Essay by Suh Sungho
On October 6, 1932, workers creating a firebreak near Wolchulbong Peak (elevation: 1580 meters) on Mt. Geumgang discovered a stone casket containing an inscribed reliquary set, used to enshrine sarira. According to the inscriptions, the reliquary set was enshrined at Birobong Peak (elevation: 1638 meters) on Mt. Geumgang in May 1391 by Yi Seonggye and his wife, along with about 10,000 supporters, in order to commemorate the group’s anticipation of Maitreya Buddha’s descension to this world. Notably, approximately fourteen months later, Yi Seonggye—a military official from an influential family in the remote borderlands—led the overthrow of the Goryeo Dynasty and became King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty. It is not known why sarira reliquaries originally enshrined at Birobong Peak were discovered at Wolchulbong Peak.
Two sarira reliquary containers enclosed in a bronze container
This sarira reliquary set includes a total of nine pieces made from silver, bronze, and white porcelain, including a small container shaped like a Lama pagoda, which was placed inside other vessels. The pagoda-shaped container fit atop a short silver cylinder with a lotus support. Inside the pagoda-shaped container was a thin glass cylinder that was sealed at both ends with metal, where the actual sarira was likely kept. The exterior of the short silver cylinder is inscribed with Yi Seonggye’s name, his honorary title of “gongsin,” his government position, and his wife’s family name.
The cylinder was covered by the miniature Lama pagoda, which was made by attaching a small pagoda finial to an egg-shaped body. The egg-shaped body is incised on four sides with standing Buddhas looking straight ahead. The finial was fabricated with a highly advanced repoussé technique, which involves pressing a thin sheet of silver against an embossed incised design, and then delicately tapping the sheet until it takes on the three-dimensional form of the design.
To form the lotus support, three silver plates cut into the shapes of lotus flowers were placed atop a round base, which was then affixed to the pedestal, made from a thin sheet of silver decorated with the repoussé technique. The legs of the support have a unique shape that resembles a version of the ruyi motif.
The entire pagoda-shaped container (aside from the internal glass cylinder) is made from silver that was partially gilded with gold. Partial gilding has rarely been seen on extant Goryeo metalcrafts or sarira reliquaries, and is thus estimated to have been a new style at the time.
The pagoda-shaped container was sealed inside a larger sarira container that is shaped like an octagonal house. The house-shaped reliquary container was also assembled by fitting the body atop a short silver octagonal cylinder that is attached to a separate lotus support. The surface of the silver cylinder is inscribed with its production date (March 1390) and the names of patrons, which include noblewomen, monks, high-ranking officials, and the person who is believed to have overseen the production of the reliquary set.
The silver cylinder is covered with the house-shaped body, the surface of which is decorated with incised Buddhas, like the Lama pagoda reliquary container. The Buddhas are rendered with their feet apart, hands clasped, and looking straight ahead. Although this pose is rarely seen in Goryeo Buddhist paintings, it is fairly common in early Joseon art, and is thus considered one of the characteristic new styles of the Joseon period.
The octagonal house-shaped container was put inside a larger bronze container. In dotted lines, an inscription around the exterior of the mouth of the bronze container lists the names of the patrons who paid to have the container produced in February 1391. Notably, the inscription refers to the bronze container as a “sarira container with a lid,” although no lid was found with the container. Traces of a chisel can be discerned on both the interior and exterior of the container, indicating that it was forged, rather than cast.
White porcelain bowls, incense case, incense burner, and silver tool
A bronze bowl-shaped container (holding the house-shaped container and the pagoda-shaped reliquary container) was placed inside one of the white porcelain bowls (henceforth, bowl #2). At the time of discovery, the mouth of bowl #2 was broken. The interior well of bowl #2 bears an inscription providing more details about the reliquary set. Entitled “Enshrining Sarira on Birobong Peak of Mt. Geumgang,” the inscription states that Yi Seonggye and his wife, along with about 10,000 supporters (including a monk named Woram and various noblewomen), donated and enshrined this reliquary set on Birobong Peak of Mt. Geumgang in May 1391, to express their anticipation of Maitreya’s descension to this world.
Estimated to be an incense case, another white porcelain bowl (henceforth, bowl #1) has an inscription on the exterior surface declaring that Yi Seonggye and about 10,000 supporters donated the bowl in April 1391 while waiting for Maitreya’s descension. Although the inscriptions on the two bowls are very similar, the one on bowl #2 contains a few more details about the patrons and the location of the enshrinement.
Bowl #2 has another inscription on the foot, documenting that a monk named Singwan and a potter named Sim Ryong from Bangsan (present-day Bangsan-myeon, Yanggu-gun, Gangwon Province) jointly donated the bowl in April 1391. Thus, Sim Ryong may have created this bowl and then given it to Yi Seonggye. In recent years, excavations around Bangsan-myeon, Yanggu-gun have uncovered white porcelain shards dating from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, which have the same base clay, glaze, and firing method as these white porcelain bowls.
