Uses of Art

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

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Burial Urn with Stamp Design (Unified Silla Period, 8th century) by UnknownNational Museum of Korea

ART FOR RITUAL

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. 

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

Storage Jar (3rd-4th century) by KoreanThe 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.

Celadon Duck-shaped Incense Burner (Goryeo Dynasty, 12th century) by UnknownNational Museum of Korea

ART IN THE LIFE OF THE ELITE

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. 

Hear from Beatrice Chan, curatorial assistant for Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
00:00

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.

Korean Celadon (2016) by Suh Se OkThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Celadon Bottle (late 11th-early 12th century) by KoreanThe 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.

Inlaid Celadon Bowl (918 - 1392 AD) by KoreanThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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.

Celadon Vase (Maebyeong) with Inlaid Cloud and Crane Pattern (Goryeo Dynasty, 12th century) by UnknownNational Museum of Korea

Hear from Beatrice Chan, curatorial assistant for Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
00:00

The clouds and cranes are auspicious symbols of immortality.

Celadon Ritual Ewer (Kundika) with Incised Peony and Arabesque Pattern (Goryeo Dynasty, 12th century) by UnknownNational Museum of Korea

ART IN THE TEMPLE

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.

Buddhist Ritual Sprinkler (Kundika), Korean, 12th - 13th century, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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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."

Celadon Ritual Ewer (Kundika) with Incised Peony and Arabesque Pattern, Unknown, Goryeo Dynasty, 12th century, From the collection of: National Museum of Korea
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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.

Phoenix Jar (17th century) by KoreanThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

ART AT COURT

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").

Blue and White Porcelain Jar with Phoenix Design (Joseon Dynasty, 19th century) by UnknownNational Museum of Korea

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
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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