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Korean Gilt-bronze Dragon-head Finial

Length: 23.1 cm. (9 1/8 in.)
Height: 10.2 cm. (4 in.)

Unified Silla
9th-10th century

The finial is a hollow tube cast with the image of a dragon head, its snout curled back in a ball and an openwork slot behind the mouth. The eyes are surrounded by deep furrows and folds that extend backward like heavy flames. On top of the dragon’s head is a spiked mane streaming back and scrolling up in front of the rounded rim of the socket pierced with a small aperture on one side. Some of the details are roughly incised such as the triple folds of the skin on the neck, the one tooth below the snout and the pupils of the eyes. The gilding exhibits some light green patches.

The attached PDF illustrates several comparative examples from collections in Korea that would support an attribution to the Unified Silla period (A.D. 668-935). Although differing in size, the dragons share certain stylistic traits such as bold features detailed with shallow incising or engraving. The dragon heads are often depicted with mouths wide open revealing jagged teeth and sometimes clenching a large pearl-like orb. Some are characterized by their elongated snouts while others, such as the present, with snouts dramatically curled back. A single horn growing from the skull usually branches as it sweeps back over the head while the large eyes bulge under furled brows.

Unified Silla was deeply influenced by her neighbor, China’s Tang dynasty, a powerful cohort in Silla’s conquest of her neighbors and unification of the peninsula. Philosophical thinking, social organization, governing practices, religious beliefs and the arts were all deeply impacted by the association. Over time, however, a native spirit emerged in the arts and the dragon here is one expression of that growing independence. The mystical creature had already assumed a specific identity in Korea. The origin of a full-fledged dragon, evolving from lesser serpents or proto-dragons, which was one of several explanations of their inception, seems unique in dragon lore. Dragons then became providers of water, essential to Korea’s agrarian life. They inhabited the skies where clouds are formed and were also dwellers of oceans and further of mountains where streams and rivers, ponds and lakes abound. The identity of a ruler with the mighty dragon is made very clear by the death-bed promise of the first king of Unified Silla who promised his son and heir that if his ashes were spread on the sea he would return as a dragon to protect his kingdom.


[Please download the PDF writeup below for further comparisons.]
Download PDF File
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