Shedding new light on ritual ceramics that date back to ancient times, the exhibition aims at giving a better understanding of the characteristics and significance of Joseon ritual porcelain, as well as how each artifact was utilised. Whereas Jegi (제기, 祭器), utensils used in ancestral rites, were usually made of metal, brass or wood, throughout Joseon times (1392-1910), ceramic jegi were widely used in ritual ceremonies, since metal resources were scarce at the time. In the 1400s, people started to manufacture ceramic utensils, which later became emblematic of courtesy and good manners and, also, were considered to be fine works of art.
Since ancient times, there has been a bond that tied humans to the skies, the earth, and our ancestors. These were ancestral rites, and vessels were made to present offerings in the rites. These ritual vessels were offered to show thankfulness to the gods and also to be blessed; they were vessels that traversed time and space. Society in the Joseon Dynasty was based upon Confucianism, which emphasized the importance of memorial services to ancestors. Ritual vessels were thus one of the most essential and significant items in Joseon society. Ceramic ritual vessels were not merely used in ancestral rites but were also appreciated as works of art. They represented the “courtesy (禮)” culture of Joseon society.
The exhibition consists of three sections, arranging a total of 216 works of Joseon ritual pottery into three chronological categories: from the 15th to the mid-16th centuries; from the late 16th to the 17th centuries; and, lastly, from the 18th and 19th centuries. Artifacts from each period have different characteristics in terms of look or style. Although in earlier times, such ritual porcelain works were modeled after metal or wooden ones, their shapes and patterns developed over the years in distinctive and creative manners.
The first section takes a glimpse into ceramic works that replaced metal in the 15th and 16th centuries. There is the sanggam-buncheong-sagi (상감분청사기), an inlaid grayish-blue powdered celadon piece that was modeled after a metal ritual utensil that, in turn, was based on images seen in the “Pictorial Illustrations of Ritual Vessels,” or “Jegidoseol” (제기도설, 祭器圖說). There are also works of white porcelain on display. In particular, a piece of pottery with a cloud pattern that was used to hold liquor or water, and a ceramic bowl with a lotus flower pattern that was used to contain meat, are on display to the public for the first time.
In the second section, a series of white porcelain pieces from the 1500s and 1600s are put under the spotlight. In this period, many people began to perform ritual ceremonies more often, as a way to strengthen the solidarity of the community after the ordeals suffered during the Imjin War (임진왜란) (1592-1598) and during the Manchu invasions of Joseon in 1627 and 1636, known as the Byeongjahoran (병자호란). These white porcelain artifacts from the time look somewhat plainer, with simpler patterns, than the previous centuries. In particular, porcelain from the 17th century has a base with triangular or semi-oval cuts, with sawtooth adornments running down from the top.
The final section of “Ritual Porcelains of the Joseon Dynasty” features a set of well-balanced, refined pottery pieces used in rituals in the 18th and 19th centuries. These artifacts have a much taller base, and, most noticeably, have the classical Chinese character 祭 (제) inscribed in blue, representing the fact that they are all jegi (제기, 祭器), or utensils used in ancestral rites.
For additional information about the exhibition, please visit the National Museum of Korea’s website at https://www.museum.go.kr/site/eng/exhiSpecialTheme/view/current?exhiSpThemId=69184&listType=list . A detailed review by Sohn JiAe is also available at http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Culture/view?articleId=139081