simple, basic carving techniques and the calm facial expression indicating meditation, the statue is estimated to date back to 7th century Silla.
The standing statue is built with childlike proportions, a cherubic face, and a small, protuberant uṣṇīṣa on the top of the head. It stands atop a lotus-flower pedestal with the head and the body flanked by their own halos. The right hand is uplifted in the abhaya mudra, and the left hand hangs down, showing the verada mudra. Cloth covers both shoulders and hangs below the stomach in a U shape. It is believed to have been made at the end of the sixth century.
This statue is one of the twenty-five Buddha statues found in 1953 at the Suksusa Temple site in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, where Sosu Confucian Academy is currently located. The body of the Buddha and the pedestal are composed as one, and the gilding is relatively intact. On top of the bald head is an uṣṇīṣa, the eyes are gently closed, and the mouth wears a subtle smile. The neck is quite long. The robe covers both shoulders, its folds drooping in U-shape patterns in concentric oval lines. In a slight deviation from the common composition of the robe folds, the ones here are made to lean to one side. The right hand is in an abharanda mudra, with the palm held up and the left palm facing downward in a verada mudra. While the hands of most of the Buddha statues from the Three Kingdoms Period are exaggerated, the hands of this statue are in natural proportion with the body. On the pedestal are engraved lotus flowers. The end of each petal is sharp. The proportions, robe style, and the pedestal form all indicate that the statue was modeled on the Northern Qi and Northern Zhou influences. With such an outstanding composition, the statue serves as an invaluable example of the Buddhist sculpture of early Silla.
Buddhist Triad (Unified Silla, late 7th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum
Buddhist Sculptures of Unified Silla
The Buddhist sculptures of
Unified Silla developed a realistic and lively aesthetic that at once combines features
of the sculpture of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla, and assimilates China’s
Buddhist sculptural forms at the height of the Tang Dynasty (themselves
influenced by Gupta Period sculptures of India). The humane face aesthetic
prominent until the Unified Silla period came to emanate a sense of authority
and body proportions were further harmonized, with the curvature and volume of
the body becoming much more pronounced through the thin cloth pressed closely to
the body. Such tendencies led to the construction of Seokguram Grotto in the
middle of the eighth century, considered to be the artistic zenith of Buddhist
sculpture in East Asia. From the ninth century, the end stage of Unified Silla,
Buddhist sculptures selectively assimilated Chinese influences, yielding an
independent, uniquely Unified Silla form. Unlike China or Japan, Silla
developed the statue of the Buddha holding the mudra that expels evil spirits
(left hand on the knee and the right hand pointing to the ground) as its
general form. The Vairocana Buddha is usually presented as a Bodhisattva
wearing a jeweled crown, but in Unified Silla it took the form of a standing
Buddha with uṣṇīṣa. Though such ninth-century Buddhist sculptures lack the
liveliness in the body and the harmony of proportion characteristic of the
eighth-century sculptures, they illustrate the nativization and localization of
Buddhist sculptural forms effected by the expansion of the Buddhist faith.
Many Buddha statues were excavated from the site of Wolji Pond in Gyeongju, including ten Buddha plates like this one. Although its exact purpose remains unknown, the presence of a spike on the bottom suggests that it may have been fixed onto some other object. In the center, the Svadeva Buddha sits in the Padmasanam posture (lotus position) on top of an elaborate lotus flower pedestal, with his hands held in the Dharmaakra position, which is similar to how Sakyamuni held his hands during his first Buddhist sermon. Buddha, who is flanked on either side by a Bodhisattva, has a plump, round face, an ushinisha on top of his head (a bump representing wisdom), and a halo decorated with various openwork designs.
The Buddha’s hair is curled in whorls and his face is rather long and wears a stern expression without a smile. The large robe covers both shoulders and the expression of both the outer and inner clothes are highly lifelike. Behind the head and back were holes created while the statue was cast, and the inside is hollow. Given the voluminous face, lifelike physical figure, expression of the wrinkled drapery, and its excellent casting technique, this statue is estimated to have been produced in the mid-8th century and considered the most outstanding among the Buddha statues excavated from Wolji Pond.
This Buddha statue was excavated from Wolji, Gyeongju. Although the halo has been lost, the Buddha’s body and pedestal, which were made separately and joined together, have been well preserved. The most noteworthy aspect of this statue is the style of dress. While most Buddha statues had a large cloth draped across either both shoulders or the left shoulder, this statue has two layers of cloth: an inner layer covering both shoulders and an outer layer wrapped over the left shoulder. The inner layer crosses the chest beneath the outer layer. The octagonal pedestal is decorated with lotus flower designs and various openwork designs, and is placed atop a base stone with flower engravings in the corners. Based on the Buddha’s style of dress and the floral engravings, the statue is estimated to be from the late 8th century.
