Once ignored, iron Buddha gets new status

The National Museum of Korea’s revamped Unified Silla section, which opens to the public Tuesday, displays an undisputed new star: a larger-than-life Buddha statue made of cast iron.

Placed in a spacious room right in the middle of the hall, the statue overwhelms visitors with its mystic beauty and half-smile.

The exquisiteness of this artifact, which dates back to the late eighth or early ninth century, however, went unnoticed until recently. 

Iron seated Buddha (National Museum of Korea)

“This iron Buddha statue received a lot of attention during an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the U.S.,” curator Kim Dae-hwan said Monday as he led a group of reporters on a tour of the new Unified Silla section.

On loan from the Korean museum, the statue was displayed as the last piece at the exhibition “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” which ran from late last year through February this year at the U.S. museum.

“Many Americans, including experts, were mesmerized by the magnificent beauty of this statue,” the curator explained.

The high level of interest in the statue in the Met exhibition prompted Seoul officials to take a fresh look at it.

Previously it was just one of the many Buddha statues exhibited in the Buddhist art section on the third floor of the National Museum of Korea. About 250 centimeters tall, the Buddha sitting in the lotus position was discovered at Bowonsa Temple in Seosan, South Chungcheong Province.

The Seoul museum has decided to present the relic in a similar fashion as the Met did: A dark, large room and a not-too-bright highlight to give a mystic aura to the piece.

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heraldcorp.com)