Period: Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)
Date: ca.12th century
Medium: Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell over pigment; brass wire
Dimensions: H. 1 5/8 in. (4.1 cm); L. 4 in. (10.2 cm); D. 1 3/4 in. (4.4 cm)
Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1925
Accession Number: 25.215.41a, b
During the Koryō period, lacquerware with mother-of-pearl inlay (najōn ch'ilgi) reached a high point of technical and aesthetic achievement and was widely used by members of the aristocracy for Buddhist ritual implements and vessels, as well as horse saddles and royal carriages. Inlaid lacquers combine texture, color, and shape to produce a dazzling effect in both large and small objects. Although Korean lacquerware of the Koryō period was highly prized throughout East Asia, fewer than fifteen examples are known to have survived, one of which is this exquisite box in the Museum's collection. This paucity of material is largely attributable to the fragility of lacquer objects and, to a certain extent, to wars and raids by foreign powers, notably those launched from Japan by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) in the late sixteenth century.
This three-tiered box is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and painted tortoiseshell on a black lacquer ground to produce a dense pattern of chrysanthemum flowers and foliate scrolls. The edges of the box are reinforced with twisted brass wire. The thin pieces of translucent tortoiseshell were painted on the reverse with red and yellow pigments, and the pieces then applied to the object with the painted side face down. The combined use of mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell is apparently peculiar to Korean lacquer, although it must be pointed out that the combination of mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell inlaid into hardwood is seen on a number of musical instruments, all probably of Chinese origin and dating from about the eighth century, in the Shoso-in in Japan.
Extant contemporaneous objects in both celadon and lacquer suggest that this box was one of four that fit around a central round box. These boxes have traditionally been identified as "cosmetic boxes," though it is unlikely that all of them were used for this purpose. The presence of Buddhist imagery on related examples suggests that boxes of this kind were part of a set of incense containers that encircled a box in which a Buddhist rosary might have been kept.