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[Stories of Artifacts] Transcending 1,400 years in time: Two pensive bodhisattva statues

By Kim Hae-yeon

Published : April 24, 2023 - 15:52

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The permanent exhibition titled, The permanent exhibition titled, "Room of Quiet Contemplation," at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul shows two pensive bodhisattva statues. National Treasure No. 78 is on the left and National Treasure No. 83 is on the right. (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

"Time to lose yourself deep in wandering thought," the text at the entrance to “Room of Quiet Contemplation,” in the permanent exhibition hall at the National Museum of Korea, reminds visitors.

Opened in November 2021, the exhibition attracted over 660,000 viewers during its first year, making it one of the museum's most viewed exhibitions.

Inside the 439-square-meter space where the dim lights cast against red soil-covered walls create a calm, mysterious aura, sit two gilt-bronze pensive bodhisattva statues -- National Treasures No. 78 (left) and No. 83 -- side by side, facing the visitors.

In deep meditation, the two bodhisattvas demonstrate a contemplative pose -- each with their right leg resting on their left thigh, and with their fingers held up to their right cheek.

Both statues date back to the Three Kingdoms era (57 B.C. to 668 A.D.) -- National Treasure No. 78 to the late 6th century and National Treasure No. 83 to the early 7th century.

The prevailing opinion among scholars -- who cite the refined sculpting technique's harmonious form -- is that both statues were likely produced by the Baekje Kingdom, although there are some who think they were created by the Silla Kingdom.

Discovered during the Japanese colonial period, the exact sites where the statues were found are unknown. They were once owned by Japanese antique collectors and later sold to museums.

"Pensive Bodhisattva, National Treasure 78" from the Three Kingdoms period (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

National Treasure No. 78 was donated to the Museum of the Japanese Government General of Korea in 1916 and became part of the collections at the National Museum of Korea.

National Treasure No. 83, on the other hand, was bought by the Yi Royal Family Museum from a Japanese antique seller for 2,600 won in 1912. That figure is equivalent to some 2.6 billion won today, according to the National Museum of Korea. The museum was renamed the Deoksugung Art Museum following the Korean Peninsula's liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, and in 1969, its collections were merged with the National Museum of Korea collections.

Although the image of the pensive bodhisattva originated in India and passed through Central Asia and China before reaching Korea, the works of ancient Korean artisans are perhaps the most delicate.

The 6th-century pensive bodhisattva in the exhibition on the left catches the eye at first sight, fully dressed from top to bottom and wearing a tall, ornate crown on its head.

The 7th-century piece on the right seems much simpler in design. But studies show that it was made using more advanced sculpting methods and gold plating techniques than the 6th-century piece.

The second pensive bodhisattva's crown is simple and minimalistic. Known as a "samsangwan," the crown consists of three half circles.

The second statue's upper body is exposed without elaborate decoration and the lower part is covered with a robe that drops down from the stool on which the pensive bodhisattva sits. The gold plating is well preserved, close to its original hue.

Pensive bodhisattva statues in Korea represent the Maitreya bodhisattva and are due to the influence of the Maitreya sect, which was prevalent throughout East Asia. However, pensive bodhisattva statues in India and China rarely have crowns.

It is not the first time for the two statues to be shown together. In 1986, 2004 and 2015, the statues were shown together during special exhibitions.

"Whether to open a permanent exhibition hall for the country's relics is always a dilemma for the museum, because once we do so, it becomes difficult to bring them out for traveling exhibitions," Kwon Kang-mi, the NMK's chief researcher, said. "But we decided to reflect the public's wish to see the two national treasures together," she said.

Creating the exhibition space in collaboration with Choi Wook, the principal architect at ONE O ONE Architects, the museum challenged typical exhibition norms such as providing an explanation about how to view and interpret the piece.

Visitors can walk around the hall to connect to the statues and space on their own terms.

Some try to grasp the statues' facial expressions from the front, while others observe the minute details closely from behind or take gentle steps around the edges of the platform on which the statues are positioned.

"Pensive Bodhisattva, National Treasure 83," from the Three Kingdoms period (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

"We tried to give as much room to the viewers as possible so they can find their own emotional responses and perspectives," NMK curator and researcher Shin So-yeon told The Korea Herald.

Unlike Buddha statues that are seated in upright positions, their heads held up straight and their eyes looking straight forward, pensive bodhisattva sculptures capture the expression of an ascetic on the verge of reaching enlightenment, Shin said.

"The posture is rather fluid and the face seems to bear both the sufferings and hopes of the human race," she added.

The floor of the exhibition space is slightly tilted 1 degree, to create the sensation of air or water flowing down a slope. The two statues are not placed precisely parallel to each other -- one is about an inch closer to visitors than the other. The museum's aim was to portray the subtle fluctuations in the minds of all living beings according to Buddhist beliefs.

Kwon recommended early morning or late evening on Wednesdays when the museum is open until 9 p.m. as the best times to view the exhibition.

"When you look at the face of the pensive bodhisattva from multiple angles, you will get different impressions from the faint smile, sealed lips and elongated mysterious eyes. When the room turns completely silent, the viewing experience often transcends time and place."

This is the second in a series of articles introducing well-known cultural artifacts from different periods in Korean history. -- Ed.