Korean candleholder (chotdae)

The candleholder’s collector is Archabbot Norbert Weber (1870-1956) who, in the course of the Korea mission, visited twice the then undivided peninsula. He acquired the candleholder among other art objects on his journey in 1924/25, when he visited his confreres at Tokwon monastery (near the seaport Wonsan in today’s North Korea) and made a side trip to the nearby Diamond Mountains.

In his subsequently written travelogue “In the Diamond Mountains of Korea” (1927) he noted

"Here I am glad to add in this context that I succeeded to acquire a magnificent candleholder […]. It dates back to the time when arts and handicraft flourished in Korea and, judging from its size, it probably stood once in a temple.

The Region of Origin

The Diamond Mountains (kumgangsan) are a rather narrowly confined mountain region near the border to South Korea; since many centuries, this area has been famous for its beautiful landscape, rich plant habitat and rare species of animals.

There are several theories to the origin of the name „Diamond Mountains“. One claims that the term is derived from the sharp granite mountain pinnacles sparkling in the sunlight. According to another legend, the name has its origin in the diamond sutra, one of the most important holy texts in Mahayana Buddhism. The title of this sutra indicates the Perfect Wisdom, which “is so sharp that it can even split a diamond”. The assignment of the name is understandable due to the historic background, when this region was the center of Korean Buddhism for many centuries. In the 3rd century, Buddhism came from India via China to Korea and continued to be state religion until the end of the 14th century.

The Diamond Mountains in Art

The Diamond Mountains are a romantic place of longing, comparable to the Rhine Valley in Germany. The kumgangsan was for centuries a favourite destination for painters and poets. Due to the political climate, the area currently cannot be toured and for this reason remains mysterious to this day.

In 2018, the exhibition „Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art“ at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was dedicated to this topic. In the exhibition, a silk painting by the famous landscape painter Jeong Seon (1676–1759) was on display; this painting is owned by the Archabbey of St. Ottilien and is currently located, together with 20 other leafs from an album, in the National Palace Museum (Seoul) as a permanent loan.

Details of the candleholder

Archabbot Norbert Weber dated the candleholder correctly to the Joseon period which drew to a close when the Missionary Benedictines came to the country in 1909. During the following Japanese occupation from 1910, this golden age of Korean culture was only present by the works of art standing up for sale at a low price. Norbert Weber and his confreres tried to buy valuable works of art to save them from definitive disappearance. The Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation (OKCHF) experts from Seoul who carried out a scientific examination of the candleholder during provenance research in the museum, classified the candleholder as a late 19th century work.

The 84 cm high candleholder consisting of base, stick and two screens is designed for two candles on different levels. The two screens are remarkable; they protect the candle flame from draft but also reflect the light and increase its brightness. Both screens are decorated with bat ornaments (a symbol for fortune), between them the Chinese character hui (double joy).

The movable “standard” below the upper screen shows in open work two dragons holding a yeouiju (magic pearl); on the edge a lizard-like mythical creature. In Asian mythology, dragons are benign magical creatures bringing clouds and rain; they are connected to the fertility of the land.

The magic pearl, also called cintamani, is in both Hindu and Buddhist tradition a wish-fulfilling jewel similar to the Philosopher’s stone in European alchemy. Whoever wields the yeouiju is said to have powers of omnipotence and of creation at will. It was believed that only dragons with four claws who have thumbs to hold the pearl are wise and strong enough to master the jewel.

The motif of the dragons with the magic pearl indicates that the candleholder might have been an object in a royal household. The museum’s inventory list describes the exhibit as a gift from such a house to the temple.

The candleholder has rich decorations in silver inlay, an old handicraft often used in Asia. The softer and contrastingly colored silver is hammered into a harder material, here iron. The candleholder’s stick is decorated with chiseled plant ornaments, among them ten symbols for longevity.

The base, formed like a plate with a rim, is divided into three parts. In the center a flower with eight petals, in the second circle dragon, bamboo and a grass-like plant. The rim is decorated with Indian Sanskrit characters and an engraving of plants.

The candleholder is on display in the Korea department in the „Religions of Korea“ case.