Essay by Kang Kyungnam
Designated as National Treasure 94, this melon-shaped bottle is one of the quintessential works of Goryeo celadon. It is believed to have been found in the tomb of King Injong, the seventeenth king of the Goryeo Dynasty. Also discovered in the tomb was a sichaek (諡冊) that was dated “Sixth Year of Huangtong” (皇統六年, the Jin era name), which corresponds to 1146 on the Roman calendar. Thus, this vase exemplifies the Goryeo royal court’s exceptional taste for fine celadon.
Showcasing the famous jade-colored glaze of Goryeo
With its exquisite shape and lustrous glaze color, this melon-shaped bottle epitomizes the beauty of Goryeo celadon. One of the most striking features is the unique form, which delivers a pleasant sense of tension, but also a carefree elegance. The mouth is shaped like a flower with eight petals, and the long, slender neck curves gently into the round body that is shaped like a chamoe (Korean melon). At the bottom is a tall foot that resembles a pleated skirt. The body is divided into lobes by vertical indentations, forming soft curves that accentuate the sense of tautness and volume. These curves are offset by the sharp, straight creases in the foot, yielding a harmonious contrast. The body is joined to both the neck and foot by horizontal protruding lines, a detail likely borrowed from metalcrafts, while three incised lines decorate the neck.
The glaze was wiped off the bottom, which shows traces of seven pieces of fire-resistant clay, where the vase was placed during firing. This vase is estimated to have been produced in the Goryeo celadon kilns in Sadang-ri, Gangjin, South Jeolla Province. Excavations of the Sadang-ri kilns have yielded celadon shards with the same shape and quality as this vase.
Two characteristics that exemplify the unique aesthetics of Goryeo celadon are the jade-colored glaze and the inlay technique. This vase is particularly acclaimed for its superb glaze, which features an ideal jade color and subtle gloss. Evenly applied across the entire surface, the layer of glaze is filled with tiny bubbles, but shows no hairline cracks. Upon close examination, the light penetrates the translucent glaze to illuminate the base clay.
Serene beauty from form and color
For centuries, people have compared the luminescent green glaze of Goryeo celadon to jade. This is confirmed by Illustrated Record of the Chinese Embassy to the Goryeo Court in the Xuanhe Era, which was written by a Song-Dynasty (960–1279) envoy named Xu Jing, who had spent a month in Goryeo in 1123. In this book, Xu Jing wrote, “The Goryeo people say that the glaze on their celadon is the color of jade” (陶器色之靑者 麗人謂之翡色). In addition, in Brocade in the Sleeve (袖中錦), the Song-Dynasty writer Taiping Laoren (太平老人) proclaimed that the “jade-colored celadon of Goryeo is the best under heaven” (高麗秘色 天下第一). These records demonstrate that the superb beauty of Goryeo celadon was recognized even by the ceramic masters of China. This lobed vase showcases the same jade-colored glaze that was praised by Xu Jing and Taiping Laoren.
Vases with a lobed body, such as this one, were popularly produced by the Cizhou kilns, the Jingdezhen kilns, and the Yaozhou kilns of China’s Song Dynasty. The form was then transmitted to Goryeo celadon in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. There were some variations between Chinese and Goryeo lobed vases, however, as demonstrated by a qingbai lobed vase, produced at the Jingdezhen kilns, that was excavated in Gaeseong. While the qingbai vase has an extremely voluminous body, with a short neck and low foot, this Goryeo lobed vase has a more proportional and harmonious form.
This vessel is said to have been excavated from the tomb of King Injong, along with a celadon cup with lid, a celadon case, and a celadon stand. With precise shapes, minimal decoration, and an even coating of jade-colored glaze, these objects reflect the refined taste of the Goryeo royal court in the early twelfth century.
Celadon Maebyeong with Lotus Scroll Design
While the melon-shaped bottle has a serene beauty from its exquisite shape and jade glaze, other Goryeo celadon objects have elaborate designs that convey a more dynamic beauty. For example, this celadon maebyeong with lotus scroll design is completely covered with a design of lotus flowers rendered with thick lines.
As opposed to Chinese maebyeong, which often have rather sharp lines, Goryeo maebyeong are characterized by softer, more elegant curves, as seen here. At 43.9 cm in height, this maebyeong is quite tall. The form roughly resembles an upside-down pyramid, with the voluptuous shoulder firmly supported by the stout base. The entire surface is covered with a vivid design of large lotus flowers with scrolling stems and leaves. In contrast to the thickly carved outlines, the veins of the flowers and leaves are delicately incised with fine lines. Encircling the base is an abstract labyrinth motif, colloquially known as the “lightning pattern.” The surface is evenly coated with translucent glaze with a light green hue, which is now infused with some hairline cracks. The vase was made with refined base clay of the highest quality, matching shards found at the kiln sites of Sadang-ri, Gangjin, South Jeolla Province, which represent the peak period of Goryeo celadon.
A maebyeong (梅甁), or “plum vase,” is a large ceramic vase that held flowers or liquids, and was usually meant to be appreciated in an indoor space. Many maebyeong have a trapezoidal lid, indicating that such vessels were likely used to store wine or other liquids. Recently, two maebyeong with a bamboo tag that read “蜜” (“honey”) were excavated near Mado Island in the Yellow Sea, confirming that maebyeong could also be used to store oils, sauces, or other viscous foods.
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.