The Journal of Korean Art and Archaeology

Journal of Korean Art and Archaeology Vol. 17
Buddhist Practitioner and Artist: The Dual Identity of Buddhist Monk Painters during the Joseon Dynasty
Jeong Myounghee

National Museum of Korea

Journal of Korean Art & Archaeology 2023, Vol.17 pp.12-30


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ⓒ 2023 National Museum of Korea, All rights reserved.


The Buddhist monk artisans of Korea are considered exceptional even in the East Asian cultural sphere that shares much of their Buddhist culture. They entered the Buddhist priesthood, abided by Vinaya (precepts) and possessed considerable technical skills. Their existence is verified in historical records going back as far as the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE-668 CE). When the Seon (Chan), or meditation, school of Buddhism was introduced during the Unified Silla Dynasty (676–935), physical effort became recognized as an ascetic practice. Accordingly, monks actively engaged in building temples and producing images for worship. During the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), groups of expert monk artisans were formed, such as monk transcribers. Monk artisans who participated in public service to the state were given the posts of Seon (meditation) master (禪師) or Great Seon master (大禪師). Notable monks specializing in arts and crafts include Trice-exalted Great Master (三重大師, K. samjungdaesa) Anche (安締), a monk transcriber who was commissioned by the king to hand-copy the Tripitaka at the Eunjadaejangwon (銀字大藏院, Silver Letter Tripitaka Office) and Noyeong (魯英), who painted the Small Black-lacquered Screen with Image in Gold (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1. Dharmodgata Bodhisattva and Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva by the monk Noyeong. Goryeo, 1307. 22.5 × 13.0 cm. Gold on lacquer. National Museum of Korea

Noteworthy changes in the characteristics of Buddhist monk artisans during the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) can be understood in the context of the difficulties that Buddhist circles faced in a society that had proclaimed Confucianism as its governing philosophy. The ruler and leading figures in Joseon-era Korean society often regarded Buddhist monks as a mobilizable labor force that could reduce the people’s burden of corvee labor. Institutional restrictions on becoming a Buddhist monk and on the construction and maintenance of Buddhist temples were put in place, but the demand for the functions of a religion that could support communities and the lives of individuals rose. The roles of monk artisans expanded as they took part in both Buddhist temple projects and national public works. Although bronze casting of Buddhist craftworks, including bells and gongs, was gradually taken over by artisans from the commoner class, the production of Buddhist sculptures and paintings was entrusted solely to monk artisans.

The situation in Joseon greatly differed from that in its neighbors, China and Japan. In China, professional painters called huashi (畫師) or huagong (畫工) were responsible for producing Buddhist art during the Ming Dynasty (明, 1368–1644). In Japan, artisans known as busshi (佛師) had taken charge of Buddhist projects commissioned by the nobles and imperial court since the late Heian period (平安時代, 794–1185). Japanese busshi created a genealogy based on blood ties or teacher-student relationships and gradually evolved into Buddhist project groups that maintained private workshops. Busshi artisans received dharma names as monks do, but those names simply indicated that the state had granted a type of honorary position to them. They were not monks who had entered the Buddhist priesthood.

As the production of Buddhist sculptures and paintings became the exclusive responsibility of monk artisans during the Joseon Dynasty, diverse schools displaying distinctive production styles came to be established in different regions (Fig. 2). Buddhist sculptures and paintings were produced through collaboration among several monk artisans within a school, and techniques were shared and disseminated among them according to their skill levels rather than being monopolized by particular members. The areas of their activities were broad since these monk artisans worked based not only on the temples where they stayed but also on human networks centering around their monastic lineages (門中, K. munjung). In the process, some temples became famous for training apprentices and producing monk artisans by transmitting key techniques.


Fig. 2. Monk Seokjeong (1928–2012) who is creating a Buddhist painting

This paper aims to explore the roles and working practices of Joseon-era Buddhist monk painters who served as both Buddhist practitioners and artists. It also examines the organization and working environment of monk painters through historical materials that have been passed down to temples. By doing so, I hope to enhance the understanding of Joseon Buddhist temples not only as religiously sacred spaces, but also as places that played a social role in the creation and consumption of art.

Monks Called Hwawon

Buddhist Rituals and the Roles of Monk Painters

In China, Buddhist scriptures emphasizing rituals and rules for creating images were published starting in the Tang Dynasty (唐, 618–907). There was no regulation stating that only monks should produce Buddhist sculptures and paintings. Nonetheless, in Korea, monks rather than artisans from the commoner class, assumed full responsibility for producing Buddhist sculptures and paintings. This was because the production of Buddhist sculptures and paintings required expertise in Buddhist iconography and doctrines, and also because rituals for enlivening images by dotting the eyes (點眼, K. jeoman) or depositing votive objects (佛腹藏, K. bulbokjang) inside the images were practiced.

Joseon-era Buddhist temples served as publishers. They carved the woodblocks for a wide range of books, including scriptures, annotations, and textbooks used at Gangwon (講院, Buddhist seminaries) and then printed them out. As ritual procedures became central religious activities in Buddhism within a society pursuing Confucian order and stressing Confucian rites, various types of ritual manuals were published. These manuals include Sanbobeomeumjip (刪補梵音集, Collection of Supplemented Sanskrit Sounds), Yeongsan daehoe jakbeop jeolcha (靈山大會作法節次, Procedures of the Rite for the Great Vulture Peak Assembly), and, Cheonji myeongyang suryukjaeui beomeum sanbojip (天地冥陽水陸齋儀梵音刪補集, Edited Collection of Sanskrit Sounds for the Ceremony of the Heaven and Earth, Dark and Bright, Water and Land Feast). According to them, large-scale Buddhist projects and rituals should start only after hanging Buddhist paintings. Another ritual manual, Jagimun jeolcha jorye (仔夔文節次條列, List of Ritual Procedures by Zi Kui), was compiled by Gyepa Seongneung (桂坡聖能), who founded Haeinsa Temple and constructed Bukhansanseong Fortress as Paldodochongseop (八道都摠攝, A General Commissioner of the Eight Provinces). The manual advises that pictorial images of several deities should be placed out before a ritual and that they should be enlivened by dotting the eyes based on certain formalities (Fig. 3). It also contains methods for writing Sanskrit characters on a variety of types of Buddhist paintings used for rituals (Fig. 4).


