Goryeo Buddhist Painting
The term “Goryeo Buddhist Painting” refers to a group of Korean paintings, mostly from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, that depict Buddhist icons, typically in a format of large hanging scrolls. As Buddhism flourished as the official religion during the Goryeo dynasty, various Buddhist artworks were produced under royal patronage and used for state-sponsored ceremonies and funerary rituals. These paintings reflect not only the beliefs, but the taste and refinement of the Goryeo royalty and nobility.
Pure Land Buddhism, focused on the Buddha Amitābha, is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism and one of the most widely practiced traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. It promises believers rebirth in Amitābha’s Western Paradise and enjoyed enormous popularity in Goryeo society. The Amitabha Buddha was typically portrayed either alone, in a triad, or flanked by the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. The bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Ksitigarbha were also widely worshipped in the Goryeo kingdom, and numerous scroll paintings attest to their popularity.
In this painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (above), the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara is depicted in typical Goryeo fashion as “Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara.” He is shown seated on a rocky outcrop protruding from the sea in his mountain-island abode, Mount Potalaka, where water flows from numerous springs and the landscape is populated by fragrant grass and flowers, marvelous trees, and coral. He sits with his right leg crossed and his left foot placed on a lotus-flower support, holding a crystal rosary in his hand. He is dressed in dazzling robes and sashes, with intricate gold details on his jewelry and clothing.
Goryeo Buddhist paintings are well known for their delicate details and sumptuous execution. They include exquisitely drawn garments created through the ample use of mineral pigments accented with gold, and illusionary effects seen in the depiction of transparent veils. Here, long transparent veils extend from Avalokiteśvara’s crown to the pond in the lower portion of the painting, adorned with patterns of white hemp leaves or white medallions filled with flower patterns and plant scroll designs. Two stalks of bamboo are depicted behind the rock where Avalokiteśvara is seated, and his body and head are surrounded by a large luminous mandorla and a nimbus, or halo, to represent his divinity. On the rock table to one side, we see a bronze or ceramic kundīka vessel with willow branches. In the lower right-hand corner of the painting, the boy pilgrim Sudhana, who travels to seek enlightenment and wisdom, appears in a pose of adoration.
Inviting the viewer in
Goryeo Buddhist paintings were made by applying color to both the front and back of the silk canvas. By working on the reverse side of the canvas, artists could create subtle effects, intensifying and contrasting with the primary colors painted on the front. Gold was extensively used to delineate figures and to accentuate the decorative patterns on robes and jewelry. The body was outlined with ink, while a thin red line was employed for the facial features.
In some paintings, a diminutive moon is depicted at the top, from which the name “Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara” originates. The willow tree motif may symbolize the cleansing and healing power of the deity, and is also closely related to Chinese Buddhist paintings of the Western Xia dynasty (1038-1227), which flourished around the same time.  However, there are also several notable features unique to Goryeo artworks.
Goryeo Buddhist paintings frequently include secular and mythical figures, depicted as worshippers or patrons. They are often members of the royalty, aristocrats, or donors of paintings, wearing elegant court dress and elaborate hairdos decorated with jewelry and gold. These depictions allow us a glimpse into the taste for luxury and splendor amongst the ruling class in Goryeo society. For instance, in the painting of Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara held in the Daitoku-ji in Japan (above), a group of worshippers are depicted in the lower corner of this painting, kneeling and holding their hands together in a gesture of courtesy. They are identified as the mythical dragon king of the Eastern Sea, his queen, his royal entourage, and monsters bearing offerings of incense, coral, and pearls to the deity. Despite their small scale, these figures play an important role in the painting as well as the ritual context, acting as intermediaries between the secular and sacred worlds and inviting the viewer to the scene.
Tales from folklore
Motifs from indigenous myths, miraculous stories, and folklore predating Buddhism were also incorporated in depictions of this deity to highlight his spiritual power. For instance, the blue bird, the dragon king, the rosary, and the pair of bamboo stalks in the Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara are related to stories about the famous Korean monks Ŭisang and Wonhyo and their miraculous encounters with Avalokiteśvara. A rabbit pounding the elixir of immortality under a laurel tree in the moonlight is another motif derived from a myth of ancient pre-Buddhist China, which tells of a rabbit (whose image can be seen on the face of the moon) who uses a mortar and pestle to prepare a life-giving potion for the Moon Goddess.
Painted in vibrant colors of red, green, and blue with gold pigments, exquisite Goryeo Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara paintings represent the religious fervor of ardent believers in Pure Land Buddhism, as well as the splendid material culture of upper-class Goryeo society.
 It is not known for certain when or why the willow tree and the moon were included as standard features in Goryeo Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara paintings. Historical records indicate that the iconography of Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara, encircled by a full moon and seated in a bamboo grove, was invented by the famous Tang painter Zhou Fang (act.mid-ninth century). Although Zhou Fang’s painting does not exist any longer, the close affinities between similar works and Goryeo paintings suggest that the iconography of Goryeo Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara was based on that of Chinese precedents.
This work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Essay on Korea, 1000-1400 A.D. from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Jeong Eunwoo, “Buddhist Art Patronage during the Goryeo Dynasty,” Goryeo Buddhist Painting: A Closer Look.
Yukio Lippit, “Goryeo Buddhist Painting in an Interregional Context,” Ars Orientalis, Vol. 35 (2008), pages 192-232.