All of the white porcelain vessels from this sarira reliquary set—bowl #1, bowl #2, two more white porcelain bowls (henceforth, bowls #3 and #4), and a white porcelain incense burner—have great significance in the history of Korean ceramics. These vessels are made from a new type of white porcelain, which differs from contemporaneous Goryeo white porcelain. They are considered to represent the precursor to the “hard quality” white porcelain that the Joseon Dynasty became famous for. Furthermore, the inscriptions confirm that these vessels were produced in Bangsan, information that has tremendous historical value.
Thus far, all of the vessels that have been discussed have inscriptions, but the reliquary set also includes four items with no inscription: a small silver tool, bowl #3, bowl #4, and a white porcelain incense burner. Made by tapping a long sheet of silver, the small silver tool has sometimes been called an “earpick,” although it was more likely used to scoop the sarira into the container. The incense burner follows the overall style of Goryeo incense burners, although with the unique detail of having a foot, rather than a flared base. Bowls #3 and #4 were likely used as the lids for bowls #1 and #2, respectively.
Although it is not particularly ornate, the sarira reliquary set has great significance for art history. Both the partial gilding technique and the repoussé technique are decorative styles that have rarely been seen on other contemporaneous metalcrafts. In addition, the depiction of the Buddhas looking straight ahead on the two metal containers resembles early Joseon art, rather than late Goryeo art. As mentioned, the white porcelain vessels correspond to the new “hard quality” white porcelain of the Joseon period, rather than contemporaneous Goryeo white porcelain. Representing a bridge between art of the late Goryeo and early Joseon periods, this sarira reliquary set is an invaluable artifact that enhances our understanding of the overall development of Korean art.
Artworks with unparalleled historical significance
Beyond its status as a work of art, this sarira reliquary set has unparalleled significance for Korean history, because of its relation to Yi Seonggye, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty. As a military official from an influential family in the borderlands, Yi Seonggye initially had no power or prestige in the Goryeo central government. But because of his role in repelling foreign attacks by Japanese pirates and quelling the Red Turban Rebellion, he became a war hero and a revered defender of the nation and royal court. As a result, this little-known figure from a remote area quickly rose to power, gaining a following among the government and the general public.
In the midst of territorial conflicts with China’s Ming Dynasty, Goryeo’s King U became determined to attack the Liaodong region. By royal order, Yi Seonggye was chosen to lead the Goryeo troops for this attack. But opposing the attack, Yi made the momentous decision to turn the army around at Wihwa Island, near the border formed by the Amnokgang River. Just as it would be today, turning the troops around was an act of treason, which could have cost Yi his life. Instead, he led a successful coup, eliminating his political opponents and taking over Gaegyeong, Goryeo’s capital. Thus, a once obscure military figure had assumed total control of the Goryeo Dynasty.
In May 1391, Yi Seonggye and his followers dedicated this sarira reliquary set on Birobong Peak of Mt. Geumgang, which is believed to have been a sacred Buddhist site. Three years had passed since Yi seized power, and his political ambitions were at their zenith. Also in May 1391, a group of powerful literati who followed Yi enacted the Gwajeon Law, an extensive and unprecedented land reform. This law enabled Yi and his followers to repossess large parcels of land that had been illegally occupied by the existing Goryeo powers. Other beneficiaries of the Gwajeon Law included farmers whose land had been taken or whose harvests were plundered by the Goryeo rulers.
Within this context, Yi Seonggye’s dedication of this sarira reliquary set, along with around 10,000 of his followers, can be seen as a carefully planned political event, rather than a mere religious ritual. In about fourteen months, Yi would bring an end to the Goryeo Dynasty and become the first king of the Joseon Dynasty. At the time of the offering, Yi’s contingent of followers may have begun to associate him with Maitreya, who had been promised to return to save people from suffering and open a new world. According to Buddhist lore, Maitreya will appear 5,670,000,000 years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s attainment of nirvana. By spreading three teachings, Maitreya will transform our world into paradise and save all sentient beings, in the manner of a messiah.
Although we cannot know for certain what motivated Yi Seonggye and his followers to offer this sarira reliquary set, the coincidence of this dedication with the Gwajon Law is now seen as a seminal moment in time, when the decline of the 500-year-old Goryeo Dynasty intersected with the rise of Yi Seonggye and the Joseon Dynasty. Commissioned by Yi Seonggye, this sarira reliquary set has profound significance as both an important work of art and a crucial artifact for Korean history.
This article references “Research on the Sarira Reliquary Set Commissioned by Yi Seonggye” (李成桂發願 佛舍利莊嚴具의 硏究) by Prof. Ju Gyeongmi from Korean Journal of Art History 257 (March 2008), primarily in the evaluation of the reliquary set within art history and the analysis of the patrons mentioned in the inscriptions. Nonetheless, the overall discussion of the historical value of the reliquary set, the political circumstances at the time of the enshrinement, and the other details about the patrons is based on my own ideas and research.
Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea’s website.