“Christ’s Baptism by John” is part of the series of sacred paintings made by Woonbo Kim Ki-chang. / Courtesy of Heaven’s Door Gallery
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Imagine if Jesus Christ was born not in a manger in Bethlehem, but in a stable during the Joseon Kingdom in Korea.
This is exactly what the late master artist Woonbo Kim Ki-chang did in the series of exquisite ``sacred'' ink paintings that depict the life of Christ in a Korean setting.
In ``The Birth of Jesus Christ,'' Mary is shown wearing hanbok or traditional Korean dress, while her husband Joseph is wearing the gat or traditional Korean hat.
This work is part of the ``Sacred Painting Exhibition of Woonbo Kim Ki Chang'' and is currently being held at the lobby of the CCMM building, Yeouido, Seoul through July 31.
Kim had originally created the series of sacred paintings in the 1950s, holding the first exhibition at the Whasin Gallery in Seoul from April 22 to May 1, 1954. The works were made public again in 1984, for the 100th anniversary of Korean Christianity.
In an essay he wrote in 1984, Kim said he started creating paintings based on the life of Christ in 1952, while taking refuge at his mother-in-law's house in Gunsan during the Korean War (1950-1953). Following the suggestion from a missionary, he started painting Christ's life ``during a time of agony suffered by Koreans because of the war.''
``I was praying for the quick end of the Korean War and a unified peace, and soothed my painful mind with a paintbrush,'' Kim said.
He was so engrossed with his work, that he even had a dream that he was weeping bitterly, while hugging the dead body of Christ. ``Why did Jesus Christ appear to me in a dream? It might be God's will,'' he said.
Kim had some difficulties procuring the materials for his works, like paintbrushes and paint colors, but Kim Hyong-min, mayor of Seoul after the war, brought materials from Japan.
``I took great pains to portray the likeness of Jesus. First of all, he should be a global character. Second, I had to portray a figure with the spirit of Christ whom all the people in the world can depend on spiritually beyond the countries and religious denominations and class,'' Kim said.
It took around a year to finish the 30 paintings, which start from Christ's birth to death to resurrection. These were the first sacred paintings to depict Christ in Korean setting.
For example, Jesus was depicted wearing the gat, which was traditionally worn by government officials and gentleman scholars during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
Instead of angels, he drew Korean nymphs; and the characters wear Korean traditional outfits while the background features Korean villages and mountains.
``I tried to make Koreans experience Jesus through the paintings. … I think I portrayed the noble sacrifices and the spirit of love of Christianity successfully,'' Kim said.
Kim is one of the most famous traditional ink painters. He was born in 1914 in Seoul. He became deaf and partially mute, as a result of suffering from typhoid fever when he was eight years old. His mother introduced him to art when he was 16 years old. Kim has always created folk paintings that depict the life and spirit of Koreans. He died in 2001 at the age of 86.