Goguryeo speaks, in murals

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Goguryeo speaks, in murals

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Angelic nymphs, with weightless dresses trailing behind, float above white clouds. Surrounding them are ivory-colored lotus petals whose tips blush in red.
The paintings on the walls of the Goguryeo Kingdom royal tombs in North Korea are stunningly beautiful, even in photographs. What is more astonishing is that the murals that look so vivid had been buried for 15 centuries, resisting relative humidity that often exceeded 95 percent and were only discovered in the early years of the last century.
The exhibition “Power and Fascination of Goguryeo,” currently showing at the Seoul History Museum in the center of the capital, features important images of the tombs and their murals captured by Japan’s Kyodo News Agency in 2004. The agency reportedly paid a substantial amount for the right to photograph the sites in and around Pyongyang. The North Korean capital was also the last capital of the ancient kingdom.
Goguryeo (37 B.C.-668 A.D.) was one of three regional kingdoms of the era, in addition to Silla and Baekje. It is the oldest of the three, and flourished in territory ranging from the northern part of the Korean peninsula up into Manchuria.
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In the fifth century, Goguryeo was a political and cultural power in Northeast Asia. Often at odds with China, the regional hegemon, it eventually was defeated in a series of wars with the Sui and Tang dynasties of China. Now, only the large tombs and other artifacts remain as the kingdom’s last vestiges.
The photographic exhibition was organized under the joint auspices of Yonhap News Agency, the Seoul Museum of History and Kyodo News Agency. It includes 147 wall-size photographs of murals from seven tombs and four life-size models of others. “From the recent photographs, visitors can see the vivid features of the murals,” said Jeon Ho-tae, the executive director of the exhibition and a faculty member at Ulsan University. “This is by far the largest number of tomb images shown to the public.”
Designated as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site in 2004, the photographs are fascinating, showing minute details of the tombs. The exhibition has been laid out to highlight the gradual changes in artistic styles and themes from about the middle of the kingdom’s existence until its eventual demise in the fifth century. The progression shows a shift from scenes emphasizing everyday life to ones featuring deities and fanciful creatures. But as with other forms of funeral art from other civilizations, deceased leaders were buried with symbolic objects and artwork that highlighted glorious lives or expectations of an afterlife.
The murals in Anak Tomb No. 3, generally considered the central tomb among the group, include “Scene of the Nobleman Governing.” The fresh and vivid colors, especially the burgundy red and dark green that produce an overall calm atmosphere, make the objects in the painting look as if they were real ― just enough to raise doubts as to whether the mural has actually existed for almost two millennia. But indeed it has.
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The nobleman, appearing several times bigger and wider than his servants, is painted in many hues and patterns to display his social class.
“It is quite astonishing how this mural could retain its original beauty and color for about 1,700 years,” said Kang Soo-mi, 45, an Incheon woman who was attending the exhibition. “Both the color and facial expressions of the figures are brilliant,” she added.
Anak Tomb No. 3 dates from about 350, and its two chambers’ murals depict several scenes of daily life. Murals titled, “Kitchen and Meat Storehouse,” “A Well” and “Cow Shed” are examples of those depictions.
Korean scholars have also shown great interest in the photographs of tomb murals from Ssangyeongchong, called “Octagonal Twin Pillars” and “Red Phoenix.” Images of those two murals are being shown in public for the first time.
Later tombs and their murals are also a reflection of the spiritual convictions of the Goguryeo people. The four deities ― dragon, tiger, phoenix and tortoise ― that appear in murals in the Gangseo Jungmyo and Gangseodaemyo tombs are dominant themes. The deities were expected to protect the deceased as he began his last journey into the afterlife.
In the life-size models of those two tombs, murals show elaborate drawings of the heavenly bodies, suggesting how mysticism and Buddhist influences dominated the minds of the Goguryeo people.
“The Goguryeo tomb murals are the crystalization of our forefathers’ culture, lifestyle and spiritual world,” said Oh Se-hoon, the mayor of Seoul, speaking at the opening of the exhibition last week. “Goguryeo murals are the symbolical heritage that can plant historical recognition and national identity in our posterity.”


by Chough Eun-young

The exhibition, “Power and Fascination of Goguryeo,” runs until Oct. 22. The Seoul History Museum is located at 2-1 Sinmunno 2-ga in central Seoul. The museum is open from Tuesday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It is closed on Monday. The nearest subway station is Gwanghwamun, line No. 5, exit 7. From the exit, walk in the direction of Seodaemun. For more information, call (02) 724-0114 or visit the museum’s Web site, www.museum.seoul.kr.
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