Fig. 3. Jagimun jeolcha jorye (List of Ritual Procedures by Zi Kui) compiled by Monk Gyepa Seongneung. Published by Haeinsa Temple in 1724


Fig. 4. Sanskrit characters written on the pupils, eyelids, and a tuft of hair in a detail of the gwaebul painting at Cheonggoksa Temple by Uigyeom and nine other monk painters. Joseon, 1722. Ink and color on hemp cloth. Cheonggoksa Temple, Jinju. National Treasure

The demand for Buddhist sculptures was huge in the seventeenth century. In and after the eighteenth century, however, a reorganization of rituals resulted in a growth in the demand for Buddhist paintings and the expansion of the roles of monk painters. Buddhist halls served not just as symbolic spaces for enshrining Buddhist sculptures, but as important spaces for worshipping deities and performing rituals. Among the several types of Buddhist halls, the main hall included a representation of the process of a three-altar ritual by enshrining Buddhist paintings suitable for the three altars. During outdoor rituals, large-scale gwaebul (掛佛) paintings and other paintings produced for the rituals were hung outside the halls. Inside the halls, several Buddhist paintings used in rituals were hung as well. The spaces of these halls were utilized in a multi-faceted way.

The names of the monks who created Buddhist sculptures can often be identified in the votive texts inserted in the sculptures. They are not written or carved on the surfaces of the sacred images, however. Contrarily, Buddhist paintings bear inscriptions recording their production dates, prayers, the list of donors, and the monks who produced them. The inscriptions on a Buddhist painting include a section listing the official duties of the monks involved (本寺秩, K. bonsajil ), a list of the names of donors (施主秩, K. sijujil ), and a list of names of the people who participated in the production of the painting (緣化秩, K. yeonhwajil). In particular, the yeonhwajil list contains the names of the hwaju (化主, fundraising monks soliciting donations from devotees for a Buddhist project), monk painters, jeungmyeong (證明, the monk supervising a Buddhist project and the ritual of depositing votive objects), and songju (誦呪, a reciter of dharani and Buddhist sutras). In order to effectively proceed with a Buddhist project, the duties of monks were specified and systematized based on a division of roles.

Monk painters took part in the process of the eye-opening ritual as well. According to the Eye-Opening Rite for Buddhist Images in the Edited Collection of Sanskrit Sounds for the Ceremony of the Heaven and Earth, Dark and Bright, Water and Land Feast, “Once the chief officiator of a ritual recites a mantra of five colored threads (五色絲眞言), a hwawon (court painter) makes lotus leaves with five colored threads, ties them to a five-ja pole (about 151.5 centimeters), and pulls the other ends of the threads to tie them to the fingertips of a Buddhist sculpture. In case of a Buddhist painting, the lotus leaves are tied around a water bowl with the thread ends being pulled to be tied to the fingertips of a donor, while an indo (咽導) loudly recites gatha (poetic verses) on the five Buddhas.” This indicates that monk painters participated in the ritual procedures of investing sacred treasures with authority and divine power (Fig. 5).


Fig. 5. Deposited votive objects for a Buddhist painting

Chimgoengjip (枕肱集, Collected Works of Chimgoeng), a collection of literary works by the monk Chimgoeng Hyeonbyeon (枕肱懸辯), describes hwawon (court painters) as being busy adorning the precincts of a temple even on the day of a ritual. It also records that paintings by the hwawon transform a temple into a space where the Vulture Peak Assembly, where the Buddha preaches ideal sermons, is being held. According to the Congratulatory Vows by Six Partakers from the Edited Collection of Sanskrit Sounds for the Ceremony of the Heaven and Earth, Dark and Bright, Water and Land Feast, hwawon can be divided into the naebaebi (內排備) who are responsible for the interiors of a temple precinct and the oebaebi (外排備) responsible for its exteriors. As greater emphasis was placed on visually adorning the temple precincts, choosing and inviting a skillful hwawon who had achieved national fame had to be done carefully. Since monk painters had an in-depth understanding of Buddhist doctrine and iconography owing to their experiences with several Buddhist projects, they were often invited to serve as jeungmyeong (project supervisor and verifier monks). Even after retiring from the production of Buddhist paintings, they assumed responsibility for overseeing Buddhist projects. Monk painters engaged in diverse activities and a wide range of exchanges. Thus, they were able to serve as an additional agent for Buddhist projects by playing diverse roles as fundraisers, donors, and supervisors.

Changes in the Appellations and the Perception of Monk Painters

Many people whose names were recorded as the producers of Buddhist sculptures and paintings prior to the Joseon period turned out to be the commissioners rather than the actual creators. Before the Joseon era, the production of images of worship was not considered to be an area of expertise for monk artisans alone, and people who sponsored the production of images were considered more important than those who actually made them. Monk painters were called hwawon (畫員, court painters), hwaseung (畫僧, painting monks), hwasa (畫師, painting masters), yanggong (良工, skilled artisans), and hwagong (畫工, painting artisans). The most commonly used appellation among them was hwawon (Fig. 6). The term was widely used to refer to not only monk painters, but also monk artisans who created Buddhist sculptures or cast Buddhist bells. The term was originally used for those who belonged to the Dohwaseo (圖畫署, Royal Bureau of Painting) and were in charge of producing paintings, but it was expanded because of incidents during the Joseon Dynasty. When the government-run handicraft industry declined after the Japanese (1592–1598) and Manchu (1636–1637) invasions of Korea, monk artisans were mobilized. The state utilized the expertise and skills of monk artisans for government and private construction needs. A large number of monk artisans were summoned to rebuild the capital city and palaces.


