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A fresco of daily life: the wall paintings of Koguryo


Detail of a wall paintings of Koguryo
© OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection

The tombs of kings and nobles, discovered during recent decades along the middle reaches of the Yalu river in the T'ung-kou plain of south Manchuria and in the basin of the Taedong river, near P'yongyang, represent the height of artistic and architectural development of the ancient kingdom of Koguryo (37B.C.-668A.D.).

The sites of the tombs were selected by diviners for their favourable aspects and are scattered widely over the countryside. Some fifty of them are decorated with wall paintings of great beauty which provide precious information on the beliefs, the organization and the daily life of the society of the period. The architectural skill with which these tombs were built is evidenced by the design of the vaulting and the placing of the pillars. Long buried beneath their protective mounds of earth, the tombs exemplify the deliberate marriage of the aesthetic with the functional.

The wall paintings, which are in a remarkable state of preservation, deal with a wide variety of subjects.

In the "Two Pillars Tomb", two corteges wend their way along the walls of the entrance corridor, traverse the antechamber, finally converging at the far end of the main chamber where a man and a woman are seen seated on a dais.

The huge fourth century tomb of king Michon, at Anak in the province of Hwanghae, comprises four fully decorated chambers. Its most remarkable mural is a sixmetre-long portrayal of a royal procession. The king, seated in an ox-drawn carriage, is escorted by mounted and foot guards and a host of retainers and clowns, in all 250 figures. Surprisingly, although almost all these figures represent conventional categories nobles, functionaries, monks, servants, jugglers, etc.each figure is different, and so are the features of each face. So subtly are the varieties of expression rendered that it seems as though each figure was a real man or woman known to the artists. The same sorupulous attention to detail can be seen in the portrayal of weapons, armour, carriages and landscape.

The Koguryo tomb paintings also present a veritable bestiary, including domestic and wild animals, real and mythological beasts, the latter representing the points of the compass. It was also in the kingdom of Koguryo that astronomers compiled the first Korean star maps, such as that painted on the ceiling of the principal chamber of the Tomb of the Dancers.

An infinite variety of ornamental motifs adorn the Koguryo tombs; lotus flowers and honeysuckle tendrils entwine the pillars and enliven the ceiling panels, testifying to the rich artistic technique and the inexhaustible inventiveness of the anonymous artists who produce these masterpieces of a bygone age.