Large Buddhist Banner Painting – Gwaebul (괘불)

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 The large-sized Gwaebul painting at Tongdosa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.

Hello Again Everyone!!

In yet another article on little seen or known items at a Korean temple or hermitage, I thought I would talk about the Gwaebul painting just in time for Buddha’s birthday.

The largest paintings in Korea are known as Gwaebul (괘불), which means “Large Buddhist Banner Painting,” in English. These paintings are extremely hard to find throughout Korea because they are usually only put on display once a year. So what do they look like and what is the meaning behind them?

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 People bowing to the Gwaebul painting at Tongdosa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.

Throughout Korea, there are nearly one hundred known ancient Gwaebul. Most of these paintings were produced between the early 17th century and the late 19th century. The Gwaebul painting can sometimes be as large as 15 metres tall and 10 metres in width. The reason they can be so large is that they were created for outdoor usage in front of hundreds, or even thousands, of people. The painting is hung from tall poles in an outdoor ceremony on a special occasion. Most commonly, you can see them during Buddha’s birthday or the Vulture Peak Ceremony (Yeongsanje) in a temple’s main courtyard. Traditionally, the Gwaebul was only shown once every year. And at some temples, they were only ever put on display every ten years. When the Gwaebul isn’t being used for special ceremonies, they are rolled up and stored inside a temple hall. Most often, they are hidden somewhere in the main hall; and usually, under the main altar.

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 A closer look at the face of Seokgamoni-bul front and centre on the Gwaebul painting.

Because the Gwaebul painting is so large, it’s filled with a lot of intricate details. Typically, a large Buddha is the dominating central figure in the painting. He is then surrounded by Bodhisattvas, Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha), and various guardians. They are often depicted in a scene from an important sutra. The central figure can either be Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise), or even Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) in some special cases. The earliest Gwaebul paintings often depict the Assembly on Vulture Peak, as they were meant to represent the Buddha in a contemporary world. In this painting, he is preaching the Lotus Sutra.

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 The massive Gwaebul painting at Geumdangsa Temple.

Specifically, the Gwaebul at Geumdangsa Temple in Jinan, Jeollabuk-do, which dates back to 1682, was said to help end droughts. Legend states of this painting that villagers performed rituals in front of the Gwaebul and rain fell, which successfully ended a long standing drought in the region.

Great examples of the Gwaebul painting can be found at Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do, and the Gwaebul at Ansimsa Temple in Cheongwon, Chungcheongbuk-do that is National Treasure #297 and dates back to 1652.

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 A closer look at the face of Gwanseeum-bosal on the Gwaebul painting at Geumdangsa Temple.