Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Goryeo Celadon

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The term celadon is thought to derive from the name of the hero in a seventeenth-century French pastoral comedy. The color of the character Céladon's robe evoked, in the minds of Europeans, the distinctive green-glazed ceramics from China, where celadon originated. Some scholars object to such an arbitrary and romanticized Western nomenclature. Yet the ambiguity of the term celadon effectively captures the myriad hues of greens and blues of this ceramic type.


During the nearly five centuries of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), celadon constituted the main type of ceramics produced on the Korean peninsula. This exquisite ware typically appears gray-green in hue. The color of Goryeo celadon owes much to the raw materials—specifically, the presence of iron in the clay and of iron oxide, manganese oxide, and quartz particles in the glaze—as well as to the firing conditions inside the kiln. Temperatures were commonly around, or below, 1150ºC, and the level of oxygen within the kiln was dramatically reduced at some stage of the firing; this is known as a reducing, rather than an oxidizing, atmosphere. Goryeo celadon ranges from a plain, undecorated type to objects with incised, carved, mold-impressed, or inlaid designs, and to vessels embellished with colorful compounds like iron oxide (black or brown) and copper oxide (red), and also with gold.


Celadon represents a major technological and conceptual shift in the history of Korean ceramics. The high-fired gray stoneware of the preceding Unified Silla dynasty (668–935) and Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.–668 A.D.) had set the stage for the manufacture of celadon, but the technology of the celadon glaze and of the kiln structure, adapted from China, was an important advance. Just as significant is the conceptual change. With the advent of celadon, particularly the highly refined pieces used by the royal court, there is a palpable aesthetic dynamic driving what ceramics should look like. Color becomes an important element in this transformation, as do interpretive designs in form and decoration.


Initially, Goryeo potters learned much of the technical expertise from the celadon traditions of Song-dynasty (960–1279) China, particularly of its southern coast. A Song envoy, Xu Jing (1091–1153), who visited the Goryeo capital, Gaeseong, in 1123, noted the resemblance of Goryeo ceramics to the celadons of China's Yue and Ru kilns. We see in early Goryeo examples a conscious emulation of certain stylistic features of Chinese wares—such as the shapes of bottles and bowls, and standard decorative motifs including lotuses, peonies, flying parrots, and scenes of waterfowl by the pond.


By the mid-twelfth century, Goryeo potters and patrons turned to articulating native tastes. This coincided with the consolidation of major celadon industries near the southwestern coast of the peninsula, in Jeolla Province—the Buan and Gangjin regions especially. The latter remains, today, the center of modern celadon production and of revivals of Goryeo traditions. The culmination of Goryeo celadon can be seen in inlaid (sanggam) celadon, a rarity in China. The delicate technique of sanggam involves etching the desired motifs on the dry clay body and filling in the carved space with black and/or white slip, after which the translucent glaze is applied and the vessel fired. The best of Goryeo inlaid celadon is breathtaking in its splendid presentation of clean form, vibrant design, and subtle yet alluring color combination of white, black, and green.

Soyoung Lee
Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cup and stand, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), first half of 12th century
Korea
Stoneware with celadon glaze; H. 2 7/16 in. (6.2 cm), Stand: H. 1 7/8 in. (4.8 cm)
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

This cup-and-stand set epitomizes the elegant simplicity of plain celadon from the first half of the twelfth century. Both pieces are undecorated, highlighting their clean-cut forms and ideal proportions; the celadon glaze is a blue-green hue with virtually no crackles. The type—a half-spherical cup and a stand with a circular "tray" and domed center—was made in Song China (960—1279) as well and can also be found in Goryeo metal prototypes. The Goryeo potter, therefore, was replicating a known model. But since the clay and glaze compositions vary from those of Chinese celadon, the Goryeo piece achieves a different visual effect, subtle yet perceptible.

The best-known example of refined, undecorated celadon produced during the first half of the twelfth century is a group of objects unearthed from the tomb of King Injong (r. 1122–46). The Fitzwilliam cup-and-stand set has a stronger blue tint in its glaze color and is not as flawless as the Injong tomb pieces, but it clearly demonstrates a comparable Bottle (kundika), Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), first half of 12th century
Korea
Stoneware with incised design of geese, waterbirds, reeds, willow tree, and lotus under celadon glaze; H. 13 11/16 in. (34.7 cm)
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

As its Sanskrit name suggests, a kundika was originally a water vessel used in Buddhist purification rituals. Water was poured in through the short spout on the side and sprinkled from the long neck. As one of the identifying attributes of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion in the Buddhist pantheon, the kundika invariably makes an appearance in Goryeo-period paintings featuring this bodhisattva (14.76.6). Beyond its religious associations, the kundika was apparently widely used during the Goryeo period as a standard water container by elites and commoners alike.