Only the top half of this Buddha statue has been restored since it was moved to the museum from a temple site in Janghang-ri, Yangbuk-myeon, Gyeongju. The pedestal for the statue and two stupas remain at the temple site. The octagonal pedestal features carvings of lions and the guardians on its surface, and a hole on top where the Buddha statue was affixed; the shape of the hole indicates that the statue was in a standing position. Both the body and the pear-shaped halo were carved out of one piece of rock. The head is covered with thick curly hair, with the customary Ushnisha at the center, representing wisdom. A myriad of flame designs swirl around Buddha’s head and body, suggesting a mysterious glow. The statue is a beautiful testament to the masterful technique for sculpting granite that marked the realistic trend of the Unified Silla Period in the mid-8th century.
This Buddha head was discovered in Cheorwagol Valley of Mt. Namsan, Gyeongju, in 1959. Only the head remains, leaving no clues as to the original form. However, the back of the neck appears to have been manually chipped to balance the head and enable it to stand, so it is possible that it was never attached to a body. Although the back is only roughly shaped, the front of the face is portrayed in great detail, with an urna embossed in the forehead and a large Ushnisha standing out from the top of the head. The rather long face has elegantly arched eyebrows, tightly closed lips, and a plump lower lip and jaw, though neither of the ears were included in the details. The head is believed to date back to the Unified Silla Period, sometime between the end of the 8th century and the beginning of the 9th century.
Bhaisajyaguru Buddha (Unified Silla(668~935)) by unknownGyeongju National Museum
Bhaiṣajyaguru is the Buddha who treats various illnesses of human
kind and prevents disasters. This image of Bhaiṣajyaguru was created as either
an independent statue or as part of a larger installation depicting the Buddhas
of Four Directions. Among the Four-Directional Buddhas, Bhaiṣajyaguru is
situated in the East and recognized as the Buddha of the Eastern Pure Land of
Vaiḍūryanirbhāsa. Because most Bhaiṣajyaguru
images hold a medicinal jar in one of their hands, they are easy to distinguish
from other Buddha statues.
This statue was moved to the museum from Yongjanggol Valley, Mt. Namsan. The Bhaisajyaguru Buddha sits in the Padmasanam (lotus) posture on an elaborate two-tiered lotus pedestal, holding his right hand in the Bhumisparsa mudra and carrying a medicine bottle in his left hand. After the statue was moved from its former museum in Dongbu-dong in 1975, the head and part of the halo were reassembled and restored to their current condition, although the face remains badly damaged. The head has a prominent Ushnisha on top, and there is an inscription of the Three Ways on the neck. The pear-shaped halo is embossed with vine and flame designs, while the pedestal is decorated with lotus flower designs. Based on the less vibrant expression of the body parts and the heightened emphasis of the decoration, as demonstrated in the elaborate and even complicated designs on the halo, the statue is estimated to be from the end of the 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century.
The gold plating of this particular gilt bronze statue has almost disappeared, but the supple body and smooth, elegant cloth folds are depicted in perfect harmony, representing the height of the Unified Silla form. The hair is naturally curled in a clockwise direction, with a wide and prominent uṣṇīṣa. The face that appears large in proportion to the body is deep in a meditative state, and the neck has a mārga-traya. The robe fully covers the shoulders, with the hem covering the right shoulder. The U-shaped cloth folds gathered at the chest and below the knees are elegant and strong. A proud chest and slightly protuberant stomach as well as the voluminous thighs lend a liveliness to the statue. The left hand is holding a medicinal bowl and the right hand hangs down at the side, holding the hem. Such a posture is uncommon among gilt bronze statues of the Unified Silla Period.
Vairocana Buddha (0751/0800) by unknownGyeongju National Museum
Vairocana is the dharma-body Buddha
representing truth. In Korea, Vairocana was believed to be the central figure
in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra華嚴經. Unlike China and Japan, in
Korea Vairocana takes the form of a standing Buddha. Initially produced in the
late eighth century, it was popularized in the ninth century. Vairocana is
easily distinguishable from other Buddhas due to its characteristic posture. In
one hand, the index finger is held upright and enclosed by the other hand. This
particular mudra is known as bodhasri-mudra and represents the oneness of
reason and wisdom, human kind and the Buddha, and delusion and enlightenment.
