Essay by Lee Byeongho
Warmth, gentility, and sophistication are often mentioned as the quintessential characteristics of Baekje art. In particular, the designs on Baekje tiles and roof tiles are much more elegant and sophisticated than those found on contemporaneous tiles from other kingdoms. These characteristics are exemplified by eight Baekje tiles with diverse designs that were excavated from a site in Oe-ri, Buyeo, during the Japanese colonial period.
The eight tiles include a pair with landscape designs, a pair with beast designs, and a set of four tiles respectively featuring images of a dragon, phoenix, lotus flower, and lotus clouds. All of the tiles are roughly the same size, measuring approximately 28–29 cm per side with a thickness of around 4 cm. All four corners of the tiles have square indentations, which is likely where some type of connector was inserted to join the tiles together. This suggests that the tiles may have been used to decorate walls, rather than to pave floors.
Linked designs on the tiles
The tiles from Oe-ri can be divided into two groups: Group A, consisting of the two pairs of tiles (respectively decorated with landscape designs and beast designs), and Group B, consisting of the four tiles with individual designs, which comprise a set. On the tiles of Group A, the landscape and beast designs fill the entire front surface, with a partial mountain motif in one of the lower corners. When the tiles are placed side-by-side, these partial mountain motifs align to form an entire mountain.
On the tiles of Group B, each of the respective designs (of a dragon, phoenix, lotus flower, and lotus clouds) is framed by a circle of small beads or dots. In one corner of each tile, there is a partial motif of a flower; when the tiles are placed together to form a large square, these partial flower motifs align to form an entire flower, clearly demonstrating that the tiles were produced as a contiguous set.
Striking similarity of the designs
The beast designs on the two tiles are remarkably similar. In both designs, the beasts have outstretched arms and mouths agape in a grotesque grin. The expression of their bodies and the shape of their belts are also almost identical. The only difference between the two tiles is the respective designs beneath their feet; one is shown standing on a lotus flower motif, while the other is standing on flowing water and uniquely shaped rocks. Thus, the former is known as the “lotus-type” beast design, and the latter is known as the “rock-type” beast design.
Long before the development of photocopiers and 3D printers, how were ancient people able to make such pristine copies of these images? When the tiles were first discovered, it was theorized that the same mold had been used to make the two beast images, with only the base of the design being changed. As mentioned, the designs are almost identical in form, although the “rock-type” design is slightly sharper and more clearly rendered than the “lotus-type” design. The dimensions of the two tiles are also almost the same (around 28–29.4 cm per side, with a thickness of 4–4.3 cm). Notably, when two tiles are produced from the same mold, there is often a slight difference in size, due to shrinkage.
One way to clarify this issue is to check the tiles for marks or defects from the mold. With repetitive use, wooden molds often accumulate various marks of wear and abrasion, which can then be rendered onto the design; if the same mold was used for each tile, then similar defects should appear on both tiles in roughly the same area. As shown in the photographs, identical marks from the mold can be seen on both tiles (although the marks are clearer on the “rock-type” design). Thus, the evidence suggests that the two tiles were produced with the same mold.
Which tile was cast first?
If the two tiles were indeed made with the same mold, as seems to be the case, which of the two was produced first? Here, the fact that the tile with the “rock-type” design is sharper and clearer becomes crucial. Also of note, the rock-and-water motif in the “rock-type” design is both larger and more three-dimensional than the lotus motif on the other tile. Furthermore, as illustrated in the photos, the beast on the “rock-type” design has a tongue and two extra teeth that are not depicted in the “lotus-type” design. These details are believed to have been added to the mold after the production of the tile with the “lotus-type” design. Based on all of these factors, we can infer that the tile with the “lotus-type” beast design was produced before the tile with the “rock-type” design.
Supporting this hypothesis, the rock-and-water motif in the “rock-type” design seems to bear slight traces of the lotus motif from the “lotus-type” design. These traces are quite minute, so it is possible that some of them may have been formed by chance. But with the analysis all but confirming that the two tiles were produced from the same mold, it is definitely plausible to suggest that these traces are indeed remnants of the lotus motif that were not completely removed before the mold was recycled.
We can only speculate as to why the same mold was used to make two different tiles. The two tiles may have been intended to depict two different worlds: the world of Buddhism, represented by the lotus motif, and the world of Taoist sages, represented by the rock-and-water motif. Thus, the craftspeople may have decided that it was easier to simply switch the base, rather than creating an entirely new tile. Whatever the case, the beast seems to represent an auspicious creature of each world.
Tiles with beast designs
Like the tiles discussed above, many roof tiles and roof-end tiles from ancient Korea are decorated with designs of frightening demonic creatures. Some such designs show the entire body of the creature, while others feature only the face. Who or what were these demonic designs intended to express? One theory is that, although these creatures have typically been referred to as “beasts” or “monsters,” they may actually be dragons.
A large tile with a dragon design on two sides, dating from the Unified Silla Period, was discovered in Joongsan-ri, Nongso-myeon, Ulsan. When looking straight at the corner of the tile (i.e., where the mouths of the two dragons meet), the designs coalesce to resemble the face of a beast. Hence, some researchers have suggested that the so-called “beast” designs are actually intended to express dragons.
Notably, however, one of the eight tiles found in Oe-ri, Buyeo, features a dragon design that completely differs from the two tiles with the beast design. Thus, it seems unlikely that these two disparate designs are each intended to represent dragons. Another possibility is that the beast creature is meant to represent a “Taotie” (饕餮), a mythical creature that frequently appears on ancient Chinese bronze vessels. Regardless of their intended meaning, such tiles will likely continue to be referred to as tiles with a “beast” or “monster” design.
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.