Essay by Kang Kyungnam
In 1123, Xu Jing, an envoy from China’s Song Dynasty, stayed in Goryeo for about one month, carrying out various diplomatic duties and exploring the new society and culture. Based on his experience, Xu Jing wrote Illustrated Record of the Chinese Embassy to the Goryeo Court in the Xuanhe Era (宣和奉使高麗圖經). The book includes a chapter called “Vessels” (器皿), in which the author describes various types of Goryeo vessels. Notably, that chapter includes a section called “Ceramic Incense Burners” (陶爐), which mentions a “lion-shaped incense burner.”
The relevant section reads:
The lion-shaped incense burner is covered with jade-green glaze and has an animal crouching on top, supported by lotus flowers. Among the wealth of wonderful objects, this one is the most magnificent. Goryeo celadon wares generally resemble the antique jade color of Yuezhou wares, or the celadon wares from the official Ru (汝) kilns.
(狻猊出香 亦翡色也 上爲 蹲獸 下有仰蓮以承之 諸器 惟此物最精絕 其餘 則越州古秘色 汝州新窯器 大槩相類)
This record, which is now regarded as one of the most significant records evidencing the overall excellence of Goryeo ceramics, seems to have been inspired by a single item: a lion-shaped incense burner. Xu Jing clearly had a deep appreciation for the quality of the jade-colored glaze and the unique lion decoration. Despite a few minor differences, this incense burner with lion cover (National Treasure 60) is the extant artifact that most closely resembles the description from the record.
An incense burner with a lion cover
The lid of the incense burner is sculpted like a lion, and the three legs of the bowl are shaped like the legs of an animal. The smoke from the incense would waft through the open mouth of the lion. The lion’s ears hang low against its handsome mane, while the nose is turned upward. The ferocious nature of the lion is evident in its powerful paws and fierce, even teeth, which are visible through the open mouth. The flat tail curls up against the sleek body, conveying a sense of stability. The lion has some very interesting features that are rarely seen in other ceramic lions produced during the Goryeo period. For example, its right paw is resting on a “cintamani” (auspicious jewel) and there is a bell hanging on its chest.
Recently, it has been noted that two similar incense burners with lion covers were recovered from a shipwreck in the waters near Mado Island in Taean, South Chungcheong Province (not pictured here). As compared to this one, those two incense burners are slightly unbalanced in their shape and the facial expressions. But the overall similarity seems to confirm that incense burners with lion decorations were popularly used in the Goryeo period.
An incense burner with openwork geometric design
During the Goryeo Dynasty, celadon incense burners with various shapes were produced. For example, another masterpiece that encapsulates the excellence of Goryeo celadon is a celadon incense burner with openwork geometric design (National Treasure 95).
This incense burner has a spherical lid decorated with an openwork design of interlocking rings, along with a lotus-shaped bowl and a square base that rests on the backs of three tiny rabbits. These three sections with very different shapes are organically combined to form a unified aesthetic work that is both beautiful and functional. For instance, the openwork ring design of the lid serves as a vent allowing the incense smoke to escape. Each point where the rings intersect is marked with a small dot of white inlaid clay. The bowl takes the form of a lotus flower in full bloom, with leaves that were individually sculpted with a mold. For added delicacy, the veins of each petal were delicately incised with fine lines.
In addition to physically supporting the base of the incense burner, the three cute rabbits also play a fundamental role in completing the formal beauty of the work. Although they are small in size, the rabbits are depicted in sharp detail. Dots of iron-brown pigment were used to draw the eyes, giving the rabbits a surprisingly lifelike appearance.
Amazingly, this resplendent incense burner showcases all of the primary techniques used to decorate celadon vessels: incision, embossing, painting, inlay, openwork, appliqué, and sculpting of natural forms. As such, it is one of the true ceramic treasures representing the golden age of Goryeo celadon in the twelfth century.
A culture of incense burning
The sheer variety of Goryeo celadon incense burners demonstrates how widespread the culture of incense burning was during the period. People burned incense for three primary reasons: to repel various types of vermin (including moths that could damage clothing), to cover up foul odors, and for religious rituals and ceremonies. Although there are virtually no detailed records describing how people burned the incense, some sources have provided us with a glimpse of the incense culture of Goryeo.
For instance, a few interesting details about incense burning can be found in The Collected Works of Goryeo Prime Minister Yi Gyubo (東國李相國集). In part of this text, the scholar and government official Yi Gyubo writes about his life at a secluded hermitage, where he burned incense. In particular, he describes brewing tea from a stone pot, and then drinking the tea and eating tangerines amidst the scent of incense smoke. In another section, Yi Gyubo writes that, while singing at a drinking party, his throat became dry from the smoke of agarwood. These records seem to confirm that burning incense was a familiar aspect of daily life in the Goryeo period, which accompanied not only official ceremonies and religious activities, but also leisure activities. Celadon incense burners with harmonious forms, impeccable shapes, and lustrous coatings of jade-colored glaze represent the pinnacle of Goryeo celadon, combining the aesthetics of fine artworks with the efficacy of daily implements.
Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea website.
Learn more about Goryeo celadons.