Fig. 6. Yeonhwajil (a list of names of people who participated in the production of a painting) and court painters recorded for the gwaebul painting at Bongjeongsa Temple by Domun and six monk painters. Joseon, 1710. Bongjeongsa Temple, Andong

Seonsu Dogam (Superintendency of Repairing Palaces and Fortresses) stated that “[We] have ordered and urged officials in local regions to send artisans (工匠) to [the capital] for a large construction project several times, but to my surprise, they are quite indifferent to the given order and have no intention of carrying it out. Particularly, the government office of Gaeseong sent not even one person although we have asked for dozens of tile-making artisans, stonemasons, and monk painters. (Emphasis by the author)

From the entry on the seventeenth day of the third lunar month of Jeonghae year (the eighth year of the reign of King Gwanghaegun [光海君, r. 1608–1623]) in Joseon wangjo sillok (朝鮮王朝實錄, Annals of the Joseon Dynasty)

Like artisans from the commoner class, monk painters were enlisted on the census register and required to provide labor for building and repairing government and private structures. In the history of the gongjang (工匠, artisans) who took charge of handicrafts in pre-modern times, the presence of Joseon-era monk artisans has not been addressed. However, a reevaluation of monk artisans is needed since they played a significant role in the process of undertaking national projects. As were the official artisans (官匠, K. gwanjang) who belonged to local government offices (including tile-making artisans and stonemasons), monk painters were a part of the system of mobilization for public works (公役, K. gongyeok). Monk artisans from temples throughout the country were recruited to participate in national projects, such as the construction of palaces, the construction of Yongjusa Temple in 1789, and the construction of Hwaseong Fortress in 1790.

In and after the eighteenth century, new terms for court painters appeared. These include dopyeonsu (都片手), geumeo (金魚), pyeonsu (片手), yongmyeon (龍眠), and yongan (龍眼). These new terms developed around the time when the roles of monk painters had expanded to include the re-gilding, repairing, or carving of Buddhist sculptures, in addition to producing Buddhist paintings. They allow us to understand changes in the perception of monk painters at the time and their sense of their own identity. Historical records document monk artisans creating Buddhist sculptures as “myosujangsa” (妙手匠師) or “gyojang” (巧匠), both meaning an “outstanding artisan,” and the invited monk painters as “dohwawon” (都畫員, chief court painter), “jonsuk” (尊宿, erudite and virtuous monk), or “myeonghyeonseokdeok” (明賢碩德, wise and virtuous monk). By referring to the monk artisans with these honorifics, temples indicated that their creations were sacred treasures. In doing so, they attempted to advance the authority of Buddhist projects.

Monk painters were likened to particular artists like Wu Daozhi (吳道子), a Chinese painter who excelled at landscape and Buddhist painting. They were compared to renowned painters such as Zhang Sengyou (張僧繇) and Zhang Sigong (張思恭), ancient legendary sculptors, or legendary artisans. The monk painters were also recognized for rising to national fame through their remarkable abilities. When the monk painter Hyesik (慧湜) produced the Vulture Peak Assembly to be enshrined at Yeongchwisa Temple in 1742, he and other monk painters were recorded collectively as “bisuhoe” (毘首會) (Fig. 7). The term “bisuhoe” is derived from Bisugalmacheon (毘首羯磨天, Skt. Vishvakarman), the god of craftsmen who is believed to have created the first image of Buddha for King Udayana (優塡王) of Kaushambi. This deity was described as an artisan who produced Buddhist images in the Life and Activities of Shakyamuni Buddha Incarnate (釋氏源流應化事蹟) (Fig. 8), a biography of Shakyamuni Buddha. This designation reflects the notion that monk artisans were held to ideals that people from the secular world could not reach.


Fig. 7-1. Vulture Peak Assembly by Hyesik and six other monk painters. Joseon, 1742. Ink and color on silk. 364 × 242.2 cm. National Museum of Korea


Fig. 7-2. “Bisuhoe” written in the inscription


Fig. 8. Bisugalmacheon (Skt. Vishvakarman), the artisan who made the first image of the Buddha. From Life and Activities of Shakyamuni Buddha Incarnate, vol. 2. Joseon, 1673. 27.0 × 18.2 cm

The texts of praise (讚文, K. chanmum) on monk’s portraits, biographies (傳記, K. jeonggi), and the records from offering rice paddies to temples (獻畓記, K. jeondapgi) emphasized that monk painters had noble characters and excelled at ascetic practices and meditation. Monk painters were described in the narrative style used in most biographies of eminent monks. The biography of the monk painter, Geumamdang Cheonyeo (錦巖堂 天如, 1794–1878), highlights his nature as a Buddhist practitioner by relating an episode of how he devoted himself to the pursuit of his faith for 200 days in front of a sculpture of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva at Geumsuam Hermitage. It also stressed his talents and eccentric behavior. The biography of Cheonyeo, the texts written on his portrait, and the inscriptions on the stele for Yakhyo (若效), the canonical monk painter of modern era, at Magoksa Temple all indicate how monk painters were described in a narrative style of presenting myths about artists that emphasized their genius and talent (Fig. 9). Monk painters’ eccentric behaviors were portrayed as well. As children they were said to play by drawing images of the Buddha on the ground or practiced drawing tens of thousands of drafts to refine their skills. For example, the monk painter, Kwaeyun (快允) of Seonamsa Temple, is believed to have wrapped his right hand with a cloth most of the time and only unwrapped it for use when creating Buddhist paintings.


