Artist: Unidentified Artist
Period: Joseon dynasty (1392–1910)
Date: late 16th century
Medium: Hanging scroll; ink and color on hemp
Dimensions: Image: 85 × 87 in. (215.9 × 221 cm)
Overall with mounting: 132 × 97 in. (335.3 × 246.4 cm)
Overall with knobs: 132 × 101 3/4 in. (335.3 × 258.4 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, 1921
Accession Number: 21.57
This monumental painting on hemp depicts the Indian deity Brahma (Pōmch’ōn)—identifiable by the Sanskrit syllable om in a circle above his belly and his towering height—accompanied by his retinue of attendants and musicians. Brahma, a Hindu deity, was incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon as a guardian of Buddhist teachings. His heaven is described in Indian mythology not as a place of meditation but as one of pleasure, populated with heroes, entertainers, and musicians like those in this painting.
The central figure of Brahma dominates the composition, which is filled with three rows of bodhisattvas and heavenly attendants bearing ceremonial objects or musical instruments or with their hands in a gesture of worship. Elaborate jeweled canopies surmount the group. The elongated proportions of the figures and the schematic facial features, hair, and robes are all executed with a heightened sensitivity to color, texture, and detail. The mannered figure style, stylized abstraction of the garments, and composition in which the figures fill almost the entire pictorial space parallel several other Chosōn Buddhist paintings of the sixteenth century. Such paintings would have been an integral part of Buddhist temple rituals, especially those performed to ensure protection for the country during the many periods in which it suffered frequent foreign invasions.
Although it was the primary impetus for artistic activity during the Koryō period (918–1392), Buddhism suffered an increasing loss of royal and aristocratic patronage during the succeeding Chosōn dynasty. Owing to these changed conditions, Buddhist paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries underwent significant changes in format, materials, and painting style.
The fabric on which this work is painted also marks a significant departure from that used in Koryō paintings. The predominant use of hemp (or sometimes thick paper) in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century monumental Buddhist paintings is undoubtedly due to economic circumstances: silk and gold had become too expensive to use for Buddhist images, especially under the conditions of austerity imposed by the early Chosōn rulers and as a result of the significant change in patronage, from the court to wealthy provincial donors and local monasteries. Finally, painting on hemp required less demanding craftsmanship. While paintings on silk required specialists who could apply the colors to both the back and the front of the painting surface, works on the thicker hemp were painted only on the front.
Music is an important part of Korean Buddhist ritual. In this painting, musicians are shown playing drums, flutes, and string instruments.