The elegant bodhisattva, robes flowing, drums his fingers against his cheek, contemplating us as we look at him.
The enlightened being who has rejected nirvana to help suffering mankind appears about three-quarters of the way through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s splendid loan show “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom.”
Comprising more than 100 stunning objects created c. 400-800 A.D., it’s the first exhibition in the West devoted to the subject.
Drawn from the National Museums of Korea in Seoul and Gyeongju, these treasures include incised ceramic pots, jars and figurines; exquisite gold, silver and glass bowls; beautiful carved sculptures, architectural elements and reliquaries; and resplendent jewelry with dangling beads, teardrops and leaves.
Korean art is not all that’s represented. Imported, exotic and influential luxury goods, such as Chinese ceramics, Roman glass and Indo-Pacific beads were traded along the Silk Road and preserved in Korean tombs.
A small, squat, cream-colored jar, as simple and natural as an apple, is one of the modest highlights here. It represents the extraordinary development of Chinese porcelain in the 7th century.
Originating in the Black Sea area is an intricate gold sheath and dagger inlaid with garnet and glass. Like other Byzantine objects here, its interlacing, curvilinear forms, scrolls and spirals resemble the Celtic designs of Hiberno-Saxon decoration.
Inside the first gallery you encounter a huge, sweeping HD panorama depicting two lush green hills, ponds and flowering trees. It shows the royal burial mounds of Hwangnam Daechong Tomb, excavated in the 1970s.
Another film explains how the tombs were constructed of multiple layers of wood, stone and earth. It seems like overkill until you see the regalia revealed inside.
The queen’s jewelry is stunning -- and fun, reminiscent of Alexander Calder.
An exquisite gold and jade crown suggests antlers that have been decorated like a Christmas tree with hanging ornaments and strings of tiny, delicate objects.
A shiny belt with pendant ornaments dangles interlinked squares and heart-shaped charms. They are finished with a fish, a knife, a medicine bottle, tweezers and comma-shaped jade that looks like excised fangs. The longest of these tails would probably have dragged on the ground.
The queen’s jewelry is a daring mixture of whimsy, crudeness and delicacy. Experienced on parade, the twinkling, tinkling forms would have dazzled the ears as much as the eyes.
“Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom” runs through Feb. 23 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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