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Yangji, Great Monk-Sculptor of Silla

2013-10-03

<strong>Yangji</strong>, Great Monk-Sculptor of Silla
Greatest Artist of Silla

While Europe boasts famous sculptor and architect Michelangelo, the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla had Yangji. He was considered a legendary master of Buddhist art, who showcased his ability in various areas such as calligraphy, sculpture and crafts.

The Buddhist monk and artist was prominent from the era of Queen Seondeok to the years of King Munmu during the Silla period. Let’s explore the artistic world of Yangji.

Nokyu Statue at Four Guardian Kings Temple

“The talented man of high virtue was a master in all sorts of fields. He only demonstrated his trivial talent and did not reveal his true abilities.”

-from Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms by Il Yeon


According to Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms written by Il Yeon(일연), Yangji was not very active in showing his abilities. Yet, artwork left by Yangji vividly manifest how amazing his talent was.

Numerous Buddhist temples were set up during the years of Queen Seondeok and King Munmu, and Yangji left many valuable works during this period. His representative work is “Nokyu(녹유) Statue” that embellished a pagoda at Four Guardian Kings Temple. Yangji also created other masterworks, such as Inwang(인왕) Statue of the Mojeon(모전) Stone Pagoda at Bunhwang-sa(분황사) Temple, the statue of Neungji(능지) Pagoda where King Mumnu was presumed to be cremated, and the Sarira Reliquary from the East-West Pagoda at Gameun-sa(감은사) Temple. The Sarira Reliquary is considered the masterpiece of metal craft.

Four Guardian Kings Temple, in particular, was a Buddhist temple designed to pray for national security in the Unified Silla period. There was a large wooden pagoda at the temple, and a total of 48 Nokyu Statues were engraved on top of the pagoda.

To create this statue, Yangji used the method of making roof tiles. On a 90 centimeter-high, 70 centimeter-wide, and 9 centimeter-thick brick board coated with green glaze, he engraved an armor-clad guardian treading on demons in a symbolic move to protect the nation.

With the method of glazing the brick and casting a mold before baking, it was difficult to graphically describe the guardian’s nails and toenails. So, Yangji made the work with a mold first and then carved every detail of the image with great care. Thanks to his elaborate work, a sense of dimension was added to the engraving, which became more dynamic. It is said that the exquisite work of art like this is impossible without rich experience.

Legend about Seokjang-sa Temple

It is unknown when and where Yangji was born. But he is said to have stayed at Seokjang-sa(석장사) Temple in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province.

There is a mysterious legend about the name of the temple. Yangji had a walking stick. When he hung a sack at the tip of the stick, the stick flew by itself and made a sound in front of a house. Hearing the sound, the owner of the house came out to put rice or money in the sack as a donation. The stick then flew back to the hands of Yangji. A walking stick used by a Buddhist monk was called seokjang. As this story spread, the temple where Yangji had stayed became known as Seokjang-sa Temple.

Yangji made more than seven molds to produce small earthen bricks, just like producing roof tiles. He then laid the bricks one upon another tightly to build a brick pagoda. This special brick was called the “decorated brick for a stupa and a statue of Buddha.” The engravings on the brick were delicate and realistic and had a three-dimensional effect. This unique skill is highly esteemed.

In his work “Penance,” Yangji carved the emaciated image of Buddha with a thin rib. It was the image of Buddha before he found enlightenment. Many statues like this have been discovered in India but Yangji’s work is the only such sculpture found in Korea and China.

Contribution to Ancient Korean Art

Some suggest a possibility that Yangji was not Korean, citing the lack of any detailed record of his ancestors or hometown. Obviously, however, he was a revered Buddhist monk and artist loved by people of the Silla Kingdom.

Yangji already accepted the cultural background of India during his time and adopted a new art form that had never been found before.

His artistic talent shined in various areas. Without a doubt, as a leading master of Buddhist art in Silla, Yangji provided fresh momentum to the development of ancient Korean art.

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