Matthew Jackson reports from the “Smile of Buddha” exhibition in Brussels
I had never been to the Bozar Centre (French: “Palais des Beaux-Arts”) in Belgium prior to the current “Smile of Buddha” exhibition of Korean Buddhist art. It is an impressive place (right) and I highly recommend it if you are ever in Brussels.
The exhibition included items that seldom leave Korea, including the Pensive Bodhisattva, certain Koryo Buddhist Paintings, and the Silla Gold Crown. Also included were prints of murals, statuettes and triads, roof tiles, and sculptures and paintings from the Joseon period.
One of the exhibition staff told me that he preferred the Koryo to the Joseon period in terms of the art it produced. As a Buddhist, I am inclined to agree with him! The Kingdom of Silla, a devoutly Buddhist state, was known to Arabian historians as a country where works of gold were common, used even in dog chains and monkey collars.
The finest of the Silla gold works were the golden crowns, discovered in the Royal tombs around the ancient capital of Kyongju. The most splendid of these crowns is the one discovered at Hwang-nam, one of around ten gold crowns of pure gold that survive in the world today from ancient times (eight of which are Korean in origin).
The crown is shaped like a tree branch or antler. This is a typical Korean reference to nature – trees were believed to be intermediaries between earth and heaven, as their roots spread far down into the earth and their branches stretched skyward. The antler was significant in shamanist beliefs as representing the reindeer, otherwise known as “the gentleman of the forest”, and a symbol of longevity.
The basic structure of the crown was decorated with twisted wires and ornaments of gold and jade, which vibrated (audibly, as well as visually) at every movement, like leaves in a golden forest. The jade attachments represented an embryo, symbolizing abundance and fertility.
Like most of my favourite things about Korea, the gold crown made virtually no impression upon when I was first introduced to it. While most golden crowns were made with gilt, primarily as display of power, the pure gold of the Silla crowns is a testament to the gratitude of the subject who made it for the king. Like most Korean objets d’art, its virtue lies hidden, and requires persistence to discover it.