I’ve been working hard of late, busily trying to re-organize large sections of my life. But sometimes you just need to stop for a break. And so when I was invited out recently for a day at the Miho, the seduction of the moment was just to great to refuse.
One of the world’s most beautiful museum buildings, the Miho Museum is nestled in the hills of Shiga prefecture about an hour’s drive from Kyoto. Approximately 75% of the building designed by I.M. Pei is actually underground to minimize any disruption to the forested hillside on which it is built, yet the rooftop constructed largely of glass floods the interior with natural light, while the steel crossbeams provide and intricate interplay of shadows across the floors and walls.
The current exhibit called “Eurasian Winds Toward Silla” focused on archeological treasures from the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla, one of three monarchies that arose on the Korean peninsula around the 3rd century AD. (as shown in the map below) The city of Gyeongju, once the capital of Silla, is now home of the Gyeongju National Museum in Korea, which supplied a collection of artifacts showing the influence of migrating central Asian tribes on the art and culture of the far east.
The fall of the powerful Han Dynasty in China around 220 AD had allowed nomadic tribes from Central Asia to roam across northern China and subsequently migrate eastward into the Korean peninsula, bringing with them advanced techniques in glassmaking, metal smelting, pottery as well as Mediterranean and European motifs that had an impact on the early culture of Silla. In particular Silla, became known for its intricate goldwork as reflected by the crown shown above and the filligree cap shown below.
It’s not certain precisely how the crown was worn, but the “duckbill” hanging downward may have formed a visor while the side panels encircled the head. There may have also been some form of cloth head covering that has not survived the centuries. Small pailettes of beaten gold are attached with twisted wires to both sides of the structure, perhaps to emulate feathers or perhaps simply to add shimmering glints of reflected light as the wearer of the crown moved his or her head. The cap on the right is fairly small object and thought to have been cover for long hair that had been twisted into a top knot.
The elegance and skill with which these pieces were fabricated is fairly obvious even in these reproductions and thought to be reminiscent of Scythian goldwork hundreds of years earlier in the region ranging from the Caspian sea to the Baltic coast. As the Scythians were displaced in the around the second century BC, portions of the population moved southward influencing artistic developments in Greece, while other sections of the population migrated eastward across the Asian steppes, bringing their skills to the Pazyrk tribes of Siberia and then downward into China. It was this type of migration, not only of Scythian technology but also that of other Eurasian tribes, that the exhibit attempted to describe through a careful reconstruction and juxtaposition of the archeological evidence.
In addition to goldsmithing, the exhibition explored the development of Silla culture through artifacts that included glassware, goblets and other forms of metal work. The introduction of new forms of kilns allowed higher temperature firing of ceramics and the production of Roman-style glass.
With the rise of the Tang dynasty, Silla was able to form new alliances with the Chinese in order to emerge the victorious conqueror of its immediate neighbors, uniting the Korean peninsula under its rule. And from this powerful new position, unified Silla facilitated the further spread of not only technical processes but also Mediterranean and other east European motifs across two continents to the rim of the Pacific Ocean.