“An Imaginary World Beyond Life - Wall Paintings of Deokheung-ri Tomb”
- Summary -
Koguryo is a civilization that possessed the strongest power as well as the largest territorial land during the recorded 5,000 years of Korean history. Today, it captures the global spotlight with its magnificent and refined cultural heritages.
Among these cultural heritages, the wall paintings from Koguryo tombs are valuable historic assets that are officially registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage. Over 120 Koguryo wall paintings have been discovered so far, as they tell us about the lifestyles, politics, society, and the understanding of life and death at the time.
Particularly the wall painting from the ancient tombs in Deokheung-ri, discovered in 1976, has captured national and international attention for its remarkable preservation details, variety and vast amount of epitaph.
-Structural layout of the Deokheung-ri Tomb-
The Deokheung-ri Tomb, located in Deokheung-ri of the Gangseo District in, Nampo City, Pyeongan Province, is a dual-chamber tomb with an entranceway and the front chamber, continued by a short passage leading to the main chamber, where the coffins lay.
The ceiling of the front chamber is in the shape of a domed arch, and the uppermost part of the arch is completed by successively smaller parallelograms.
- Front chamber -
The front chamber is decorated with a portrait of Jin, who is the tomb occupant, a depiction of 13 governors from Yuju, a military procession scene, and a painting of a shogunate government official. The portrait of Jin is considered the most significant focus of this front chamber.
The portrait of Jin is located on northern wall, to the left of the passageway, and to the right is 13 governors congratulating on Jin for his appointment.
There is a lengthy calligraphical writings above the entrance, which confirms that Jin held the position as a governor-general of Yuju.
On the wall facing east, a mural of a long 4-rowed ceremonial procession is depicted.
The people marching to the left are depicted without any overlapping, to show the overall appearance of the procession.
At the middle of the procession, Jin and his wife ride their own chariot individually, escorted by civil officials, military officers, cavalries and armored horses and riders on the upper and lower parts of the main procession
On the wall facing west, a painting depicting 13 governors can be seen paying their respects to the occupant of the tomb, which consequently presents a general idea on what life as a government official was like.
The officials from each division of Yuju on the mural of the south wall of the front chamber are depicted as being in a more casual atmosphere than that of 13 governors.
- Passage -
On the west wall of the passage that connects the front chamber to the main chamber, a painting depicts going out of the deceased couple.
The painting on the east depicts Jin's wife presiding in the march. The wife's oxcart is depicted as incredibly ornate and luxurious, and servants in flowing pleated skirts are seen accompanying the wife.
- Main Chamber -
When entering the main chamber, another portrait of the occupant of the tomb can be seen on the north wall.
The empty space to the right of Jin was intended for his wife, but no portrait of her can be seen because it is believed that she had died much later.
Paintings such as these where a married couple are depicting sitting next to each other became a popular trend in tomb paintings during the mid-Koguryo era.
On the east wall of the main chamber, a mural of the offering of seven precious gems is presented, demonstrating a strong influence of Buddhism.
On the upper left section of the wall, there is painting of a pond with two large lotus flowers blossoming.
This painting portrays the forest of the seven gems, where the gems are hanging by the lake in the land of enlightenment.
Just as Jin described himself as a follower of Sakya Muni Buddha, he created this wall painting in hopes of achieving successful reincarnation into the next world.
As the influence of Buddhism became widespread within the Koguryo kingdom, the use of Buddhist elements in wall paintings increased as well.
On the west wall, there is a painting depicting archers on horseback.
This painting, which shows armored warriors shooting arrows on horseback, is evaluated as an important piece showing the recreational pastime culture of the time.
- Ceiling (The Concept of Afterlife) -
The domed ceiling in the antechamber portrays elements that symbolize the afterlife.
The hunting scene, the sun and moon, constellations, Gyeonu and Jingnyeo, celestial beings, immortals, and auspicious animals are painted on the ceiling, which seem to depict life after death.
The hunting scene is one of the earlier forms of Koguryo wall paintings. Eight horseback warriors, five on the east ceiling and three on the west ceiling, are portrayed in their lively, dynamic moments of hunting. The warriors were depicted in the form of so-called 'Parthian shot', which is to shoot arrows while on their horses, but with their torsos facing the rear.
Underneath the painting of hunting, there are mountain peaks in the shape of the Chinese character for "mountain," suggesting that the warriors are hunting in the mountains.
There are also depictions of winged fish, two-headed birds, a heavenly horse, the sun and stars scattered across the painting.
On the ceiling facing west, there are Cheonchu and Manse, birds with the face of a person symbolizing the hope for longevity, celestial beings, auspicious animals, the moon which has a toad-image in and constellations.
On the ceiling facing south, Gili and Bugwi, each symbolizing luck and wealth are depicted with celestials. The left side of them, Gyeonu and Jingnyeo are facing each other separated by the Milky Way.
On the ceiling facing north, there are pictures of auspicious animals such as the winged-horse, cheonjak, bagwi etc, and the Big Dipper.
As one can see, the wall paintings of the Deokheung-ri tomb are evaluated to be valuable information for taking a glimpse of Koguryo people's concept of life, death, and the afterlife.
- Closing -
The wall paintings in the ancient tombs of Deokheung-ri are valuable historic data that reveals the society of Koguryo.
In addition to the dynamic paintings that show the spirit of Koguryo people, various paintings such as portraits, mountain, hunting and other aspects of life are considered as valuable resources for understanding the development of Korean painting.
From the tomb occupant's government official position to mythical beings in the celestial sphere, the wall paintings are valuable resources that reveals to us the Koguryo people's perspective towards life, the universe, and even the afterlife.