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Worshipping the Stars: The Buddha of Polaris in Early Modern Korean Visual Culture

  • Author(s): Kim, Soyeon
  • Advisor(s): Jungmann, Burglind
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines how the inhabitants of East Asia, especially those on the Korean peninsula, understood and saw the stars before and during the fourteenth century. This is done by analyzing a Koryŏ dynasty hanging scroll titled Descent of Tejaprabhā Buddha (“the Boston Tejaprabhā Buddha”).

Chapter 1 sheds light on the traditions of interpretation of “patterns of the sky” (C: tianwen, K: ch’ŏnmun) of fourteenth century Korea by focusing on the asterism diagrams of the painting. The painting reveals that its creation was not confined by traditions of science and religion, but instead, that it had its own norms overarching those fields.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with reinterpretation and reimagination of Tejaprabhā Buddha and his pantheon. The descending motif of the Boston Tejaprabhā Buddha is a special addition to the standard iconography of the Tejaprabhā Buddha. The underlying beliefs of the fourteenth-century people of the Korean peninsula may have contributed to this addition and thus led to the creation of a new iconography related to the political intention of supporting the king’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, stellar attendants surrounding the Tejaprabhā Buddha show that the Buddha’s pantheon is based on indigenous cults focusing on broad astral worship and thereby transcending Buddhism, Daoism, folk belief, and state-supporting ideas.

Chapter 4 investigates the earlier Chinese Ruiguangsi Dasuiqiu dhāraṇī print which can be considered closest in visual representation to the Boston Tejaprabhā Buddha. The investigation concludes that the partial resemblance of the two works is the result of a creative appropriation of transmitted visual elements. These elements may have kept the original medial and ritual meaning of the earlier object to a certain degree but were transferred into another context in the later work and given a new function.

This dissertation investigates the many facets of the ch’ŏnmun tradition of worshipping the stars of the premodern Korea. By interpreting the Boston Tejaprabhā Buddha beyond the scope of “Buddhist painting,” the significance of the work becomes apparent, not only as a result but also as a starting point of further investigation of the ch’ŏnmun tradition of the Korean peninsula and its cultural and political connotations.

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