Epitaph Tablets – Honoring an 18th Century Korean Decedent

This winter I spent a transcendent morning in the wondrous Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet in Paris.  I was in heaven, enjoying ancient art from many Asian nations, including this unbelievably cool Chinese sculpture of  the bodhisattva Guanyin “with 1000 arms and 1000 eyes”.

Guanyin with 1000 arms and 1000 eyes.


When I wandered into the Korean art section, a reporter and her cameraman asked whether they could interview me for their Korean language tv show.  I assured them that I know nothing about Korean art, but they were so sweet and persistent that I ended up answering their questions (very ineptly).  Mostly I talked about the Arts of Korea room that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998.  I am pretty sure that I sounded like a moron.

This weekend I finally had a chance to re-visit the Arts of Korea room at the Metropolitan to learn what I should have said in that interview.  I was so pleased to find some great new pieces to add to our semi-annual optional field trip tour of the museum, “Honoring the Dead in Art”.

First, I found two stoneware urns that had contained cremains from the 8th century.  According to the museum, when Buddhism became popular in Korea, cremation became standard, replacing the elaborate burials that were practiced during earlier periods.  Here is one of the urns.

And then I was blown away to find these amazing epitaph tablets (“Myoji”) from 1736.

Epitaph Tablets ("Myoji") from a set of 34

According to the museum, the neo-Confucian society of 18th century Korea buried decedents with stone or ceramic epitaph tablets that commemorated their lives.  The gorgeous epitaph tablets at the Metropolitan honor the life of a man named O Myeong-hang who lived from 1673-1728.  In total, there were 34 porcelain tablets that memorialized O Myeong-hang, who was a scholar/government official and calligrapher. The tablets are written in Chinese although the Korean alphabet had been invented 300 years earlier.

If the purpose of the tablets were to preserve the memory of O Myeong-hang, they have surely served their purpose. In fact, the museum notes that the tablets are really  significant in that they tell us not only  about one individual but they also shed light on Korean funerary practices in general as well as porcelain manufacturing and calligraphy of the era. And, they are beautiful!


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