• Koguryo and Balhae
  • Great Tomb of Gangseo
The First Stone Prop of the Western Wall (Joist)
TitleThe First Stone Prop of the Western Wall (Joist)
The First Stone Prop of the Western Wall (Joist)

This mural is depicted on the corner of the first stone prop of the western wall in the Great Tomb of Gangseo. The first stone props, also known as joists or Yangbangs, are construction elements installed above the burial chamber walls to safely support heavy ceiling stones. Generally, these joists are long, rectangular stones that are stacked parallel to a wall and protruding slightly toward the center of a burial chamber. In the case of the Great Tomb of Gangseo, however, the four corners of the walls feature small, triangular supporting stones. This was an elaborate architectural element designed to safely distribute the ceiling load. Therefore, the Great Tomb of Gangseo can be considered a masterpiece that demonstrates the advanced stone construction technology of the Koguryo era.
Generally, Koguryo mural tombs were constructed to mimic actual building structures. Traditional wooden architectural elements such as joists began to emerge in early mural tombs. Joists in early mural tombs usually featured normal or oddly-shaped cloud patterns in various colors to transcend the tomb constructed on earth and accentuate the sense of being in the heavens of the afterlife. However, such imagery began to be replaced by plant-based arabesque patterns in mural tombs of the mid-Koguryo era due to a stronger influence of Buddhism.
The patterns in the image are combinations of lotus patterns and vine-shaped arabesque palmettes, collectively known as wave-shaped arabesque patterns. Arabesque patterns have seen widespread use in ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, Arab Nations, India, China, South Korea, and Japan. They are truly multi-national patterns that have continued to develop in diversity as influenced by each country's own culture. China's arabesque patterns are categorized into animal-influenced arabesque patterns (dragon arabesque) and traditionally Western plant-type arabesque patterns. Due to the vigorous cultural exchanges with China, both types of arabesque patterns have appeared in Koguryo art. Earlier examples of arabesque patterns can be primarily seen within the Pyongyang region in the Anak Tombs No. 1 through 3, Susan-ri Tomb, and Hwanmunchong. Western-influenced arabesque patterns were introduced to Koguryo near the end of the 5th century and can be seen on various Paintings of the Four Spirits in the Four Spirits in Tonggu, Middle Tomb of Gangseo, and Great Tomb of Gangseo.
All six arabesque vines can be seen in this image. Excluding the fourth and sixth vines from the left which feature lotus flowers, the rest were decorated with palmette patterns. This composition is distinctly different from the other walls that feature a central Baozhu pattern flanked by arabesque vines. The smooth curves of the arabesque vines and the sleek curves of the palmettes form a wonderful balance. Coloring techniques utilized East Asian rendering methods (light, gradual applications of color to increase contrast) to emphasize contrast for a smooth, three-dimensional appearance.
In Buddhism, lotus is a flower that symbolizes enlightenment and rebirth. However, Daoist mural tombs featuring the Paintings of the Four Spirits from the late Koguryo era emphasized the flower's decorative elements rather than its religious context.