Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom

Bodhisattva in pensive pose, probably Maitreya (Korean: Mireuk), Korea, Silla Kingdom (57 BC–AD 935), late 6th–early 7th century, gilt bronze, height 93.5 cm. Lent by National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 83. All Photos: © National Museum of Korea

THE FIRST-EVER exhibition in the West to focus exclusively on the art of Silla is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Co-organised with and drawn from the holdings of the National Museum of Korea and Gyeongju National Museum, the exhibition features approximately 100 objects. In the show are several designated National Treasures and many works with few parallels outside of Korea. Of special interest is a graceful and charming gilt-bronze sculpture of a bodhisattva in pensive pose, known as National Treasure 83, one of the most celebrated and beloved works in Korean art history. Organised thematically in three sections, the exhibition also presents videos featuring renowned burial and Buddhist monuments, including the 8th-century Seokguram Grotto which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

Silla was one among three kingdoms on the Korean peninsula that rose to prominence in the late fourth and early 5th century under the rule of a hereditary monarchy known today largely through material unearthed from elaborate burial sites. Located in its capital city, modern-day Gyeongju, the tombs of kings, queens, princes, royal relatives, and other elites have stood, from the time of their construction, as symbols of political authority and cultural grandeur. Silla gradually expanded its power and territory by defeating neighbouring states and eventually conquered most of the Korean peninsula by the second half of the 7th century.

In the ancient world, the Korean kingdom of Silla (57 BC–AD 935) was renowned as a country of gold. Through approximately 100 spectacular objects created between 400 and 800 (Silla’s seminal period) Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom presents the artistic achievements of a small kingdom that rose to prominence, embraced cosmopolitanism, and eventually gained control over much of the Korean peninsula.

The prolific use of gold starts in the Silla Kingdom in the 4th century, as documented in the 3rd-century Chinese accounts of the Samhan confederacies in the Sanguozhi (Record of the Three Kingdoms) that ‘[The people of Samhan] greatly value beads so they sew them onto their clothes as ornaments or wear them on the neck and ear. Nevertheless, they do not highly regard, gold, silver and silk’. The record correlates with archaeological evidence – numerous beads made of glass and semiprecious stone have been excavated from the tombs of Samhan, but no gold ornaments have been found. According to the same source, Goguryeo kingdom was known to have produced and used gold ornaments from around the 1st century, and the dynasties in central China and their frontier prefectures also used gold and silver objects at this time. Whatever the reason for the Samhan not valuing gold, the outset of ancient gold culture in the South Central region of the Korean peninsula seems to coincide with the establishment of the Silla kingdom, particularly in the Maripgan period (356-514). The earliest gold objects from the Silla kingdom were unearthed from Wolseong–ro To tomb (no. ga- 13) in Gyeongju, constructed in the last quarter of the 4th century.  In the whole of the Gyeongju area there are more than 1,800 large and small tombs and include some 150 tombs of relatively large size, which must have been the burial sites of kings and prominent members of the royal family. The largest of them, Hwangnam Daechong (the Great Tomb of Hwangnam), consists of two mounds joined together and measures 120 metres in length by 80 metres in diameter and roughly 23 metres in height.

The first section of the Met’s  exhibition features treasures discovered in the 5th- and 6th-century tombs of royalty and the aristocracy. The highlight is objects from the Great Tomb of Hwangnam, the largest Silla burial, which yielded vast quantities of luxury items and practical goods provided to accompany the deceased couple, a king and his queen, into their afterlife. Included in the exhibition are a gold crown shaped like tree branches, atop a headband with dangling ornaments, one of only five excavated Silla-period gold crowns (National Treasure No. 191). Other important burials featured include those from Wolseongno and Gyerim-ro, along with the Tomb of Gold Crown and the Tomb of Gold Bell. On display are necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings fashioned from gold – for example, a pair with intricate filigree decoration from the Bomun Hapjangbun Tomb (National Treasure No. 90) – alongside precious metal vessels and distinctive pottery, such as a vessel in the shape of a warrior on horseback (National Treasure No. 91). These objects blend imagery derived from local traditions and from the nomadic cultures of the Eurasian steppes to create distinctive visual arts.

The exhibition’s second section looks at the international nature of Silla culture. One group of objects comprises extraordinary finds made further to the west of the peninsula and preserved in 5th- and 6th- century Korean burials. They include a dagger and inlaid gold sheath, probably from Uzbekistan (Treasure No. 635); a unique silver bowl with repoussé decoration, possibly of Central Asian or Chinese origin (Treasure No. 627); and glass vessels produced throughout the greater Roman Empire. Following Silla’s expansion and unification of the peninsula in 668, economic and cultural exchanges with Eurasia continued. Political ties and trade with Tang-dynasty (618–907) China placed Silla firmly within the vast network of connections between East and West that characterised the famed Silk Road. The second group of objects featured in this section show these interactions through ceramics, statues, and architectural elements featuring imagery from China, Persia, and elsewhere.

The art of Buddhism in the Silla kingdom is the focus of the third and final section of the exhibition. Sanctioned as the state religion in 528, Buddhism completely transformed Silla society and culture, spurring the creation of new imagery and changes in burial customs, such as the disappearance of large, impenetrable mounds and the adoption of cremation. Perhaps the most vivid visual clue to this shifting cultural landscape lies in the use or re-use of gold.  Once the material of choice for imperial and personal adornments – as demonstrated in the first section – this precious metal would later be used primarily to create Buddhist art.  Exquisite sculptures and reliquaries fashioned from bronze and gold, such as an elegant Amitabha Buddha statue of pure gold dating to before 706 (National Treasure No. 79), exemplify the height of artistic achievements stimulated by the new religion. The grand finale of the exhibition features the powerful cast-iron Seated Buddha from the late 8th or 9th century. Infused with a distinctively native aesthetic, Korean Buddhist art reinterprets styles found in China and South Asia, reflecting the pan-Asian nature of this religious tradition.

Until 23 February at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition with essays written by a team of Korean and Western scholars, providing an important English-language publication on Silla art and culture.