Fig. 9. Portrait of Geumhodang Yakhyo (1840–1928). 1934. Ink and color on silk. 116 × 60.5 cm. Josajeon Hall at Magoksa Temple

Chukyeon (竺衍), a monk painter active on Geumgangsan Mountain in the late nineteenth century, hid his hall name “Hyesan” (蕙山) within a painting like a signature, or included it on the roller of a hanging scroll or handscroll. This addition of a hall name differs from the inscription on the painting added as a record of the associated project. It is more of an expression of self-identity as an artist. Chukyeon (Fig. 10) was introduced in A History of Korean Art by Andre Eckardt and was named in a newspaper as “a master of Buddhist painting” along with Cheolyu (喆侑). The Sixteen Arhats painted by Chukyeon in 1926 was featured in commemorative photographs produced during the tourist boom on Geumgangsan Mountain (Figs. 11 and 12). As shown by the case of Chukyeon, the self-identity of monk painters changed from seeing themselves as a simple agent in the production of religious painting to viewing themselves an artist. This change can be observed in Buddhist paintings and relevant records.


Fig. 10. Photograph of Gosan (Hyesan) Chukyeon (?–after 1930) by Andre Eckardt. 1915


Fig. 11. The “Tenth Arhat” from the Sixteen Arhats by two monk painters, including Chukyeon (active late 19th–early 20th century). 1926. Ink and color on silk. 289.0 × 225.0 cm. Tongdosa Seongbo Museum


Fig. 12. A commemorative photograph of a visit to Geumgangsan Mountain

The economic contributions of monk painters can be verified in hanging boards and steles at temples. As a case in point, even at in his old age, Yakhyo walked up to 196 kilometers to take part in Buddhist projects undertaken by temples scattered throughout the eight provinces. He participated in several Buddhist projects as a major donor, and in his later years donated his personally owned lands to temples. Joseon-era monk painters served not only as creators but also as promoters and supporters of Buddhist projects through their own financial resources, their influence within Buddhist circles, and their exchanges with the faithful.

The Organization and Working System of Monk Painters

The Production Agents of Buddhist Paintings and the Working System of Monk Painters

A distinctive Buddhist culture developed during the Joseon Dynasty. A demand for the functions of religion underlaid a society despite its official pursuit of a Confucian state. Before the establishment of Confucian funeral rites, traditional faiths and views on the afterlife coexisted. Buddhist circles flexibly responded by placing an emphasis on Confucian virtues as a means to seek coexistence with Confucian ideology and values. Not all Buddhist paintings from the Joseon period were produced by monk painters. Like in the Goryeo Dynasty, court painters from the Dohwaseo (圖畫署, Royal Bureau of Painting) created Buddhist paintings sponsored by the members of the royal family and royal relatives during the early Joseon period. The Buddhist paintings made by these court painters from the Dohwaseo were enshrined at temples within the palace precincts and at other temples by monks who facilitated the patronage of the Joseon royal family, eventually exerting an influence upon works by monk painters.

Sixteen Contemplations of the Visualization Sutra commissioned by King Sejo (世祖, r. 1455–1468) in 1465 was produced by the court painter Yi Maenggeun (李孟根). Welcoming the Salvific Dragon Boat commissioned by the wife of Deokheung Daewongun (德興大院君), the father of King Seonjo (宣祖, r. 1567–1608), in 1549 was painted by the court painters Yi Baeryeon (李陪連) and Yi Heunghyo (李興孝). Moreover, 400 Buddhist paintings and Medicine Buddha Triad with Twelve Guardians (in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) commissioned by Queen Munjeong (文定王后) in 1565 after the repair of Hoeamsa Temple, were all produced by court painters, although no records about them have survived (Figs. 13 and 14). In 1599, Queen Uiin (懿仁王后) led a project for repairing the Dosolam Hermitage and producing a painting of a White-robed Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. She ordered the Naesusa (內需司, Royal Treasury) to provide money from the private holdings of the royal family and send monks to repair the temple. She had Yi Jeong (李霆, 1554–1626), one of the three Joseon painters considered the masters of ink bamboo painting, produce the White-robed Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Many Buddhist paintings created by court painters from the Dohwaseo under royal orders do not specify their creators. They simply bear inscriptions with information such as that they were produced by recruiting yanggong (良工, skilled artisans) or that a subject (臣) [named] ○○○ painted them with respect. However, it was common in Buddhist paintings commissioned by common people to name the monk painters.


Fig. 13. Bhaisajyaguru (Medicine) Buddha Triad painted by court painters and commissioned by Queen Munjeong. Joseon, 1565. Ink, color, and gold on silk. 54.2 × 29.7 cm. National Museum of Korea


Fig. 14. Medicine Buddha Triad with Twelve Guardians painted by court painters and commissioned by the Joseon royal family. Joseon, late 16th century. Ink and color on silk. 123.0 × 127.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As Buddhist paintings began to be perceived as a special field reserved for monk painters in and after the late sixteenth century, a great number of monk painters came to be mobilized for state-led projects. For example, 366 artisans from the capital and local regions participated in the production of the Uigwe (Royal Protocol) of the Repair of Changdeokgung Palace in 1647. Among these artisans, there were only nine court painters from the Dohwaseo, while 131 monk painters participated in the project. These 131 monk painters included forty-seven from Chungcheong-do Province, forty-five from Jeolla-do Province, and one from Gyeongsang-do Province. This indicates that large-scale monk painter organizations existed in different regions and could be mobilized as needed. Monk Seokjeong (1928–2012), a human cultural property in Buddhist painting, said that some monk painters had worked at several major temples, including Daeseungsa Temple on Sabulsan Mountain, Songgwangsa Temple on Jogyesan Mountain, Magoksa Temple on Gyeryongsan Mountain, and Yujeomsa and Geonbongsa Temples on Geumgangsan Mountain. Recent studies have focused on head monk painters. Among the renowned monk painters, Uigyeom (義謙), who was active in the eighteenth century, worked at Borimsa Temple in Jangheung during the early days of his career. Afterwards, he moved about in pursuit of Buddhist projects in the areas surrounding Jirisan Mountain and in the provinces of Jeolla-do, Gyeongsang-do, and Chungcheong-do (Fig. 15).


