Essay by Seo Yuri
Designated as Treasure 1869 in 2015, this celadon maebyeong with a cloud and crane design was featured in The New National Treasures 2014–2016 (May 13–July 9, 2017), a special exhibition to introduce items that had recently been designated as “Treasures” or “National Treasures.” Of the fifty items featured at that exhibition, this maebyeong was the only celadon vessel. With its stately form and whimsical crane design, this vase exuded a unique beauty that radiated through the gallery, capturing the hearts of all who attended that exhibition.
But what aesthetic qualities must an object possess in order to be designated as a “treasure”?
Dignity of maebyeong
With a small mouth, voluptuous shoulder, and softly curved outline, this vase exhibits the characteristic form of a Goryeo celadon maebyeong. Although maebyeong were produced from the early Goryeo period, they did not attain this beautiful shape until the twelfth century. Then, by the thirteenth century, maebyeong became larger with more exaggerated curves, until they eventually disappeared from production around the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910). Thus, the maebyeong is now considered to be one of the representative vessels of Goryeo celadon, modeling the formal changes that occurred over time. While some maebyeong were undecorated, others are decorated with incised, embossed, or inlaid patterns, or painted with iron-brown or copper-red underglaze.
Being slightly smaller than the average Goryeo maebyeong (30–40 cm tall), this maebyeong has a neat and compact look. It has a flared mouth and short neck atop the broad shoulder, which sweeps smoothly down to the base in an elegant S-curve. While the wide shoulder and natural curve yield a pleasant balance, the slight flare of the base provides a sense of stability. After the ideal shape was achieved on the potter’s wheel, the delightful inlaid design of clouds and cranes was added. A slight indentation was carved into the bottom of the vessel to form the foot ring. The entire vessel, including the bottom, received a thick coating of bluish-green glaze with a lovely sheen. Before firing, the glaze was wiped off the foot ring and small pieces of fire-resistant clay mixed with black sand were attached to the foot. With its superlative shape, luminous translucent glaze, and elegantly composed inlaid design, this vessel is fully deserving of its designation as Treasure 1869.
Inlaid crane and cloud design
The two greatest achievements of Goryeo celadon are the gorgeous jade-colored glaze and the celadon inlay technique, an innovation that was unique to Goryeo. The inlay technique involves carving lines or images into the base clay, and then filling the carved areas with white or red ocher clay (which turns black during firing) to create designs of multiple colors. Significantly, the three types of clay—base clay, white clay, and red ocher clay—expand at different rates during firing, so the inlay technique required the most advanced level of ceramic technology. This maebyeong exemplifies the elegant beauty that could be achieved with the inlay technique.
Both the mouth and foot of this vase are encircled by an abstract labyrinth motif, colloquially known as the “lightning pattern.” Made with black inlay, these two decorative bands provide a balanced composition for a more refined appearance. Meanwhile, the body is adorned with a striking design of cranes flying through the clouds, with the jade-colored glaze serving as the background sky.
With cranes and clouds liberally spaced across the wide surface, with plenty of blank space in between, the design yields a sense of lyricism and liberation. The cranes are rendered in individual detail, as they soar in all directions through the air; one turns its head back while flying horizontally, while another stretches its neck to raise its head. This variety of poses produces a pleasant rhythm, as if the cranes are engaged in an animated conversation. While the bodies of the cranes were done in white inlay, black inlay was used to highlight the bills, eyes, legs, and some feathers. Such a sophisticated depiction, based on the strong black and white contrast, is truly a remarkable achievement in the world of ceramics.
In Korea, designs of cranes appeared very early in history, but such designs were not used as the primary decoration for ceramics until the twelfth century, the golden age of Goryeo celadon with jade-colored glaze. Of course, cranes are actual birds from nature, but they have always been surrounded by an air of mystery and elegance, often being seen as mystical beings that soar through the sky. In Asian lore, cranes have been associated with famous recluses and Taoist immortals, who are often shown riding the large white birds. With their long neck and legs, graceful posture, and pure white feathers, cranes are a popular auspicious symbol in many parts of Asia. They also symbolize long life as one of the “ten longevity symbols.”
As seen here, cranes are often depicted flying through clouds. The clouds on this vase, which are shaped like blooming flowers, always point upwards, and thus convey a rising sensation. From antiquity, clouds have been considered sacred elements of nature, along with the sun, moon, stars, and wind. Clouds were particularly revered by agricultural societies, which adopted them as auspicious symbols of longevity and abundance. This explains why cloud designs can be found throughout Korean culture, not only in Goryeo celadon, but also in tomb murals and on ancient metalwares.
As we know, cranes and clouds are real things from the natural world. But when they are combined in these designs, they take on a mystical symbolism, representing miraculous power and conveying the desire for longevity. Such designs tend to have an abundance of blank space, and thus also express feelings of freedom and unrestraint. The crane and cloud design on this vase may represent the dream of the Goryeo people to live like Taoist immortals. But in any case, with its meticulous composition and outstanding inlaid design, it certainly showcases the glorious aesthetics of the Goryeo Dynasty.
How to be designated as a treasure
How does an artifact come to be designated as a treasure? In Korea, exemplary objects of state heritage may be officially designated by the government as either a “Treasure” or “National Treasure.” These designations are granted based on the recommendations of the Cultural Heritage Committee, which meets every two months to evaluate nominated artworks, artifacts, and objects, as well as intangible cultural activities or traditions. The committee is obligated to publish the list of items being reviewed at least thirty days in advance of its final report. The committee’s final report is then evaluated by the chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration, who gives the final approval for the “Treasure” designations. The full criteria and procedure for designating “Treasures” and “National Treasures” are specified in Articles 11 and 17 of the “Enforcement Decree of the Cultural Protection Act.”
Through this procedure, this maebyeong was designated as Treasure 1869 in 2015. In its final report, the Cultural Heritage Committee wrote the following evaluation of the maebyeong:
Produced in the mid-Goryeo period, this representative maebyeong is made from the highest quality celadon and has many outstanding features, including its shape, glaze color, decorative patterns, firing conditions, and state of preservation. Among the relatively many celadon vessels with cloud and crane designs that have survived, this one exudes a particular beauty from its harmonious use of open space, adept composition, and jade-green glaze color. In addition, it is in excellent condition, with almost no scratches.
On its website, the Cultural Heritage Administration publishes all of the evaluations of the Cultural Heritage Committee, as well as the notifications of items to be designated as “Treasure” and “National Treasure.” In addition to admiring the aesthetic beauty of this maebyeong, readers are encouraged to deepen their appreciation by examining the reasons and procedure for its designation as a “Treasure.”
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.