An orchestra of cicadas greet us as we climb the stairs up to the subway exit at the National Museum of Korea. We hurry into the Museum to escape the noise and intense heat. It’s our second visit, so room after room of old paintings doesn’t exactly excite us – but then we come across the Korean ceramic roof tiles.
Korean traditional buildings have the most amazing roofs- from the bright beautiful paintings on the ceilings to the elegant tiles, sweeping eaves and ornate tile-ends. The tile ends are always adorned with an intricately detailed design such as an animal, flower or Chinese character.
The roof tiles at the National Museum date back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57BC-668AD) and the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392AD) and give a fascinating insight into the life and ideology at the time.
The designs used on Korean roof tile ends have symbolic meanings – the white crane represents spirituality and longevity; peonies mean prosperity and happiness; creeping vines stand for longevity; and lotuses symbolize purity and spiritual enlightenment. Talismans and Chinese characters were also used to bring good luck or to ward off evil spirits.
In the Three Kingdoms Period Korean potters decorated tiles with flower and animal figures, including the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Geomancy, or Feng Shui was popular at the time so the yin yang symbol and the 5 elements of fire, water, wood, metal and earth were common decorations.
Later, during the Goryeo Dynasty, Buddhism became Korea’s state religion and ceramic arts flourished. Celadon was developed – a classic, semi-transparent green glaze which mimics the look of the prized gemstone jade. Celadon was also used on Korean roof tiles of the upper class. Even today Korea is famous for its Celadon ceramics.
During the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, kilns were destroyed and many of Korea’s highly skilled potters were killed or captured. The ceramics industry was devastated and many closely guarded secrets and techniques were lost forever.
On the streets of Seoul nowadays a lot of houses still have tile roofs, though they are mass-produced. The symbol used on tile ends on post-Korean war houses are almost all Mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon), Korea’s national flower. It symbolises Korean culture and it’s resilience. If you cut a Mugunghwa bush down it eventually grows back, as strong and healthy as before. It’s a fitting symbol for a country that has survived invasions, wars and occupations but has come back to thrive.
Korean Ceramics: Korean Culture Series 12 An interesting and easy to read book about Korean ceramics and history.
Korean Ceramics (Korean Culture Series) (Kindle edition)
The National Museum of Korea
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday- 9am-6pm
Wednesday, Saturday- 9am-9pm
Sunday, public holidays- 9am-7pm
Admission is free for the Main Exhibition Hall and Children’s Museum.
The Special Exhibition Room entrance fee varies, but is usually around W10,000.[/tab]
National Museum of Korea Location
By subway- take Line 4 of the Jungang line to Ichon Station, Exit 2.
By taxi- Some taxi drivers may know “the National Museum” in English, otherwise in Korean it’s 국립 중앙 박물관 pronounced: guglibjung-angbagmulgwan
Accessibility: There is elevator access at Ichon subway station and in the Museum.
- Trip Advisor – National Museum of Korea
- National Museum of Korea
- Life in Korea- Korean Symbolism
- “Teacher’s Sourcebook on Korean Art & Culture” by the Peabody Essex Museum – an interesting read on the basics.
- Korean Orbit- A little summary of the Korean Dynasties
Photos by Jarrod Hall