Marlik, in northern Iran, is a particularly important site. Located between the Caspian Sea and Elburz mountains, the area benefited from a warm climate with wooded forests and dense vegetation favorable to civilization. Tomb excavations at the site of Marlik yielded fascinating reddish and gray hollow pottery figurines in the shapes of humans and animals with spouts. This reddish-brown stag’s head forms a spout, which was probably used for pouring rather than drinking. Its stocky, full shape with a wide back and four stubby legs would have made it easy to handle. The earthenware was burnished, which means that it was rubbed while damp with a spoon-like tool before firing. This process makes it smooth to the touch.
Wares such as this one are often called “Amlash” after a small Caspian Sea village in southeastern Gilan province. Amlash has been a point of entry for the international antiquities market and has been used to describe unprovenanced antiquities, whether from Gilan province or not.
This standing Buddha has the round face, broad shoulders, and full body inspired by the Tang international style prevalent in East Asia during the eighth century. The disproportionately large head, stern facial expression, and wave-pattern drapery folds over the legs are characteristic of eighth-century Korean Buddhist images. Two prominent knobs on the upper and lower back indicate that this figure was originally equipped with a body halo (singwang; Sanskrit: mandorla). Both hands appear to have been damaged slightly by fire.
This image probably represents the Amita (Sanskrit: Amitabha), the Buddha of Eternal Life, who held the most exalted position in Korean Buddhism during this period. Many small gold and gilded bronze Buddhist images have been discovered in Silla temple sites and pagodas, indicating that such images were pervasive during the Unified Silla dynasty. While large figures of this type were placed in important halls of major monasteries, small ones were used for private worship or as votive images.
When the serpent king Kaliya poisons the Yamuna River with his venom Krishna steps in to save the day. The serpent tries to crush Krishna in his coils, but Krishna escapes, overpowers the serpent, and tramples him under his dancing feet. The serpent and his wives beg Krishna for mercy. Krishna, instead of killing the serpent, swears it to stop poisoning the river and banishes him and his family to the ocean.
This episode connects to the current predicament of sacred rivers in the Indian subcontinent. The Ganges, the holiest river in India, and its tributary the Yamuna have in recent years have become heavily polluted. Echoing Krishna’s restoration of the river and acknowledging its religious significance, scientists, environmentalists, and religious leaders have taken action to begin restoration of these sacred rivers.
This vase is a curious combination of forms covered with a thick, opaque turquoise glaze. What starts as a cup-mouthed bottle with a graceful long neck suddenly divides into a four-lobed body and terminates in a narrow base. Cup-mouthed vessels are standard fare for twelfth-century Persian potters exercising the capabilities of fritware, and they exist in monochrome as well as underglaze- and luster-decorated versions. The cup at the top of the neck is often left plain or adorned with a molded inscription such as the one here in kufic script, which bestows blessings and happiness upon its owner.
Although they can be quite decorative, cup-mouthed vessels are usually designed with practicality in mind: the wide cup is convenient for refills and the long narrow neck helps prevent one from pouring the bottle’s contents too fast. The body could take on a range of molded forms, but the four-lobed body of this vase appears to be unique and without a prototype in ceramic or metalwork. Perhaps not the most functional vessel, this bottle demonstrates the outer limits of creativity of a medieval Persian potter.
A cheetah stands with regal poise, its paw resting on the mane of a noble steed, who lifts his hoof high and bows his head on this extraordinary dish. Cheetahs were used in Iran and India in much the same way as dogs for hunting game. Persian ceramics often depict hunters and their hunting cheetahs and horses. The fact that the hunter is missing on this dish is not important since the combination of the cheetah and horse effectively symbolize the hunt. The upside-down creature under the horse is perhaps the prey. The expressive enthusiasm and extraordinary attention to detail on this dish set it apart from other polychrome buffwares of the tenth century. Vegetal motifs in relief transform the black horse into a fantastic creature that is decorated all the way down to its hooves. Although there are losses in the area of the cheetah, its colorful patterning can be discerned. The cheetah is related to fantastic creatures depicted in ancient Persian ceramics and metalwork that combine different animal attributes. The rest of the dish’s interior is filled with familiar decorative motifs from the repertoire of the buffware potter: abstract geometric, floral, and vegetal motifs, as well as decorative motifs that resemble kufic-style Arabic script. Two dotted borders along the wall and on the rim of the dish frame the highly original composition. This large dish would have been sold as a luxury item and was not intended for everyday use.
This small box has traits in common with famous large boxes from the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392); those earlier boxes were made to store handwritten and printed Buddhist sutras (sacred texts). Like the Goryeo boxes, this one is rectangular and has a beveled lid. The principal decorated area—whose primary motif consists of simplified lotus flowers constructed of large pieces of mother-of-pearl—is surrounded by bands of jewels. This box’s style and design reflect the taste of the ruling gentry during the first half of the Joseon dynasty, as they valued the Confucian virtues of simplicity and restraint.
“Bojagi” is a general term for all wrapping cloths in Korea. Most bojagi were made with specific people and functions in mind, like when mothers crafted bojagi for their daughters before weddings. Bojagi were viewed more as craft pieces than artwork, and it is only in recent decades that the aesthetic value of bojagi was rediscovered. By sewing together small, used cloth of various shapes and skillfully juxtaposing vibrant colors, the unknown makers of these bojagi created an exciting design akin to modern abstract art.
Depending on its function, design, structure, and user, bojagi can have other names. For example, bojagi made for covering a table is called “sang bo” (“sang” means table, and “bo” is an abbreviation of bojagi). Because the bojagi on display are patchworks of cloth remnants, they are “jogak bo” (“jogak” means small pieces). Different names apply to various patchwork designs, as well as suggest those meant for royalty and for ordinary people.
Once upon a time long, long ago when the tiger smoked a pipe… This familiar phrase, used at the beginning of Korean children’s stories, is represented literally on this jar in underglaze cobalt. The tiger-and-magpie theme is a popular motif in Korean folk painting. In the past, Koreans believed that tigers embodied the spirit of mountains and possessed the power to ward off all evil and harm, and that magpieswere harbingers of good news. Porcelain wares with underglaze-cobalt decoration began to be produced in Korea during the fifteenth century, with imported cobalt from West Asia through China.
The “flower robe” was a wedding robe worn by brides at the court and in the gentry class during the Joseon dynasty. This one was made by a contemporary textile artist in the traditional style of red silk with blue lining, colors that symbolize yin and yang, feminine and masculine, and light and dark in East Asian cosmology. It is embroidered with auspicious motifs of flora and fauna, including lotus and peony. The lotus symbolizes purity, rebirth, longevity, and good fortune, and the peony represents wealth and honor, while two birds allude to conjugal bliss. A bird with chicks symbolizes many offspring. The embroidered phrase on the back of the robe reads: “The union of two families is the root of myriad happiness.”
Jeong Tae-o’s eight-panel screen shows plum trees with blossoming flowers. Each panel contains an independent composition in which an old tree trunk has produced slender new branches with delicate blossoms. Only the second panel shows slender branches jutting out in the opposite direction. Plum blossoms sprout on fresh thin branches that have grown from the older branches. Jeong Tae-o (active 1800s), whose pen name was U-eum and who was also known as Jeong Tae-gyu, was famous for his plum paintings.
The blossoming plum is traditionally associated with other plants in symbolic combinations: the grouping known as the Three Friends of Winter (Sehan samu) consists of the blossoming plum, the pine, and bamboo; and the Four Virtuous Gentlemen (Sagunja) group consists of the blossoming plum, orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboo. Because plum flowers blossom even before the snow melts, they are thought of as harbingers of happy times.