Colorful Korea

Happy Friday! The winter Olympics are in full swing and all that glitters in South Korea is bronze, silver, and gold. Today on Museum Bites, we too, are headed to Korea via the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). Join me for a brief but colorful look at Korea’s ancient history with a tour through the UMMA’s gorgeous collection of ancient pottery. We begin with the Three Kingdoms…

Stoneware Jar (3 Kingdoms, 57 BCE-562 CE), Univ. Michigan Museum of Art, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Stoneware Jar (3 Kingdoms, 57 BCE-562 CE), UMMA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Earthy Brown: The Three Kingdoms (57 BCE to 668 CE)

During the era of the Three Kingdoms, Korea was divided into three realms: Koguryo in the Northwest, Paekch in the Southwest, and Silla in the Southeast. Each kingdom was ruled by a series of hereditary monarchs. Buddhism was introduced and gradually grew in popularity. Influenced by their Buddhist teachings, artisans strove to bring out the intrinsic harmony buried within their work. The art created throughout this time period is defined by its raw beauty. The pottery, in particular, is earthy and imperfect.

The majority of art from the Three Kingdoms was discovered in tombs. Ancient Koreans, like many other cultures, packed their burial chambers with both practical and ceremonial objects that would help ease their transition into the afterlife. Much of the Three Kingdoms pottery on display at the UMMA once served this transcendent purpose.

Jade Bead (3 Kingdoms, 57 BCE-676 CE), Univ. of Michigan Museum of Art, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Jade Bead (3 Kingdoms, 57 BCE-676 CE), UMMA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

In the 7th century, the era of the Three Kingdoms came to an end when the upstart kingdom of Silla conquered neighbors Paekch and Koguryo. Silla’s victory once again unified Korea and paved the way for the Goryeo Dynasty.

Fun Ancient Blingy Fact: The majority of our oldest jewelry was discovered in ancient burial sites. Korean tombs as far back as 1000 BCE were filled with kogok, comma-shaped jade beads meant to represent the soul. Click on this Museum Bites Ancient Bling post to learn more about these ancient trinkets.

Celadon Ewer (Goryeo Dynasty, 918-1392), Univ. of Michigan Museum of Art, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Celadon Ewer (Goryeo Dynasty, 918-1392), UMMA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Verdant Green: The Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392)

In the 10th century, military leader, Wang Geon (877-943) established the Goryeo Dynasty. Geon promptly relocated the capital city to Songdo (modern-day Kaesong) and in a radical move, appointed his former rivals to his newly formed government.

During the Goryeo Dynasty, Korea experienced a Renaissance. Art, education, and trade flourished. Buddhism was all the rage, printing was on the rise, and celadon was the got to have it merch. Initially valued for its likeness to jade, celadon quickly became fashionable in its own right. The false belief that celadon tableware could detect poison by changing color or cracking, may have also contributed to celadon’s popularity. I’d hate to be the host at that dinner party! These lush green ceramics were first created in China, but the process was refined by Korean artisans. Buddhist motifs (e.g., cranes, clouds, lotus blossoms) were molded into the design and etched into the surface. An iron-rich glaze was added and the gray-green hue achieved by removing all oxygen when fired in the kiln. Click on this Reviving Traditional Korean Celadons video clip to watch these beautiful ceramics come to life.

The Goryeo Dynasty came to an end in the late 14th century when after decades of warfare with the Mongols, the weakened monarch, King Kongmin (1352–74) was overthrown by General Yi Songgye (1335-1408).

Fun Bookish Fact: In 1377, the Jikji Simche Yojeol, by Pak Un (1298-1374) was the first book printed by metal movable type. This Buddhist scripture was published 78 years before Gutenberg’s bible and is currently on display at the National Library of France.

Snow White: Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)

Porcelain Bowl, (Joseon Dynasty 1392-1910), Univ. of Michigan Museum of Art, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Porcelain Bowl, (Joseon Dynasty 1392-1910), UMMA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Yi Songgye, a military leader, scholar, and devout follower of Neo-Confucianism established the Joseon Dynasty in the late 14th century.  In true dynastic fashion, Yi relocated the capital city of Korea, to Hanyang (modern day Seoul). This era of Korea’s history is marked by a strict class system that gave rise to the Yangban Society or Two Orders. These Joseon elites belonged to either the military or civilian (i.e., land owner) class.

Porcelains from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) Univ. of Michigan Museum of Art, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Porcelains from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) UMMA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Buddhism was passed over in favor of rule-bound Neo-Confucianism. Art from this time period adhered to the Confucian values of humility, honesty, and austerity. The pottery, in particular, is simple, pure and flawless. No flashy colors or earth tones here. Joseon porcelains are white or pale blue. Don’t be fooled by their simplicity, the craftsmanship is painstaking and meticulous, and the result is stunning. The Joseon Dynasty came to an end in 1910 when Japan annexed Korea.

Fun Forbidden Fact: Architecture from the Joseon Dynasty also followed strict Confucianistic principles. Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, China (see Museum Bites: Gate Crashing post), royal palaces were built on a strict North-South axis and comprised of a series of gates and progressively smaller courtyards.

That concludes our tour through the UMMA’s colorful collection of Korean ceramics. Next week we’ll be rolling out the bling with a tour through UMMA’s Tiffany collection. Until then, have a fantastic week!


Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Britannica: Celadon

Britannica: Korea Celadons Goryeo

Museum Bites: Gate Crashing

Smithsonian Timelines of History (2011)

University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA)

YouTube: Korean History Channel


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