• Koguryo and Balhae
  • Great Tomb of Gangseo
Paintings of the Four Spirits
TitlePaintings of the Four Spirits

Each of the four walls in the main chamber of the Great Tomb of Gangseo is decorated with depictions of the Four Spirits, the guardian spirits of the cardinal points. The concept of the Four Spirits had been introduced from China and initially originated from different constellations. The ancient Chinese felt the need to create an accurate calendar system not only for their daily lives but for agriculture in particular, and a great deal of attention was paid to the solar and lunar cycles. As a result, a solar and lunar cycle measurement systems were devised based on twenty-eight constellations that were observable with the naked eye. Each constellation was associated with a specific object to distinguish between them. Thus, the Four Spirits originated as a result of the close relationship between the astrological and astronomical conception of the ancient Chinese.
Ancient documents complied from the third to first century BCE indicate that the Four Spirits were conceptualized during this period after the twenty-eight constellations were equally divided among the four cardinal points, associated with various auspicious ethereal animals, and referred to as the Four Palaces. In the Western Han era, the Four Spirits assumed the role of guardians exorcizing evil spirits. As the Fengshui philosophies became popular for burial ground selection during the Eastern Han era, the Four Spirits began to be referred to as Cardinal Spirits based on its concepts, guarding each cardinal point against negative energy. The Four Spirits also assumed the role of guardians in Daoism during the 4th century as several spiritual elements of the time were integrated into Daoist system.
Created in the 7th century, the murals of the Four Spirits in the Great Tomb of Gangseo are direct results of Daoist ideologies and act as guardians of each cardinal point of the burial chamber. The Great Tomb of Gangseo is unique in that a Yellow Dragon is depicted in the center of the ceiling in addition to the Four Spirits, thus complementing the Five Elements of Daoism.
The expression of the Four Spirits is considered the pinnacle of Koguryo artistry. The flowing brush strokes with no indication of hesitation, vibrant colors, and poses that radiate motion all combine to transcend time and space to reveal a glimpse of the brilliant artistic souls and vigor of the Koguryo people.