Vairocana Buddha is the Buddha which represent the ultimate truth in Buddhism, and is regarded as the main Buddha of the Avatamska Sutra. Unlike the sattva-style Vairocana Buddhas found in China and Japan, this Vairocana Buddha was made in the tathagata-type in Korea. In Korea, statues of Vairocana Buddha were first sculpted in the late 8th century during the Unified Silla Period, and they have been made ever since. This statue has a small round face with closed eyes, as if the Buddha is in meditation. A cloth is draped over the left shoulder and across the legs, which are crossed in the Padmasanam posture (lotus position). Despite the small size of the statue, the proportion of the body parts is optimal, and the facial expression and creases in the cloth are portrayed with a very natural realism. This is considered a typical Vairocana Buddha of 8th century Unified Silla.
Unlike most Vairocana images with the left index finger enclosed in the right hand, this example showcases the reverse of the hand positions. The wide face is large relative to the body and the bald head has a large uṣṇīṣa. The gaze is downward and the small lips are gently pressed to form a smile. The two ears are curved like bows and the neck bears the mārga-traya. The robe covers both shoulders and inner garments cover the chest. Belt knots can be seen behind the hand. The cloth folds form a U shape underneath the stomach, naturally flowing down. Underneath the priestly robe the inner robe remains visible. On the back, the head and body contain casting holes. The head leans slightly to one side and a tranquil facial expression conveys deep meditation that with a spiritual air.
Pensive Bodhisattva (Silla, 7th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum
The Pensive Bodhisattva form
depicts a figure deep in meditation, leaning slightly on his fingers and
putting one of his feet upon the opposite knee. It takes inspiration from the
appearance of the Śākyamuni Buddha as a crown prince, contemplating the
emptiness of worldly existence. The Pensive Bodhisattva was also known as the Thinking Crown Prince, during the Northern and Southern
Dynasties in China.
In Korea, Pensive
Bodhisattva figures were produced in high concentrations for approximately a
century during the Three Kingdoms Period in the sixth century. With a few
exceptions, most were made as independent, freestanding statues. Most are small
in scale, measuring between ten to thirty centimeters in height, but a few do
stand at approximately one meter. In Korea, the Pensive Bodhisattva used to be thought
of as an image of the Maitreya Bodhisattva, the future Buddha, residing in the
This pensive Bodhisattva sits on a chair with its right foot crossed over onto its left knee and the fingers gently touching the face, which is lowered as if in meditation. This style of statue was first made in India, and it was originally referred to in China as the “Pensive Crown Prince,” because it portrays the way Sakyamuni liked to lose himself in deep thought about the evanescence of life when he was a crown prince. But once the statue became an independent form, it became known as the “Pensive Bodhisattva” once and for all. This particular statue was discovered in Mulgeum, Yangsan, so some experts consider that it was made in Silla, but the location of its excavation is not sufficient evidence for determining its true origin, as such a small gilt-bronze statue could have been easily moved. There is a faint smile on the round, plump face, and the creases of the clothes on the legs are portrayed in great detail. This is considered to be one of the Buddhist statues with the greatest aesthetic value from the Three Kingdoms Period.
Excavated in Seonggeon-dong of Gyeongju, this gilt bronze Pensive Bodhisattva wears a three-peaked official headdress and is virtually bare-chested. Though this statue does not demonstrate a sophisticated casting technique or many details of expression, it takes the same form as the gilt bronze Pensive Bodhisattva designated National Treasure No. 83, indicating that this type of iconography was popular in Silla.
This statue was originally housed in Geumsanjae, which was the shrine by the Tomb of General Kim Yoo-shin in Mt. Songhwasan, Gyeongju, but it was moved to the museum in 1930. The pensive Bodhisattva statue sits on a chair with its right foot crossed on top of the left knee; the two arms were lost long ago. A plain necklace is embossed onto the naked upper body. The pedestal has two tiers: a square upper tier and circular lower tier. The Bodhisattva's left foot rests on a lotus flower that extends from the circular pedestal at the bottom. As with the Bodhisattva found at Bukji-ri of Bonghwa, Gyeongsangbuk-do, which is now housed in the Kyungpook National University Museum, the excavation site of this representative Bodhisattva from Silla is clearly known.
Just below the right cheek are the slight remnants of fingers holding the chin, which leads one to presume that this head once belonged to a statue of a pensive Bodhisattva. In the round and lump face, the eyes are lightly closed and the two lips are pressed against each other in a faint smile. Despite the lack of a body, this statue, which was excavated from Hwangnyongsa Temple site, Gyeongju, is regarded as one of the representative Bodhisattva statues of Silla, because of its friendly face and gentle smile, which vividly evoke a real person.
Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara (Unified Silla(668~935)) by unknownGyeongju National Museum
Avalokitesvara is known as Gwaneum bosal or Gwanse-eum bosal, and symbolizes
mercy. To put mercy into practice, Avalokitesvara materializes into different
forms to people who need help according to their situations. In general, the Bodhisattva
is presented with a coronal inlayed with a small Nirmana-Buddha and holding a
According to the Illustrative Anthology of Joseon’s Historical Remains, this statue is the Avalokitesvara that stood to the right of the Buddha statue that was found at the Jungsaengsa Temple site on Mt. Nangsan, Gyeongju. The carving of the eleven Bodhisattva faces in a line around the head was unprecedented in China and Japan. The left arm and hand, holding a kundika bottle, and the left foot, were recently restored based on estimations of their original appearance.
This Avalokitesvara statue was buried near the western slopes of Mt. Nangsan. The weight of the body leans to the left, giving the waist an extra curve in the shape of three valleys. The face and arms are relatively longer than other parts of the body, while the lower body is rather short. A tall jeweled crown rests atop the head, above the oblong face with full cheeks. The large hole in the middle of the forehead marks the urna. Judging by the optimal proportions of the body parts and the elaborate details, the statue is believed to date back to the Unified Silla Period (8th century).
In Buddhism, the eight divinities (deva, naga, yaksa, Gandharva, Asura, Garuda, Kimnara, Mahoraga) represent the diversity of all living things including gods and monsters. The eight divinities were formalized in Buddhist art as the beings that accept the Buddha’s teachings and protect the dharma. They can be mostly seen on the façade of stone pagodas built in the latter stage of Unified Silla, including the antechamber of Seokguram Grotto.
The Eight Divine Beings, originally native gods in India, were appropriated as the eight guardians of Buddhist sutras when Buddhism was founded. In Korea, they frequently appeared as engravings on stone stupas, monuments, and lamps from the 8th century onwards. Asura (right) and Gandharva (above), engraved onto the upper-level base stone of a stone stupa, were discovered at the Damamsa Temple site. Gandharva is sheathed in armor, wearing a lion crown, and also sits on a cloud. Both images, carved in great detail with the utmost dexterity and elaborate technique, are estimated to be from the Unified Silla Period in the 8th century.
The Eight Divine Beings, originally native gods in India, were appropriated as the eight guardians of Buddhist sutras when Buddhism was founded. In Korea, they frequently appeared as engravings on stone stupas, monuments, and lamps from the 8th century onwards. Asura (right) and Gandharva (above), engraved onto the upper-level base stone of a stone stupa, were discovered at the Damamsa Temple site. Asura has three different faces and eight hands, each holding a different object, and sits on a cloud. Both images, carved in great detail with the utmost dexterity and elaborate technique, are estimated to be from the Unified Silla Period in the 8th century.
The Garuda was excavated from the site of Cheongwansa Temple connected to the love story of Kim Yusin (595~673) and Cheongwannyeo. Also known as Geumsijo(Bird with Gold Wings), Garuda is a fanciful bird that appears in ancient Indian myths and is said to eat dragons. In Buddhist art, Garudas are characteristically expressed with bird’s beaks. This Garuda appears to be descending from heaven with a flowing celestial robe, sitting on a cloud and dressed in armor with the body slightly twisted. Such a posture is imbued with liveliness and naturalness.
Śarīra contain the cremated remains of eminent monks. When the historical Buddha Śākyamuni died, his body was cremated and buried in eight different tombs called stupas. Stupas are the predecessors of pagodas and were transmitted to China via Central Asia. On the Korean peninsula, pagodas first took after Chinese wooden and brick designs, but soon stone pagodas also proliferated. The house-shaped śarīra reliquaries discovered at the sites of Gameunsa Temple, Songnimsa Temple, and the Seoktap Pagoda of Bulguksa Temple were unique to Silla. Made of a variety of materials including gold, silver, and bronze, these reliquaries showcase the sophistication of Silla metal work.
