Cultural Selection: Intercultural Elements of the Silk Roads in Korean Buddhist Art

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The Silk Roads have played a major role in the transmission and development of arts throughout the regions along it. The expansion of Buddhist art impacted the development of Asian art more generally through the cultural exchanges facilitated by these roads. These cultural interactions are clearly evidenced in the stylistic lineage of Korean Buddhist sculpture which flourished after the introduction of Buddhism after the 4th century AD. Artistic imports from as far as the Near East, indicate that there were contacts via trade between the Korean Peninsula and regions to the west.

Indeed, in the formative stage of Indian Buddhist art (from the 5th century BC), the influence of Hellenistic and Near Eastern art can be observed alongside the Indian artistic tradition. As this art travelled through Central Asia, it became a melting pot of the different cultural traditions of the Indian Subcontinent, Iranian plateau, and China. Over time modified versions of Central Asian Buddhist art developed, reaching China before finally being introduced to the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Buddhist sculpture in the Korean Peninsula combined pre-existing stylistic and iconographic features from Asian art with specific local modifications to create a distinctive artistic tradition.  

Although it was mostly through China that Buddhism reached the Korean Peninsula, the source of Buddhist teachings and art forms can be traced back to the Indian Subcontinent where the religion originated in the 5th century BC. Many Chinese and Korean pilgrims made difficult journeys to the Indian Subcontinent to visit holy places, learn about the Buddha’s teachings, and acquire Buddhist texts and images. At the same time, Indian and Central Asian monks travelled to China and some even to the Korean Peninsula, where they translated Buddhist texts, transmitted Buddhism and established new types of images of Buddha.  

Notable types of Buddha images found in the Korean Peninsula during this period include the seated Buddha in Dharmachakra Mudra (the hand gesture of teaching) an example of which was found on sets of bronze plaques in the pond of Anapchi, in the city of Gyeongju. Images of this kind were popular in India during the Gupta Dynasty (early 4th-late 6th centuries AD). However, in this instance, the treatment of the naturally flowing folds of the garments and the slightly bent posture of the attendants reflects the Chinese Tang sculptural style of the late 7th and early 8th century AD. In some cases, variations unique to Korean arts were added to Buddha images. For example, the image of seated Buddha in Bhumisparsha Mudra (the symbolic gesture of subduing the demon Mara) first appeared in the Korean Peninsula in the late 7th century AD. From this Indian inspired type of image, unique variations developed in the Korean region including a modification to the wearing of the garment by covering both shoulders and the addition of an undergarment sometimes tied around the waist.

Another popular type of statue from the Korean Peninsula is the Buddha standing with garment covering only one shoulder and carrying a jewel-shaped tribute usually identified as a symbol of medicine. Its standing posture and twisted body evokes a similar style to that of Gupta Indian statues. Of the fifteen examples of this type of statue that exist today, four are from the Korean Peninsula. It is not known for certain how this form became so popular but it is thought to have been introduced to the region via the maritime Silk Roads.

With its origins in India, modifications in Central Asia and China, Buddhist sculpture reached the Korean Peninsula via the Silk Roads where these existing influences interacted with local variations to create a unique artistic form, a true testament to the shared heritage of the Silk Roads.


See also:

Indian and European Influences on Persian Miniatures

Buddhist sites along the Silk Roads of the Nepal Region

Coastal Ornamental Patterns in Java Island

Central Asian Influences in Korean Music


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