This ceramic kundika was modeled on contemporary and earlier bronze examples (23.115), whose particular form it mimics faithfully—ovoid body, small spout (which would have had a removable top), and tall, slender neck with a projecting, disklike middle. Many bronze and ceramic kundika are embellished with incised or inlaid designs. The decorative motifs usually follow a standard repertory (with Covered box, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), mid- to second half of 12th century
Korea
Stoneware with inlaid design of peony under celadon glaze; H. 1 1/4 in. (3.2 cm), W. 3 1/4 in. (8.2 cm) Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Small celadon boxes may have developed as imitations of lacquer and metal models. This trefoil box has a magnificent mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer counterpart in the Metropolitan Museum's collection (25.215.41a,b). Of the two boxes, the decoration of the lacquer piece is more dense, lavish, and brightly hued. The Fitzwilliam celadon box is more subtly ornamented: an inlaid peony spray in the center is circumscribed by black and white inlaid lines tracing the trefoil contours.

As a decorative technique, inlay (sanggam) was widely used by Korean artisans of various media, particularly metalwork and lacquer but also ceramics. In fact, inlaid celadon was uniquely popular in Korea during the Goryeo period, never achieving the same level of sophistication or demand in China and Japan. A time-consuming method, inlay on celadon involves first carving the design into the moist clay body, then filling in with white and black substance before the vessel is glazed and fired. The decoration, clearly vis Maebyeong, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), second half of 11th century
Korea
Stoneware with iron-brown design of peonies under celadon glaze; H. 10 5/8 in. (27 cm)

A maebyeongliterally "plum bottle"—has round shoulders, a tapering waist or base, and a small mouth (the saucer-shaped mouth is typical of the Goryeo maebyeong). They were most likely used as wine containers, rather than flower vases, during the Goryeo period; other examples of maebyeong with their original cup-shaped lids intact strongly suggest this function. Although the origin of the term is unclear, the name and form of Goryeo maebyeong derive from Chinese examples of the Song dynasty (960–1279)—maebyeong is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese term meiping.

On the body of this bottle is an exuberant design of peony scrolls with large open blossoms. At the shoulder is a band of stylized chrysanthemum petals, and at the base a plain wide band. The decorative motifs and effect of this piece resemble those of Cizhou ware bottles of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), especially those with sgraffito decoration, in which the black-and-white cont Maebyeong, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), late 12th–13th century
Korea
Stoneware with inlaid design of clouds and cranes under celadon glaze; H. 12 1/16 in. (30.6 cm)
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The typical Chinese version of the maebyeong, especially of the Song dynasty (960–1279), is tall and slender, with little curvature in its outline. The representative Goryeo counterpart, as exemplified by this bottle, is broad-shouldered and voluptuous, with a distinct S-shaped profile. It would originally have had a saucer-shaped mouth; the current everted rim on this piece is a restoration.

The decoration on this maebyeong consists of white cranes and clouds, a recurring motif on Goryeo celadon, floating against the blue-green "sky." There is much empty space between each crane and cloud, so that the overall impression is one of tranquility and slow or suspended motion. The cranes are in various stages of motion, some nose-diving, some almost horizontal, and some with twirling bodies like a gymnast. The clouds are rendered in different sizes corresponding to their position on the bottle—larger clouds along the bulbous shoulder and smaller ones on the tapering bottom. The result heig Bowl, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), 1270 or 1330
Korea
Stoneware with inlaid design of ducks, willows, and reeds; H. 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm), Diam. 7 7/16 in. (18.9 cm)
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Large hemispherical bowls with an interior design of ducks among willows and reeds, executed in black and white inlay, seem to have been fairly common from the late twelfth century onward. Often such bowls were inscribed in the center with a cyclical date (of a sexagenary cycle, ganji), as is the case with this piece. The characters spelling kyeongo on the interior of this bowl correspond to either 1270 or 1330. Since the dating of such bowls has relied heavily on stylistic comparisons with other inlaid celadon, some more firmly datable than others, there is still much debate about whether these bowls were produced in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. Although they disagree on the exact dates, scholars concur that bowls with cyclical dates were most likely produced for official purposes rather than private use. Bowls inlaid with a ganji cyclical date have only been found at the court kilns of Gangjin, and not from the kilns of Buan.

The combination of motifs—duck