Museum scene
The Buddhist Painting Gallery at the National Museum of Korea
by YOO SURAN Associate Curator of the Fine Arts Division, National Museum of Korea
Photos by Kim Changgu
“How would we know the loftiness of heaven without the moon and the stars, How would we use the land, no matter how vast, without the trees and stones? Having temple halls with no paintings or designs, Is like not recognizing heaven though it exists And being unable to use the land though it is vast.”
Yongam Chejo (1713-1779) From “Dancheong Record of Geungnakjeon at Sinheungsa Temple, Mt. Seoraksan”
  • paintings are works expressing the Buddhist doctrines and teachings that are produced to ornament Buddhist temple halls. A Buddhist statue that was the main object of worship was enshrined in the central hall of the temple and a painting was hung behind it to beautify the world of the Buddha. The Buddhist Painting Gallery,

  • Buddhist Painting Gallery, 2nd Floor of the National Museum of Korea

located on the second floor of the Permanent Exhibition Hall at the National Museum of Korea, gives visitors an overview of the trends and characteristics of Korean Buddhist painting, featuring items ranging from sutra illustrations that convey the contents of the Buddhist sutras in condensed form to colossal Buddhist paintings called gwaebul, which were hung up for outdoor ceremonies.
As paintings are vulnerable to light, all exhibits in the Buddhist Painting Gallery are replaced every six months. In February 2022, the exhibits were replaced under the theme “Monk Artisans: The Unfinished Story,” in connection with the special exhibition Monk Artisans of the Joseon Dynasty. The Buddhist artisans of the Joseon Dynasty were both monks and artists, and formed a group who greatly enriched the culture of the Joseon Dynasty. Among Korea’s Buddhist monk artisans, some 2,400 painters have been identified so far.

The stories of the monk artisans that could not be introduced in the special exhibition are told in the Buddhist Painting Gallery. Here you can explore various aspects of the work of monk artisans, who pursued both enlightenment and beauty, including the drafts that formed the base drawings for their works and their finished paintings, unexpected encounters between master and disciple, and the works of modern monk painters carrying on the traditions of their late Joseon predecessors. In addition, the gallery is a special place where you see the giant gwaebul, which can otherwise only be seen at temples.
One might imagine that Joseon’s Buddhist culture involved only spiritual practices as simple as ink wash paintings – that is, before facing these overwhelming gwaebul. Buddhist Hanging Scroll at Sudeoksa Temple in Yesan, exhibited from April 13, was produced by four monk painters, including Eungnyeol and is over ten meters high. The Buddhas, the bodhisattvas striving for enlightenment, and the numerous deities protecting the Buddha’s teachings depicted by monk painters are unsurpassed in their in rich vibrancy.

통도사 팔상도 밑그림  (유성출가상) 通度寺 八相圖 草本  (踰城出家相) 조선 18세기 종이에 먹 구10261 Underdrawing of the Eight Great Events Joseon Dynasty, 18th century, Ink on paper
지장보살과 지옥의 왕 地藏十王圖 석민碩敏 등 5명  조선 1725년  비단에 색 덕수1031 Ksitigarbha and the Ten Kings of Hell Seokmin and four other monk-painters, Joseon Dynasty, 1725, Color on silk
극락에서 설법하는 아미타불 阿彌陀極樂會圖 의균義均 등 4명  조선 1703년  비단에 색 덕수2680 Amitabha Buddha Preaching in the Western Paradise Uigyun and three other monk-painters, Joseon Dynasty, 1703, Color on silk
묘법연화경 그림  妙法蓮華經 變相圖 조선 1422년  감지에 금은니  보물 기탁33 Illustrated Buddhist Manuscript of Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) vol. 1 Joseon Dynasty, 1422, Gold and silver ink on indigo paper, Treasure
시왕도 밑그림  十王圖 草本 신겸信謙 조선 1828년  종이에 먹 구10293 Underdrawing Version of the Ten Kings of the Hell Singyeom, Joseon Dynasty, 1828, Ink on paper
시왕도  十王圖 신겸信謙 등 2명  조선 1829년  비단에 색 덕수1868 Painted Version of the Ten Kings of the Hell Singyeom and one other monk-painter, Joseon Dynasty, 1829, Color on silk
The Wooden Lotus Pedestal The Wooden Lotus Pedestal Goryeo Dynasty, 14th century, Sudeoksa Temple, Yesan, Treasure
Buddhist Hanging Scroll at Sudeoksa Temple Buddhist Hanging Scroll at Sudeoksa Temple Eung-yeol and three other monk painters, Joseon Dynasty, 1673, Color on hemp, Sudeoksa Temple, Yesan, Treasure