Fig. 15. Diagram of temples that house Buddhist paintings produced by the monk painter Uigyeom (active 18th century)

It is unclear whether or not contemporaneous people distinguished monk painters by the schools of their painting styles. According to records, when Buddhist sculptures were produced in 1719 for Daeungjeon Hall at Girimsa Temple in Gyeongju, people from Honamsan Mountain (湖南山人), those from Palgongsan Mountain (八公山人), and those from Wolseongsan Mountain (月城山人) participated. There are other records indicating that eighteen monks from Jeolla-do Province and ten monks from Gyeongsang-do Province took part in the reconstruction of Daeungjeon Hall at Bulguksa Temple in 1765. These records suggest that monks were perceived based on their affiliated temples, mountains, and regions.

Monk painters and monk sculptors have been main areas of interest in Buddhist art history for over twenty years. As Buddhist cultural heritage at temples was investigated and the efforts of famous monk artisans were detailed, information about the periods of monk artisans’ activities and the context surrounding the production of their works has been accumulated. Art historians have defined the characteristics of monk artisan groups by dividing them into several schools. They examined whether there were any monk painters who repeatedly engaged in projects led by a certain head monk painter and formed a group. They analyzed head monk painters’ iconography and styles to see how they were different from those applied by other groups of monk painters. Their research started with the premise that a head monk painter could control his situation, plan schedules, and develop painting styles.

Commonly, Buddhist paintings were produced following a commission from a temple rather than based on the painters’ personal impulses. The expenses required for buying painting tools and handling the relevant affairs differed based on the social standing of the patrons and economic situations, such as the amount of funds raised for Buddhist projects. A head monk painter supervised the production of Buddhist paintings that involved collaboration between two or more monk painters. Uigyeom, who supervised a project at Songgwangsa Temple between 1724 and 1725, divided the available monk painters into groups by halls and assigned them different painting themes. The number of monk painters involved changed according to the hierarchy and significance of the Buddhist paintings in question. Uigyeom served as a head monk painter for the Vulture Peak Assembly in Eungjindang Hall, and its preparatory drawing and painting style followed his style (Fig. 16). He oversaw the entire project, but designated certain monk painters to be in charge of each theme of the Buddhist paintings. Accordingly, the inscription on the Sixteen Arhats produced along with the Vulture Peak Assembly in Eungjindang Hall does not bear Uigyeom’s name (Fig. 17). Both paintings demonstrate an identical overall painting style. However, they show slight differences in the preparatory drawings, in the depictions of deities and patterns, and in the application of colors. These discrepancies resulted from the division of labor.


Fig. 16. The Vulture Peak Assembly in Eungjindang Hall at Songgwangsa Temple


Fig. 17. Sixteen Arhats in Eungjindang Hall at Songgwangsa Temple

The roles of monk painters who participated in a collaborative project were divided among chulcho (出草), who created the preparatory drawings, sangcho (上草), who transferred the preparatory drawings, and seolchae (設彩), who applied glue and color. Historical records did not specify these roles. In many cases, monk painters were largely divided into head monk painters and participant monk painters. Head monk painters assumed full responsibility for producing preparatory drawings for Buddhist paintings. Preparatory drawings were blueprints for Buddhist paintings and served as a means to transmit painting styles. Monk painters from the same painting lineage shared preparatory drawings, and the characteristics of painting schools were shaped in the process of studying teachers’ preparatory drawings.

Accordingly, preparatory drawings often bear the names of their owners or sometimes sugyeol (手決, signatures or marks) or seals of the monk painters who created them (Fig. 18). In and after the eighteenth century, there were some cases where regular monk painters produced preparatory drawings rather than the head monk painters. As a case in point, in the Amitabha Buddha Assembly at Namjangsa Temple from 1741, the head monk painter Segwan (世冠) was recorded as a supervisor and a monk named Wolryun (月輪) took charge of the preparatory drawings. Three years later, in 1744, when a large-scale project for producing thirty Buddhist paintings was held at Jikjisa Temple, monk painter Segwan was documented on the first line of the inscriptions on the paintings as the hamjang (函丈)—meaning a teacher undertaking a task of overseeing the project—and his disciple, Wolin (月印), was in charge of producing the preparatory drawings. Segwan supervised the project as an elder, and his disciple serving as the chief official created the preparatory drawings. In and after the nineteenth century, monk painters who were proficient at drawing rough sketches were commonly assigned the role of creating preparatory drawings.


Fig. 18. Monk Manbong (1910–2006) working on a preparatory drawing

In addition to Buddhist paintings, monk painters created paintings needed by local communities. In 1536, the monk painter Okjun (玉埈) from Donghwasa Temple produced a portrait of Yi Hyeonbo (李賢輔, sobriquet: Nongam) (Fig. 19). In 1686, the monk painter Uiin (義仁) produced the painting Gathering of Elders Born in the Eulchuk Year to commemorate a gathering of seven officials of the same age at Bosalsa Temple in Cheongju (Fig. 20). The monk painter Hyeho (慧皓) from Geumgangsan Mountain, who maintained friendships with literati, created Su Shi (Dongpo) in a Bamboo Hat and Clogs (Fig. 21). The styles that monk painters adopted while responding to a request for a painting from local communities impacted the production of Buddhist paintings.


