Silla: Celebrating The Art of Korea’s Golden Kingdom

Thomas Storey

The Korean peninsula’s tumultuous contemporary history belies a prosperous past in which the ancient kingdom of Silla, which unified the warring factions of the peninsula, was renowned for its riches. Silla was particularly famous for the artifacts and regalia its craftsmen created out of gold and their skill in molding this luxuriant material is revealed in an exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom.

Crown. Korea, Silla kingdom, second half of 5th century. Excavated from the north mound of Hwangnam Daechong Tomb. Gold and jade; H. 10 3/4 in. (27.3 cm)

The Kingdom of Silla began life as one of the many small dominions which proliferated across the Korean peninsula in the 1st century AD, but developed over the course of the next five centuries into the most powerful and richest kingdom on the peninsula. Its establishment of a centralized monarchy, an aristocratic class and its unification of Korea were immensely influential in the development of Korean identity, and the eventual emergence of a Korean state. Silla reached its peak between 400 and 800 AD, following King Naemul’s establishment of a hereditary monarchy and the annexation of the Eastern Kingdom of Kaya. This period of military and political dominance marked the emergence of a refined and opulent aristocratic culture and the development of the craftsmanship for which Silla would become legendary, and which is displayed in all its glory in the Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom exhibition.

Buddha, probably Amitabha (Korean: Amita). Korea, Silla kingdom, ca. 706. From the pagoda at Hwangboksa Temple site. Gold; H. 4 3/4 in. (12.2 cm)

The artifacts on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition reveal not only the skill and artisanal ability of Silla’s craftsmen, but also the values of the aristocrats who commissioned these pieces, and the spirituality and significance with which they were imbued. The majority of the extant Silla relics were excavated from the tombs of aristocrats in the Kingdom’s capital of Gyeongju and thus also offer an insight into the beliefs and practices which surrounded burial ceremonies and which informed people’s understanding of the afterlife. The items found in these tombs, the largest of which contained a double burial of a king and queen, reveal what the Silla rulers wished to carry with them from this life to the afterlife. Artifacts such as gold regalia, including a crown-and-belt set, gold and glass-bead jewelry, vessels of clay and precious metals, horse trappings and fittings for riding, and weapons were all regularly interred with the dead, as a means of ensuring a bountiful afterlife.

An intriguing aspect of the Silla artifacts excavated from aristocratic tombs is the number of foreign made luxury goods, including pieces from as far away as the Mediterranean, such as Roman style glass vessels. These reveal that the seemingly hermetic Silla Kingdom in fact existed in an already globalised society, in which international trade was well established. The trade routes which brought these items from the West to Korea were also conduits for cultural exchange, as the flow of traditions and practices, as well as inventions and ideas, from China into Korea now reveal. Buddhism was one such idea, which travelled from India through China to Korea and eventually Japan. It was officially adopted by the Silla Kingdom in 527, and initiated a complete transformation in Silla society and culture, which influenced the creation and use of the gold items that they so prized in this culture. What were once decorative regalia became spiritual icons and reliquaries, and the statues from this latter period are devoted to the worship of Buddha and other transcendent beings.

Bodhisattva in pensive pose, probably Maitreya (Korean: Mireuk). Korea, Silla kingdom, late 6th-early 7th century. Gilt bronze; H. 36 7/8 in. (93.5 cm)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom exhibition reveals a new side to ancient Korea, illustrating both the cultural riches of this early society and the changes that swept over the peninsula over the course of the Silla Kingdom’s existence. Organized in connection with the National Museum of Korea, Seoul, and Gyeongju National Museum, it is a vital piece of cultural exchange which tells a story most Western viewers will not be aware of. It deepens our collective understanding of the relics of the past, and the complex nexus of religion, culture and power which brought them into being.
By Thomas Storey

landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

X
Edit article