Art & Archaeology of the Silk Road Symposium at Portland State University (October 11-13, 2017)

Young-pil Kwon, The Korean National University of Arts. "The border pattern dividing the Earthly World and the Heavenly World in Koguryo tomb paintings: Merlon pattern and lattice patterns of Gandhara and Dunhuang" 

“Border Patterns Dividing the Earthly World and the Heavenly World in Koguryo Tomb Paintings: Merlon and Lattice Patterns of Gandhara and Dunhuang”

by Kwon Youngpil

            Artistic influence from the Dunhuang murals on the Koguryo murals was possible because of Koguryo’s acceptance of Buddhism in 372 CE, which led to the building of Buddhist temples and inclusion of Buddhist iconography on tomb murals in Koguryo. Influences from Dunhuang became especially strong in the second half of the fifth century, when the Northern Wei dynasty managed the Dunhuang caves, and Koguryo initiated extensive diplomatic missions to Northern Wei, which contributed to the absorption of Buddhist artistic characteristics, such as border patterns.

            In this presentation, I will clarify the origin and movement of the merlon pattern and the diagonal lattice pattern that appear on the tomb murals of Ssangyongchong (Twin Pillar Tomb) which date from the second half of the fifth century, during the early period of Koguryo tomb paintings. I plan to investigate the significance of these two patterns in relationship to motifs found on Gandharan relief stupas and in the Dunhuang cave murals, the latter having been influenced by designs on Gandharan stupas by virtue of the cultural exchanges between India and China via the route known as the Silk Road.  

             The lattice pattern first appeared in the Dunhuang caves on the decoration around the lantern-roof ceilings of Caves 257, 259, and 254, which date from the late 5th century. These ceiling patterns have characteristics comparable to patterns on the vedikas surrounding the harmikas of Gandharan relief stupas. This lattice pattern and a merlon pattern, also found in Cave 257 on the upper part of the walls and the pillar capitals, imply the division of divine realms from earthly realms, and serve to delineate sacred space. These expressions of Buddhist sacred symbols were transferred to the Ssangyongchong tomb murals.


            In the second half of the fifth century, in the Ssangyongchong murals, the diagonal lattice pattern band appears, along with the merlon pattern on the pillar capital. These indicate a relationship to Buddhist culture and reflect the division of secular and sacred worlds. The tradition of using the lattice pattern in Koguryo tomb paintings continued into the first half of the sixth century.


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