This elegant and meticulous painting of the Buddha Assembly is executed in gold on dark purple silk. In the upper center the Buddha Shakyamuni is prominently represented on a high lotus throne under a lotus canopy. His left hand rests in his lap, the fingers showing dharmacakra mudra (preaching gesture) and the other with downward-stretching fingers makes bhumisparsa-mudra (the earth-touching gesture of enlightenment). He is surrounded by a host of thirty-two divinities. On the top of the painting the very small figures of the Buddhas of the Ten Directions arrive on clouds in two groups, amongst more auspicious clouds and flowers.
The attendants symmetrically grouped on either side of Shakyamuni include devas in the top row, followed by the ten disciples led by the elderly Kashyapa and the youthful Ananda immediately next to Shakyamuni, and then the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. Below Shakyamuni are the bodhisattvas Manjushri, holding a ruyi sceptre, and Samantabhadra, with a long-stemmed lotus on which rests his attribute, a book. The Four Heavenly Kings appear in the lowest. Except for the two cardinal Bodhisattvas, all figures press their hands together in the prayer-like anjali-mudra, the gesture of reverence.
An inscription, written in gold and set within a rectangular frame, appears in the lower center. It can be translated as follows:
In the sixth month of the 39th year of the Gajeong reign [1560, during China’s Jiajing reign], with this I, the Great Dowager Queen of Seongyeol Inmyeong (Majestic Brightness and Benevolent Intelligence), respectfully made a painting in pure gold of the Assembly at the Vulture Peak, Yeongsan-hoe do, for His Majesty the King’s longevity and freedom from illness for a long time (ten-thousand years) and that his sons and grandsons may flourish. [It is] mounted splendidly and [ready] prepared for dotting of opening [the eyes] in the temple for the retribution of five eyes [of humans, devas, wisdom, dharma–truth and Buddha], endlessly doing obeisance and remedying ignorance with efficacy. By means of this superior cause I wish His Majesty longevity of ten-thousand years. May his golden branch [the royal lineage] be transported to heaven and never broken. Also may the Great Dowager Queen Seongyeol Inmyeong [reach] the karma of her longevity without illness for ten-thousand years. By this means Buddha’s mirror shines inexhaustibly inside this red [i.e. painting]. Respectfully inscribed.
This inscription gives the vital clues that the subject of this painting is the Assembly on the Vulture Peak where Shakyamuni preached the Lotus Sutra, a core text of Mahayana Buddhism, that the date is the 39th year of the reign of China’s Jiajing Emperor (1560), and that the donor is the Seongyeol Inmyeong Daewang Daebi. The preaching (the Lotus Sutra) and earth-touching (the enlightenment) hand gestures indicate that the central Buddha is Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha.
The Dowager Queen Seongyeol Inmyeong, known as Queen Munjeong (1501–1565), came from the distinguished aristocratic Yun clan. She was selected for the court and became the Consort of King Chungjong (r. 1506–1544), then Dowager Queen when her young son (Myeongjong r. 1545–1567) was enthroned at the age of twelve. The Dowager Queen was a devout Buddhist. With the help of the esteemed monk Bo U (1515–1565), she revived Buddhism which was heavily disadvantaged, even suppressed by, Neo-Confucian Joseon officials. During her de facto rule of the court and the country, a considerable number of Buddhist temples were restored, monks were reinstated through the docheopje monk certification system, and Buddhist ceremonies were frequently held. She was the foremost royal patron of Buddhism during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910).
This painting of Shakyamuni Assembly on Vulture Peak shares, with other known royally inscribed paintings, a similar style of Buddhist images, decorative patterns and a combination of two colours, background silk in dark royal purple and painting in gold: a number of paintings are dated some years later in 1565 and bear the inscription of her name Seongyeol Inmyeong Daewang Daebi. Most of those related paintings are in Japanese collections and in the National Museum of Korea; however, a Shakyamuni triad formerly in the Mary Jackson Burke collection is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. These few paintings are all that from the staggering 400 images made on the occasion of the reconstruction of the royal temple Hoe’am-sa in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province.
Unlike the paintings of this slightly later, 1565, set, the 1560 date of this Shakyamuni Assembly on Vulture Peak suggests that the painting might have been executed for a private prayer hall in the royal temple, Bong’eun-sa in the capital Hanseong (present Seoul). The Queen Dowager had appointed Monk Bo U, her majesty’s principal champion for the revival of Buddhism, as the Abbot of Bong’eun-sa in 1559.
Queen Munjeong (Seongyeol Inmyeong Daewang Daebi) was an unparalleled royal patron of Buddhism during the Joseon dynasty. Unfortunately the flourishing of Buddhism under her and Monk Bo U’s patronage was short lived. With their deaths in 1565—following the 1565 death of the Dowager Queen, Bo U was killed in exile shortly thereafter—Buddhism never again experienced court patronage. In that context, this painting of Shakyamuni Assembly on Vulture Peak is a paramount example in the context of Joseon Buddhism and Buddhist art. Koreans had excelled in the production of Buddhist art for over a thousand years, ever since the introduction of Buddhism to Korea in the fourth century.
Note: Koreans had to use Chinese reign names from the Goryeo to Joseon period. Jiajing is a Ming reign name.
Gasan bulgyo dae sajeon (Encyclopaedia of Buddhism), vols. 7 and 10. Gasan Bulgyo Munhwawon. Seoul, 2005, 2008.
Kim Hongnam, “A Korean Buddhist Triad in the Burke Collection”. Orientations (Dec. 1990).
Kim Jung-hee, “Munjeong wanghu eui jungheung bulsa wa 16 segi eui wangsil balwon bulhwa” (Queen Munjeong’s Revival of Buddhism and the Court-sponsored Buddhist Paintings of the 16th century). Misul Sahak Yeon’gu (September 2001): 5-39. [Korean]
Park Eun-kyong, Joseon jeon’gi bulhwa yeon’gu (Study of Buddhist Paintings in the First Half of the Joseon Dynasty). Seoul: Sigongart, 2008: 415-456. [Korean]
Shin Kwanghee, “A Sixteenth-century Arhat Painting Commissioned by Queen Munjeong: Deoksewi, 153rd of the 500 Arhats, in the Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art”, Journal of Korean Art and Archaeology (National Museum of Korea, Seoul), vol. 9, 2015, pp. 93-108.
Professor Emerita of Korean Art History