Built in 634, the third year of Queen Seondeok’s reign, Mojeon Seoktap Stone Pagoda was made by layering granite in the shape of bricks and displays the characteristics of a stone pagoda from the early Silla period. The pagoda has been restored to a height of three stories, but the overall proportion and number of stones found around the pagoda reveal that the original height must have been nine stories. During the restoration of the stone pagoda in 1915, a stone container was found between the second and third levels of the main body. Made of granite, the lid measures 63 centimeters in length and width. The body itself consists of polished natural stones with a square space carved out for the burial of śarīra reliquaries and a variety of precious offerings. On one side of the body is a drainage channel for rain water and the body is fitted with protrusions to prevent the lid and the body from being separated. Inside the stone container are shards of a green glass śarīra reliquary and a silver tureen that appears to have been placed inside when the pagoda was repaired during the Goryeo Period. Inside the silver tureen was a śarīra wrapped in silk. Offerings that were buried along with the śarīra include fragments of gilt bronze ornaments whose use is not clearly known, a needle container, scissors, a perfume bottle, gold and silver needles, shells, various jades, and two Chinese coins.
In 1962, this agalmatolite sarira chest, containing a green glass sarira bottle and 99 miniature clay stupas, was discovered in a sarira casket located on top of the base stone of the first story of the three-story East Stone Stupa at the temple site in Seodong-ri. The mini stupas were made in a mould and fired, and then covered with white chalk. Each of them has a small hole in the bottom, where a Dharani sutra scroll was rolled and inserted, before the hole was closed with a wooden plug. Although none of the wooden plugs remain, small pieces of paper that are presumed to be original Dharani sutra scrolls have actually been found inside some of the mini stupas. This discovery illustrates the enactment of the Spotless Pure Light Dharani Sutra’s instruction that making 77 or 99 mini stupas containing sutra scrolls and placing them in an actual stupa would help a person to do enough good deeds to be reborn in the Tusita Heaven.
Three-story Stone Stupa from Goseonsa Temple Site (Unified Silla, 7th century) by unknownGyeongju National Museum
pagodas that were based on Chinese brick pagodas were built in Silla during the
Three Kingdoms Period. This was unlike Baekje, which recaptured the appearance
of wooden pagodas in stone form. In stone brick pagodas, bricks were not made
of clay, but of stones polished in the form of bricks. During Unified Silla,
stone pagodas that imitated the form of brick pagodas were also built. Such
stone pagodas have the characteristic podium on top of the roof, resembling a
This three-story stone stupa from the Goseonsa Temple Site, along with the east and west three-story stone stupas in Gameunsa Temple, is thought to represent the original form of common stone stupas from the Unified Silla Period. A number of stone plates were assembled to form both the two-tiered base and the stupa portion of the third story. The first story bears engravings of a guardian on all four sides, and small holes on the surface indicate where gilt-bronze plates would have been attached. Before the stone stupa was moved, a hole for a sarira casket was found inside the third story, but the whereabouts of the reliquary is unknown.
This stone stupa was found collapsed at a temple site in Seungsogol Valley near Mt. Namsan, Gyeongju, and was moved to the museum and restored. Part of the pagoda and the roof stone is missing. This stone stupa bears all the hallmarks of stupas built in the latter part of the Unified Silla Period: four base stones, a standardized engraving of the Four Heavenly Deities, and a decorative motif on its surface.
Buddhist Temple Bells
Buddhist temple bells are used to inform those at the temple of the time of day or in the performance of ceremonies and rituals. The sounds of these bells are often likened to the words of the Buddha and are said to save those suffering in hell.
The Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, which was crafted in 771 CE, during the reign of King Hyegong, is also known as the Bell of Bongdeoksa Temple. This masterpiece served as a model for Buddhist bells in the Unified Silla Period, and demonstrates how advanced the metal crafting technology of that time really was. On top of the bell, two dragon-shaped ornaments create a ring from which the bell was hung, and behind the neck of each dragon ornament is a reverberation pipe. Both the top and bottom edges of the bell feature beautiful engravings of peony vines, while similar designs adorn the borders of the four rectangular panels on the upper part of the bell, surrounding nine lotus flower designs. Below these panels, two “apsaras” (Buddhist nymphs) sit facing one another, each gripping an incense burner with handle. Between the apsaras, approximately 1,000 characters explain the reason for making the bell and list the names of the people who participated in the process.
The Silla Art Exhibition Hall of GNM
The Silla Art Exhibition Hall consists of the Buddhist Arts Gallery, Hwangnyongsa Gallery, and the Kukeun Memorial Gallery. Buddhist sculptures are also on display in the ground-floor lobby and at the mezzanine level. Most notable ones include the Maitreya Buddha Triad moved from Jangchanggol Valley on Namsan Mountain, the Bhaisajyaguru Buddha from Baengnyulsa Temple, and the ridge-end ornamental tile found in the Hwangnyongsa Temple site, among others. The museum shop selling souvenirs is located on the first floor of this hall.