Mizuno Keizaburo, "Juo-zu (Pictures of the Ten Kings)," Kokka 829 (1961), 152 - 158.
These four Kings of Hell paintings are not only rare examples of early Korean painting, they are the only examples of this subject known to survive from the Koryo dynasty.
In Korea, Zen (Son) Buddhism was the dominant religious sect by the 14th century and paintings of the Ten Kings of Hell were given unusual prominence in Zen temple compounds. They were so popular that they were displayed in their own hall, the Hall of the Underworld Courts, located on the central axis right next to the main hall, the Hall of the Great Hero, which enshrined the image of highest sanctity, the Buddha Shakyamuni. (See Hongnam Kim, the Story of a Painting: A Korean Buddhist Treasure from the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation (New York: The Asia Society Galleries, 1991, p. 32 and diagram p. 28).
Many Japanese and Chinese sets of ten hanging scrolls of the Ten Kings of Hell have survived (there are about three dozen sets - more than three hundred scrolls - in Japanese collections alone), but the four scrolls shown here appear to be among the earliest of the few Korean examples known at the present time. (There are many Choson dynasty Korean paintings of the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha surrounded by the Ten Kings of Hell, but they are conceived as single hanging scrolls without judgement scenes and were displayed in the Hall of Ksitigarbha, the savior of those suffering from the torments of hell.) Is is not certain whether the sets of ten were hung sequentially or seperated by odd and even numbers, possibly flanking a central painting of Ksitigarbha.
The scrolls were the focus of masses for the dead. In China, from the time apocryphal texts were written and illustrated in the 10th century, the cult of the Ten Kings became one of the most popular in Buddhism. The deceased meets the Ten Kings of Hell one after the other during the three years between death and reincarnation. Each king examines the deeds of the dead and passes judgement; in the end the deceased is sentenced to one of the six realms of rebirth, those of gods, men asuras, animals hungry ghosts, or beings in hell. The meeting with the first king occurs seven days after death, with the second after twice seven days and so on until meeting with the seventh king on the 49th day. The eighth king passes judgement on the 100th day, the ninth after one year, and the tenth after three years. Ceremonies to placate the Kings and ensure one's own felicitous rebirth were performed bi-monthly, but also on the dates when deceased relatives faced judgement.
Because the Ten Kings paintings were regarded as a popular religious art in China, they were not recorded or collected there. One center for the production of these paintings in the late 13th and 14th century was the port of Ning-p'o. Families of painters in Ning-p'o mass-produced the paintings using movable parts, probably with the help of stencils, not only for local consumption but for the lucrative Japanese market. Most of the Ning-p'o paintings have been preserved in Japanese temples. One set of Ten Kings from Ning-p'o by Chin Ta-shou is divided between the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#30.76.290-294; Jin Chushi, "Five Paintings of the Ten Kings of Hell," Kokka 1097 ) and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Japanese artists were quick to imitate and adapt from Chinese prototypes; a classic example is the late-14th century set in the Nison-in, Kyoto, attributed to the professional court painter Tosa Yukimitsu. The paintings may have been commissioned in 1365 for the first-year death anniversary of the emperor's father (see Masako Watanabe, "An Iconographic Study of 'Ten Kings' Paintings," unpublished M.A. thesis, The University of British Columbia, 1984).
Judging by the four paintings shown here, Korean court artists also copied the Ning-p'o style. Typical of the Ning-p'o paintings are the luxurious interior settings in which the stern and dignified King, flanked by assistants, sits in an opulent chair with a landscape screen behind him and a skirted desk in front of him. The composition has two parts, the magistrate's court above, and the pain and suffering below. The Koryo paintings are less elaborate (balastrades have been eliminated), but there are telling details such as the floral scrolls on the robes worn by the Kings which relate closely to the detailed patterning of textiles in contemporary Ning-p'o images. The Koryo paintings are old-fashioned in their iconography: the combination of the six realms with the tenth King is a hold-over from tenth-century Chinese examples. In Ning-p'o paintings the six realms are more likely to appear on an eleventh scroll with Ksitigarbha (Jizo). The figure types in the Korean paintings follow Chinese prototypes, but the landscape on the screen behind the eighth King looks Korean.
The four Kings included here are:
1. The fourth King (Wu-kuan Wang
Torture in a fiery pot of hot oil awaits sinners here.
2. The fifth King (Yen-lo Wang)
This King is always shown with a mirror in which sinners see the reflection of their deeds. In this painting the sinner sees an image of himself killing an ox; Buddhists were not permitted to eat meat. Two other sinners wait on line with their demonic guardians - a woman with her hands tied behind her back and a man in a neck cangue. An unusual feature here are the three animals who wait for judgement at the King's desk: they hold Buddhist scriptures in their mouths.
3. The eighth King (P'ing-cheng Wang)
Defendants holding scrolls, perhaps Buddhis scriptures they have copied for merit, kneel beside a scale on which documents are weighed.
4. The tenth King (Wu-tao Chuan-lin Wang)
This King is shown with the six realms or paths, to which the dead have been sentenced. Below is a scene of torture - a demon is throwing a man dressed in animal skins into a smoking fire.
As Lothar Ledderose pointed out, "the idea that bad deeds are reported to the lord of the underworld is also found in Indian Buddhism, yet the perfectionism of the intelligence service and especially the elaborate documentation seem to be typically Chinese." In the end, he concludes, the secular world of Chinese bureaucracy and the Confucian legal system have transformed the foreign religion, and the underworld looks all too familiar. (Ledderose, "A King of Hell," in Suzuki Kei sensei anreki kinnen chigoku kaigashi ronshu (Tokyo: Yoshikawa kobunkan, 1981), pp.32-42.)
Impressed on the back of the mounting of each painting is the name of an as yet unidentified Japanese temple, the Kitasan Hojoin.