Prayers for Divine Protection: The Temple God (1885) of Hŭngch’ŏnsa and the Cult of Guan Yu


Tuesday, February 25, 2020, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Barker 133, 12 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Harvard Buddhist Studies Forum; co-sponsored by the Korea Institute

Seunghye Lee
Curator of Buddhist Art, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

Seunghye Lee holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Chicago with a specialty in Chinese and Korean Buddhist art. Currently, she is Curator at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, where she co-curated the exhibition “Exquisite and Precious: The Splendor of Korean Art” in 2015 and edited its catalogue. She has also held a position at the Academy of Buddhist Studies, Dongguk University, where she participated in a nation-wide survey of Buddhist manuscripts and xylographs in temple collections. Her research focuses on the relationship between Buddhist art and practices of worship in China and Korea from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. Her major publications include an annotated English translation with introduction of Go Yuseop’s A Study of Korean Pagodas: Joseon tappa ui yeon’gu (Seoul: Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2017); “Hall of Underground Palace of the Tianfeng Pagoda: Changing Form, Function, and Meaning of Reliquary Space in Southern Song China” (Chicago: Art Media Resources, 2019) and “Aspirations for Pure Land Embodied in a Modern Buddhist Temple, Anyang’am” (Acta Koreana 22, no. 1, 2019). She is working on a monograph on the consecration of Korean Buddhist images, while continuing her research on modern Korean Buddhism and Buddhist art.

Korean Buddhist temples rarely dedicate shrines to tutelary deities or enshrine visual representations of them in worship halls. The Temple God (1885), hung in the main hall of Hŭngch’ŏnsa in today’s Seoul, is a rare example. In this painting, the main deity sits at the center, solemnly facing front. Its iconographical features demonstrate visual affinities with cultic images of Guan Yu, the legendary Chinese marshal who was deified and worshipped as Kwanwang or “King Kwan” in late Chosŏn Korea. Intriguing visual similarities between this Buddhist deity and Guan Yu have not been examined thoroughly in previous studies of late Chosŏn Buddhist paintings. The cult of the Chinese god, which enjoyed unparalleled support from the royal court and commoners during King Kojong’s reign, seems to have been a major factor behind this unlikely iconographical borrowing. By closely analyzing the Temple God against the religious and visual culture of the late nineteenth century, this talk sheds new light on the religious syncretism reflected in the painting and implications behind the royal patronage of the Guan Yu cult in a time of political chaos and upheaval.