The 12th-century "Celadon Incense Burner with Lion-shaped Lid," a designated national treasure / Courtesy of NMK
By Baek Byung-yeul
It's difficult to find any element of Korean culture that is as lavishly praised as the distinctive green-glazed celadon of the medieval Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392).
Some notable remaining treasures are shown in the National Museum of Korea (NMK)'s "Incense Burner of Goryeo" exhibition, an admirable effort to convey the essential beauty of these ceramics and how they embody the culture and religion of those times.
While the most familiar works of Goryeo celadon are jars, bottles and bowls, the current display limits its focus to incense burners used for Buddhist rituals at the palace and temples. Buddhism in Korea peaked during the Goryeo period, and the technical expertise and sophisticated, stylistic features of these incense burners are an aesthetic representation of it.
11th-century lotus-shaped incense burner with handle
Entering the display space, viewers face a special corner where they can smell the common types of incense used during the Goryeo period. Sandalwood and agar-wood were among the widely used materials for creating fragrant smoke.
Of course, the purpose of the exhibition is to highlight the vessels that burned them. While the emulation of Chinese styles is distinctive in the Goryeo's earlier incense burners, artifacts of the following periods show distinctively native styles as they were products of the time when celadon began to take hold as the main type of ceramics made in Korea.
The star of the exhibition is perhaps the 12th-century "Celadon Incense Burner with Lion-shaped Lid," designated as National Treasure No. 60. In Buddhism, the lion is believed to be a patron saint obligated to defend Buddhist doctrines and the faithful.
Its vibrant design and captivating color ― a myriad complexion of grey, green and blue ― is nothing short of stunning. Viewers can only imagine how otherworldly the lion would look if it were still allowed to breathe smoke out of its mouth. Incense burners were also created in the shapes of ducks and mystical creatures like the dragon and kylin.
12th-century square-shaped incense burner
While the most sophisticated incense burners were used in the Goryeo's royal court, the vessels used at Buddhist temples were more simplistic and functional. There were three types of incense burners used at temples ― the ones fixed to the ground, the portable ones with handles and the ones designed to hang from the ceiling.
The most artistic type is the fixed incense burner, also called "Hyangwan," which has a round pedestal, a trumpet-shaped pillar and body with the rim. It is mostly decorated with Sanskrit characters.
The exhibition runs through Feb. 16. Admission is free. The museum is closed for Monday and located near exit 4 of Ichon Station, subway line 4 and Jungang Line. For more information, visit www.museum.go.kr or call (02) 2077-9000.