Fig. 19. Portrait of Nongam Yi Hyeonbo by the monk painter Okjun. Joseon, 1537. 126 × 105 cm. Ink and color on silk. Cultural Heritage Administration website


Fig. 20. Gathering of Elders Born in the Eulchuk Year by the monk painter Uiin. Joseon, 1686. Ink and color on silk. 139.0 × 71.4 cm. Tangible Cultural Heritage of Seoul


Fig. 21. Su Shi (Dongpo) in a Bamboo Hat and Clogs by the monk painter Hyeho. Joseon, 19th century. Ink and light color on paper. 107.0 × 31.6 cm. National Museum of Korea

Besides preparatory drawings inherited from their teachers, monk painters consulted hwabo (畫譜, painting manuals consisting of printed versions of secular and religious paintings), which professional painters could obtain. In this process, the iconography of secular paintings came to be reflected in religious paintings. The Sixteen Arhats by Uigyeom and the preparatory drawings of Thirty-three Patriarchs by Hwaryeon (華蓮) demonstrate how monk painters quickly embraced iconography from figure paintings included in painting manuals like the Sancai tuhi (三才圖會, Collected Illustrations of the Three Realms) (Fig. 22). Moreover, paintings of the banquet of the Queen Mother of the West and of Daoist immortals, both themes frequently used in court paintings that later became famous among common people, were placed at important locations in Buddhist halls. Iconography from novels and book illustrations as well as the motifs from folk painting and paintings of books and scholar’s accoutrements constantly influenced mural paintings at temples. A monk painter named Yeonhong (演弘) working in Gyeonggi-do Province oversaw the production of mural paintings in Daegwangbojeon Hall at Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheong-do Province (Fig. 23). The mural paintings in the upper walls of the hall feature arhats depicted in the hwabo (painting manual) style adopted by Uigyeom. This style was popular in Jeolla-do Province at the time. The mural paintings on the main walls of the hall present Daoist iconography of the immortals Li Tieguai (李鐵拐) and Liu Haichan (劉海蟾), who were widely popular among the common people as granters of eternal youth and immortality (Fig. 24).


Fig. 22-1. Sancai tuhi (Collected Illustrations of the Three Realms). Ming, China, 17th century


Fig. 22-2. Detail of the Sixteen Arhats at Heungguksa Temple in Yeosu by Uigyeom and other monk painters. Joseon, 1723


Fig. 22-3. Preparatory drawing by Hwaryeon for the Thirty-three Patriarchs at Ssangbongsa Temple. Joseon, 1768. Tongdosa Seongbo Museum


Fig. 22-4. Mural painting in Daegwangbojeon Hall at Magoksa Temple. Joseon, ca. 1788


Fig. 23. Mural painting of Daoist immortals on the lintel on the north side of Daegwangbojeon Hall at Magoksa Temple


Fig. 24-1. Daoist immortal Li Tieguai by Sim Sajeong. Kansong Art and Culture Foundation


Fig. 24-2. Daoist immortal Liu Haichan by Sim Sajeong. Kansong Art and Culture Foundation

Monk painters moved across multiple regions and worked jointly with monk painters from other painting schools at different sites. Such collaboration allowed them to master ancient Buddhist painting styles and works by renowned monk painters, as well as to embrace emerging innovations. Identical painting styles can be observed within paintings created in different times and places. This sharing of painting styles is demonstrated by the case of Singyeom, who led a Buddhist project at Jungheungsa Temple on Bukhansan Mountain by using preparatory drawings of the Ten Kings of Hell that he had produced for a project one year earlier at Gounsa Temple in Uiseong. Similarly, the monk painter Yakhyo practiced painting by using preparatory drawings by Yuseong, who was active in the Gyeongsang-do region, and Cheolyu, a monk painter on Geumgangsan Mountain, utilized preparatory drawings from Tongdosa Temple.

The Variability of the Organization and Wages of Monk Painters

Some head monk painters who made remarkable achievements worked in many different regions and maintained rather weak bonds with the temples to which they belonged. The monk painter groups led by these head monk painters for certain periods of time had no regular members. The members varied based on several elements, including the hierarchy among the monk painters who participated in a project, their “dharma age” (法臘, the number of years since being ordained as a monk), and the significance of their assigned tasks. The organization of the monk painters also changed when head monk painters were invited to undertake public works and requested by their affiliated monastic lineages to work on Buddhist projects. At those times, monk painters who united for these particular projects joined with the monks who belonged to the temples where the projects were held, indicating that the organization of monks involved in the projects could vary.

In 1740 (the sixteenth year of the reign of King Yeongjo [英祖, r. 1724–1776]), Hyesik (慧式), a monk painter from Gayasan Mountain, supervised a Buddhist project that donated one thousand Buddhas to Pagyesa Temple. It was based on sponsorship from royal family members, including King Yeongjo himself (Fig. 25). Before producing the Buddhist paintings and repairing and re-gilding the Dry-lacquered Seated Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva at Pagyesa Temple, he created some preparatory drawings needed at neighboring temples, including for Okryeonsa and Gounsa Temples in Uiseong. At Pagyesa Temple, he re-gilded Buddhist sculptures in the large lecture hall, repaired the sculptures of the Ten Kings of Hell and paintings in its affiliated hermitages, and produced the Buddha triad sculpture in Nahanjeon Hall. The dohwawon (chief court painter) Hyesik, who vowed to undertake this Buddhist project at Pagyesa Temple, worked with thirteen monk painters over the course of two years. Among these thirteen monk painters were head monk painters who worked independently, including Milgi (密琦) and Uigyeom (Fig. 26). Similarities in painting styles can be found in temples far from one another since monk painters traveled to engage in different Buddhist projects. Moreover, exchanges among monks brought about the development of new styles.


