Antique Korean Scroll

Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) | A Korean Buddhist Masterpiece | Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) - first half of the 14th century

Age:14th Century

Descriptive qualities& condition:

Dimensions: Overall - 22-0" x 77-0"; Image - 16-5/8" x 44-3/4"

To start off, this is a “VERY RARE AND EXQUISITE GORYEO BUDDHIST PAINTING”. In this scroll painting Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara is depicted in typical Goryeo fashion as “Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara.” He is shown standing on lotus pods protruding from the sea with his feet accentuated in gold. His expressive eyes look down in reverence while he stands with his hands crossed with extended fingernails. He is dressed in dazzling robes and sashes in intricate gold details throughout the figure and on his jewelry draped down his robes. This Goryeo Buddhist painting is executed with delicate details and sumptuous execution, which include exquisitely drawn garments created through the ample use of gold line-work, and illusionary effects seen in the depiction of delicately flowing veils. Here, the veils extend from Avalokiteśvara’s crown to the pond in the lower portion of the painting filled with flowing patterns of water motifs, and his body and head are surrounded by a large luminous mandorla and a nimbus, or halo, to represent his divinity. This diminutive moon depicted around the top of his head is from the name “Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara” originates. On the center of his crown is a miniature jewelry piece called a Chenrezig. 

This Goryeo, buddhist painting was made by applying color, and in this case Indigo with Gold line-work on front of a course grained handmade paper, (similar to canvas) which is covered on the front with a patterned gold brocade that frames the artwork. The artist created subtle effects, intensifying and contrasting with the primary indigo painted background with the figure, facial, hand and feet outlined with gold ink to delineate the figure and to accentuate the decorative patterns of robe and jewelry. The roller bar on the bottom of the scroll has ends covered with engraved copper. The interpretation of the writing on the right says Tian Huidao, Buddhist nun, and script noting the artist is not translated. This piece is identified on the back translated to say Korean Buddha (hangug bucheo). The box translates as Korean Scroll (hangug seukeulol). The piece was purchased at a private sale/auction in Kyushu in 1985.

Condition: Very Good Condition, "as is" and commensurate with age. The image itself is in excellent condition while the decorative trimming/boarders are worn and in some cases missing. The brocade framing the drawing is in like new condition with minimal wear. 

NOTE: Here is additional historical information related to scrolls of this type received from the Fukuoka Art Museum - During the 1594-1604 invasion, the Japanese captured and enslaved tens of thousands of Korean farmers and artisans, and took them back to Japan. It must have been evident fairly early in the campaign that Japan was not going to conquer Korea. Rather than have all of the war efforts wasted since the Japanese was not able to conquer Korea, the Japanese began to capture and enslave Koreans who might be useful to Japan. Scholars and artisans such as potters and metalworkers were particularly prized. The most visible influence these enslaved Koreans had in Japan, however, was on Japanese ceramic styles. Between the examples of looted ceramics taken from Korea, and skilled potters brought back to Japan, Korean styles and techniques had an important impact on Japanese pottery. 

We were additionally informed by a Curatorial Assistant at the Fukuoka Art Museum that a number of Kyushu Pottery owners gained the benefits of the relocated Korean artists and what they brought to their new country of residence, many of which were just made captive and not allowed to bring anything from their homeland. Objects from those who did bring objects with them, such as religious scrolls of this quality, were later sold at private sales in Kyushu, many of which were believed to have been in the possession of Japanese citizens who hosted Korean artists and pottery craftsmen brought to Japan through this invasion and relocation.

Few exquisite Goryeo Buddhist paintings survive in very small numbers of which scholars have identified fewer than 160 examples of this type worldwide. Still shrouded in mystery, this genre of Korean religious icon seems to date almost exclusively to around the fourteenth century. Through centuries of warfare and loss, most of the paintings left the Korean Peninsula. They now survive in large part in Japanese temple collections.

The Goryeo dynasty (pronounced Ko-ree-o, the root of Korea’s modern moniker) lasted from 918 to 1392 and is considered a golden age of artistic and cultural development. The Buddhist images created at the time reflect the strength of the Pure Land tradition, which promises believers rebirth in paradise. The works feature specific buddhas and Avalokiteśvara who help followers spread and inform the public about the Buddhist religion. 

The tradition has only re-emerged from obscurity in the past few decades, as researchers have begun to identify specific visual characteristics that unite the works. These features include delicately painted garments, saturated mineral pigments accented with gold, and illusionary effects such as transparency. Although these similarities are now well documented, there is still much to discover about the paintings’ artistic methods and cultural context.