Essay by Jang Sungwook
With its resplendent jade-colored glaze and inlay decoration, this large maebyeong with peony design represents the peak of Goryeo celadon. In particular, this is an extremely rare extant example of a Goryeo celadon maebyeong with an inlaid design highlighted with copper-red pigment. With its vibrant aesthetics and singular status, this maebyeong is fully deserving of its designation as Treasure 346.
The elegantly curved body is adorned with three separate inlaid designs of large peony flowers and stems. The petals, stamens, and pistils of the peonies are rendered in incredible detail for an inlaid design. To enhance the beauty and vivacity of the designs, the petals are highlighted with copper-red underglaze, making it seem as if the flowers are in full bloom. Most notably, the peonies are rendered at various angles, rather than simply standing straight up, for an amazingly lifelike depiction. The blushing petals, bent stems, and sprouting leaves convey the illusion that the flowers are swaying in a gentle breeze.
Around the upper shoulder are four chrysanthemum scroll designs inside ogival frames. The frames are drawn with inlaid lines of white clay, outlined on both sides with thin lines of red ocher clay (which turns black during firing), with three small beads dangling from the lower ends of the frames. Inside the frames, the chrysanthemums, also rendered with thin black and white inlay, evince a subtle sense of motion, much like the peonies. The base is encircled by a ring of lotus petals in white inlay, with a simple scroll design of short lines inside each petal. Remarkably, all of the individual shapes and motifs in the design scheme are composed in a free and harmonious way.
Quintessential features of Goryeo celadon: jade-colored glaze and inlay designs
In the early stages of the peak period of Goryeo celadon, priority was placed on the harmony between the sublime jade color and the elegant outline, rather than on elaborate designs. Thus, most vessels from this period were either undecorated or decorated with very subtle incised or embossed designs, which can only be examined from up close. These designs were often formed by allowing the glaze to collect in the lines of the pattern, giving them a natural green hue that accentuates the overall shape of the vessel.
The jade-colored glaze that gives Goryeo celadon its sublime beauty was famously praised as the “best under heaven” by one writer of the Song Dynasty. However, it is difficult to define the precise color value of the glaze. The ideal glaze should be a translucent blend of green and blue with a high gloss. But the final appearance depends in large part on how the glaze melts and collects on the surface clay; areas where the glaze is thick will appear dark and almost opaque, while areas where the glaze is thin will be light and clear, sometimes even revealing the base clay underneath.
Over time, the emphasis and value of Goryeo celadon shifted from color and shape to the inlaid designs. To create inlaid designs, the desired motif or pattern is carved into a partially dry vessel, and bisque firing is performed. After the initial firing, the carved areas are filled with white or red ocher clay, and the vessel is coated with glaze before the final firing. This technique can be used to create striking designs, thanks to the deep contrast between the red ocher and white clay. However, since the base clay, white clay, and red ocher (which becomes black) all expand at different rates when heated, inlaid vessels are prone to shatter during firing. Thus, the inlay technique required great expertise and the most advanced technology.
Maebyeong and peony
A “maebyeong” vase is characterized by a small mouth and wide, round shoulder that narrows down to a slender base. Such vases were likely used to store different types of liquid. The word “maebyeong” is derived from the Chinese “meiping,” which means “plum vase.” The term can be traced to a poem from the Song Dynasty, although it is unclear whether the original use corresponds to the vessels that are now known as “maebyeong.” The name “maebyeong” as we now understand it has been generally used in records since the eighteenth century. For example, the name is explained in the following passage from “On Bottles and Jars” in Ten Techniques of Chinese Ceramics by the Qing-Dynasty writer Xu Zhiheng:
As the small mouth is just wide enough to hold one thin branch of a plum blossom, this vessel is called a ‘meiping.’Xu Zhiheng (許之衡), “On Bottles and Jars” (說甁罐) in Ten Techniques of Chinese Ceramics (飮流齋說瓷)
During the Goryeo period, such vessels are believed to have been called “jun” (“樽” or “尊”). This estimation is based on several maebyeong with bamboo tags that were recovered from the wreckage of a Goryeo merchant vessel that sank near Mado Island (Taean, South Chungcheong Province). The bamboo tags indicated that the vessels were called jun and that they had contained either honey or sesame oil.
Although this maebyeong (Treasure 346) is not as voluminous as some, the smooth S-curve of its body is superior to earlier examples, thus demonstrating the mature phase of Goryeo inlaid celadon maebyeong. This maebyeong is embellished with an elaborate inlaid peony design. The petals are inlaid with wide swaths of white clay that have taken on a warm ivory color, while the tips of the petals and buds are tinged with dark red ocher. The stamen and pistil are depicted in minute detail with fine lines of black inlay and small white inlaid dots. The stems are outlined in black, while the leaves have white outlines and black lines representing the veins.
With their large and magnificent blossoms, peonies have long been esteemed as the “king of flowers,” or “flowers of wealth and honor.” Peonies were a very popular motif on Goryeo celadon, but few such designs can match the splendor and vivacity of this one. The bold and liberated rendering of the noble peonies epitomizes the contemporaneous taste of the Goryeo royal court and aristocracy.
In particular, peonies with red-tinged petals often appeared in poems as symbols of the authority and virtue of a king. As such, it is little surprise that they became a popular motif for Goryeo celadon, which had a revered status among the Goryeo society. As this vase demonstrates, the designs and patterns used to decorate celadon were often inspired by elements from literature and politics. In addition to their visual beauty, such designs held diverse symbolic meanings, allowing the designs to be creatively adapted to suit the changing social conditions.
Another maebyeong with peony design
For comparison, here is another maebyeong with peony design, designated as Treasure 342.
The most striking element of this maebyeong (Treasure 342) is the unique inlaid design of a scarf that appears to be draped across the mouth and shoulder. The scarf has four elongated corners adorned with tassels and beads, and is decorated with a chrysanthemum scroll design, rendered with black and white inlay. A bead pattern runs along the edge of the scarf, reminiscent of lace. Each pair of long tassels forms an arch that corresponds to the U-shaped incised clouds around the base, for a well-balanced composition.
The four sides of the body are decorated with four incised peony designs. Unlike the inlaid peonies in the above maebyeong (Treasure 346), the stems of these peonies stand straight up, which is characteristic of most peony designs on Goryeo celadon. Overall, this incised peony design presents an atmosphere of serenity, refinement, and restraint.
Although similar in size, form, and the overall composition of the peony design, these two maebyeong convey very different impressions. Nonetheless, they are both consummate vessels characterized by ideal harmony between their color, shape, and design. Meticulously planned and flawlessly executed with advanced ceramics technology, each maebyeong exemplifies a true mastery of ceramic expressions that combine resplendence and refinement.
Representing the aesthetics of the Goryeo royal court and aristocracy, Goryeo celadon is internationally renowned for its singular qualities: the exquisite beauty of the jade glaze, which is difficult to duplicate; the flowing, natural curves and precise proportions of the forms; and the highly elaborate designs and patterns. As such, all Goryeo celadon radiates with the charm and dignity of royalty. Yet even among the extant Goryeo celadon vessels, this maebyeong with inlaid peony design in copper-red underglaze stands out for its captivating design of red peonies, which is almost shockingly unconventional. With bold and free expressions rendered in a distinguished way, this maebyeong exudes an appealing and affable sensibility, thus typifying the true beauty and charm of Goryeo celadon.
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.