Fig. 25. The Dry-lacquered Seated Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva in Wontongjeon Hall at Pagyesa Temple


Fig. 26. Votive Text for the Dry-lacquered Seated Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva at Pagyesa Temple. Joseon, 1740. Ink on paper. 50.0 × 180.0 cm. Pagyesa Temple, Daegu.Treasure

Most of the workshops for monk artisans were installed at the temples where the Buddhist projects were carried out since the fundraising by monks, the provision of materials, and the supervision and verification of the projects were all managed by the temples involved. Monk artisans traveled to the temples where there was a demand for them. Temporary workshops called bulsaso (佛事所, Buddhist project office), hoehwaso (繪畫所, painting office), and seongjoso (成造所, construction office) were installed at these temples. Sometimes, hermitages or pavilions in the temple precincts were utilized, as demonstrated by the project for producing a gwaebul painting in 1759 at Heungguksa Temple in Yeosu. Help from local government offices was often needed to secure and purchase materials for Buddhist projects and to transport the goods and monetary offerings. The records housed at temples where monks’ militias defended fortresses and sago (史庫, history archives) and records at offices used by troops protecting coastal areas after war both document support coming from officials such as hyeongam (county magistrates) and sugun jeoldosa (provincial naval commanders). For example, when the old lecture hall at Borimsa Temple in Jangheung was reconstructed in 1715, the provincial naval commander administering the left Jeolla-do Province commandries helped obtain wooden materials from a neighboring island and transported them via ship. According to some records, lawsuits were sometimes filed even after expenses for materials were paid. This implies that aid from government offices was required at several stages for undertaking a Buddhist project.

The wages received by monk artisans have not been researched in detail. Probably because Buddhism emphasized merit-making, specific records are rare. Nevertheless, the financial management of temples was handled strictly, and monk artisans were given their due. The List of Jeongokyusa at Daeheungsa Temple from 1790 records the monks who were entrusted with managing the properties and grain of each temple and the dates they started new posts. Here, the roles of the jeongokyusa (a minor official dealing with financial affairs) rigidly and fairly managing temple properties was likened to those of a minister within the Takjibu (Ministry of Finance) in the central government or an ajeon (local civil functionary) controlling grain in a village, highlighting the importance of the task of managing finances and accounting at a temple.

When mobilized for public works, monk painters received wages just as artisans from the commoner class did. The monk painter Sanggyeom (尙謙) was mentioned in the section on the joseongso (造成所, an office for construction) in the Uigwe (Royal Protocol) of the Construction of Hyeonryungwon Tomb of King Jangjo (莊祖顯隆園園所都監儀軌) from 1789. He collaborated with court painters and received 162 liters of rice and a roll of linen and cotton as compensation like them. According to the Uigwe (Royal Protocol) of the Construction of Hwaseong Fortress, as the number of painters capable for taking responsibility for the traditional decorative coloring (丹靑, K. dancheong) of a gate-pavilion was low, the state ordered temples to search for skillful monk painters and send them to Hwaseong in the nineth lunar month of 1794 (the eighteenth year of the reign of King Jeongjo [正祖, r. 1776–1800]). It also contains an official document stating that the monk, Yeonhong, was appointed as the chief monk painter. In public works, monk painters mainly undertook the traditional decorative coloring of buildings. Their wages were the same as those of varnishing and sculpting artisans.

Gyeo (戒悟), a monk painter from Dorimsa Temple, crafted and painted a wooden container for votive texts over the course of three months in 1683 (the ninth year of the reign of King Sukjong [肅宗, r. 1674–1720]) and received fifty rolls of hemp cloth and eighteen liters of white rice in return. Gyeo received these wages in exchange for his participation in a project carried out at the temple to which he belonged. According to the Record of the Construction of Borimsa Temple in Jangheung, a head monk painter named Saekmin (色旻) and his sixteen disciples were recruited for producing a large painting of Indra hung at Daeyangmun Gate. They received 8,100 liters of rice and 200 yang (the currency of Joseon Dynasty). The Record of Donations Received upon the Establishment of Pyochungsa Temple (表忠設立有功錄) written in 1789 and stored at Daeheungsa Temple in Haenam contains a list of donations categorized by province (Hwanghae-do, Hamgyeong-do, Gangwon-do, and others) and by head monks at temples. The list includes the monk painter Gwangyeop (廣曄), who created paintings for Woljeongsa, Sinheungsa, and Gimryongsa Temples and donated to his affiliated temple fifty yang that he earned by applying traditional decorative coloring. The Record of Donations Received upon the Establishment of Pyochungsa Temple also documents that Pyochungsa Temple paid Baekheun (白欣) wages for the rough application and re-application of traditional decorative coloring as well as additional expenses for traveling, painting tools, and pigments (Fig. 27).


Fig. 27. Record of Donations Received upon the Establishment of Pyochungsa Temple. Joseon, 1789. Ink on paper. 36.0 × 27.8 cm. Yongheungsa Temple, Damyang

Pigments and painting tools were either donated or the temples could purchase them after selling other donated goods. Monk painters were familiar with the procurement of pigments, as noted in the elaborate and touching story of the re-gilding of the peeled-off gold plating on the Buddhist sculptures in Daeungjeon Hall at Donghwasa Temple. Thousands of pieces of gold were collected for the re-gilding from Donghwasa Temple and several other temples. However, as the government fell into chaos and the people were traumatized by the Japanese Invasions of Korea (1592–1598), Donghwasa Temple used up all of these golden pieces for rebuilding the temple and soothing the people. Three years later, people put their hearts into collecting more gold, but the monk painter entrusted with re-gilding the sculptures tried to leave after stating that the gold was insufficient for the re-gilding project. The temple earnestly asked him to proceed with the re-gilding. He worried that the new layer of gold plating would peel off because it was applied over the old gilt layer due to the lack of gold and the previously applied glue had lost its adhesion. He also said that the re-gilding of the Buddha triad required 240 pieces of gold. The records on the re-gilding of Buddhist sculptures at Borimsa Temple in Jangheung in 1748 document a debate among monks over the price and purchasing routes for gold. Several people, including goldsmiths in Jeonju, heard about the need for the re-gilding and wanted to participate in the project, but monks worried that these goldsmiths from the commoner class might cheat them regarding the price or quality of gold. Since hwawon (monk painters) were well aware of the quality of gold, the monks had them visit goldsmiths in the capital to obtain gold of high quality. Such records handed down at temples provide information about the working environment of monk artisans.

