Lecture: Mural of Mystery

Painted during the early Joseon Dynasty in 1476, the Amitabha Buddha triad mural in the Hall of Supreme Bliss at Muwi-sa in Jeollanam-do’s Gangjin County presents several puzzles. For one, it is clearly a continuation of the Amitabha Buddha “welcoming descent” genre popular during the Goryeo Dyanasty, despite the Joseon’s Neo-Confucian suppression of Buddhism. However, extant Goryeo paintings of this genre were small scrolls for use at believers’ deathbeds or private meditation in homes. Moreover, although the compositional style and color scheme of the Muwi-sa mural are generally like those of the Goryeo, they are different in some ways, chiefly in that the heads of the bodhisattvas flanking Amitabha Buddha are above his knees. This combination of continuity and change can be explained by the fact that there appear to have been Amitabha Buddha triad altar murals during the Goryeo which were destroyed in the 1590s by the Japanese, who took most Goryeo welcoming descent scrolls with them when they retreated from Korea. More importantly, recent scholarship has argued that some Buddhist ceremonies were supported by the early Joseon despite its general repression of the religion, including a ritual for the dead called suryuk performed at designated temples, of which Muwi-sa was one. Since the Amitabha Buddha welcoming descent genre depicted what believers wanted to see immediately after they died, it makes perfect sense that such an image would be painted over the altar at such a temple. The differences between the Muwi-sa mural and its Goryeo predecessors, particularly the position of the bodhisattvas’ heads above Amitabha Buddha’s knees, however, are still unexplained. This genre of painting no longer exists, but a descendent of it called the 'sweet dew painting' (gamnodo) can be found in Korean Buddhist temples today

Hal Swindall was born in the Bay Area of California in 1963. He received a PhD in comparative literature from UC Riverside in 1994, writing a dissertation on fin-de-siècle British, French and Italian novels and art criticism. He went to China to teach in 1994 and has taught at universities in Malaysia and Taiwan as well as China and Korea. Presently he teaches in the Department of Global Studies at Pusan National University. Although his main research interests continue to be in late 19c Europe, he has developed new ones, especially Buddhist and Daoist temples and their art.

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