However, there are few remaining records that detail the environments in which monk artisans worked and how the overall process of a Buddhist project proceeded from the completion of paintings until their enshrinement. The Diary of the Seongjoso (Construction Office) at Daedunsa Temple (大芚寺成造所日記) (stored at Yongheungsa Temple in Damyang) records the rebuilding of several halls at Daeheungsa Temple (or Daedunsa Temple) in Haenam, which was destroyed in a fire on the fourteenth day of the tenth lunar month of 1899 (Fig. 28). It also documents expenses and other expenditures for the rebuilding project. This diary helps us understand the increase in the number of artisans from the commoner class participating in Buddhist projects.


Fig. 28. Diary of Seongjoso (Construction Office) at Daedunsa Temple. Joseon. Ink on paper. 30.2 × 27.8 cm. Yongheungsa Temple, Damyang

The Diary of the Seongjoso (Construction Office) at Daedunsa Temple provides information about the revenues and expenditures of the temple, prices of goods, and wages for labor. A rare surviving example of accounting documents from temples, this diary indicates that greater numbers of artisans from the commoner class gradually came to participate in Buddhist projects in the late nineteenth century. It lists detailed expenditures, including personnel expenses (for lumberjacks, stonemasons, carpenters, and artisans), traveling and food expenses for a person who went to bring a blacksmith, traveling expenses for artisans, expenses for snacks for children who served as helpers at the temple, and a charge for a letter delivery service. The diary also lists additional expenses such as the wages for the carpenters’ or the laborers’ repair of a temporary office for a Buddhist project, traveling expenses or money for drinking, and expenses for materials and tools used for repairs, including an iron hammer utilized for erecting pillars, other tools like a plane, large ruler, axe, paper, brushes, and ink. Similar expenditure items might have been recorded for monk artisans. Although more artisans from the commoner class came to be involved in Buddhist projects, the production of Buddhist paintings was considered an area of expertise for monk painters. Seventeen new paintings for the rebuilt Daeheungsa Temple were produced by inviting Gyeongseon Eungseok (慶船應釋), a monk painter from Gyeonggi-do Province, and Seokong Cheolyu (石翁喆侑), a monk painter from Geumgangsan Mountain.

In order to manage temple finances, monks maintained a Bosachong (補寺廳, an office for supporting the temple) or established a gapgye (甲契, fraternity) among monks born in the same year (as seen in the production of the gwaebul painting at Heungguksa Temple in Yeosu in 1759). Since monk painters carried out several Buddhist projects by traveling to different regions and were paid for their labor, they were relatively well off compared to general monks. Those who owned their own pigments or gold took part in projects as donors. As a case in point, a major donor of gold for the project of re-gilding a sculpture at Jikjisa Temple in 1714 (the fortieth year of the reign of King Sukjong) was the monk artisan Cheongyun (淸允) who was also responsible for re-gilding the Jikjisa sculpture. In 1728, disciples of Uigyun (義均), a monk painter from the Palgongsan Mountain region, led a project to produce sixteen Buddhist paintings for Donghwasa’s neighboring temples in Gyeongju and Cheongdo. At the time, Uigyun, who had retired, served as a major donor for the project. Based on their financial foundation and the area of their activities, monk painters formed relationships with Buddhist devotees and extended their influence. Moreover, by initiating Buddhist projects or becoming donors, they helped bolster temple finances. By passing down fields and paddies to their disciples that they had inherited from their birth parents or teachers, monk painters contributed to the expansion of their affiliated temples’ or lineages’ farmlands.


Buddhist paintings of the Joseon Dynasty were not only objects of faith and worship, but also cultural products created in specific social and economic environments. Monk organizations at temples had accommodated the demand for Buddhist projects since the Goryeo Dynasty. However, the application of traditional decorative coloring and the production of Buddhist paintings were considered the specialty of monk painters. The overall process of producing a Buddhist painting from its design to its enlivening through an eye-opening ritual was believed to fall outside the scope of artisans from the commoner class. The range of monk painters’ local activities was broad since they worked based on networks centering around their affiliated temples and monk lineages.

The formation of different schools of monk painters and the transmission of the traditions of these schools was made possible by production practices that passed along knowledge, skills, and styles through apprenticeship education under the leadership of head monk painters. These head monk painters directed and supervised the full process of the production of Buddhist paintings from the creation of preparatory drawings through the application of pigments and addition of patterns. Accordingly, the styles of head monk painters hold a critical position for interpreting the style of a given painting school.

The roles of monk painters expanded when they started participating in public works after the state handicraft system collapsed and as they responded to local communities’ needs for paintings. The expansion of their roles impacted the styles of Buddhist paintings. An illustrative example of the public works for which famous monk painters throughout the country were recruited is the foundation of Yongjusa Temple in 1790 when King Jeongjo constructed the tomb of Crown Prince Sado. The collaboration among monk painters from different regions led to the development of new styles. Based on their financial capacity and the areas of their activities, monk painters served as further agents for Buddhist projects by serving as donors, fundraisers, and verifiers. Monk artisans were a distinctive feature of the Joseon Dynasty within the East Asian cultural sphere.

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