Kim Ki-chang’s ‘The Life of Jesus’ reimagines Christianity in Korean context
By Park Han-sol
Imagine if the messenger of God who came to the Virgin Mary was not the winged angel Gabriel, but “seonnyeo,” a fairy-like being from East Asian folk tales. And what if baby Jesus Christ was born in a stable during the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom, surrounded by women clad in “hanbok” (traditional Korean attire), instead of in a manger in Bethlehem?
Such are the biblical scenes reimagined by the late modern master Kim Ki-chang (1914-2001) in his delicate ink paintings.
The series, which portrays 30 key moments of Christianity with a distinctly Korean touch, currently graces the Seoul Museum in Jongno District for the special year-end exhibition titled “The Life of Jesus.”
Kim, born into a devout Christian family, began painting the life of Christ in 1952, while taking refuge at his mother-in-law’s house in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, at the height of the 1950-53 Korean War.
At the suggestion of U.S. missionary Anders Kristian Jensen, the artist summoned scenes from the life of Jesus, from his birth to resurrection, in airy brushstrokes. He decided to place the biblical figures against the backdrop of the Joseon period to address the despair, pain and anguish suffered by his fellow Koreans in the war-torn country.
It took him a year and a half to bring his faith-inspired series to life.
The seamless blend between Christian imagery and the traditional Korean landscape, architecture and wardrobe is remarkable.
This includes the infant Jesus wrapped in “jeogori” top with multicolored sleeves, visited by the Three Wise Men clad in the crimson robes of Joseon-era ministers. Meanwhile, Mary, seated with her child in a thatched-roof hovel, is depicted wearing “sseugaechima,” a veil-like noblewoman’s headwear.
In “The Last Supper,” Christ and his 12 apostles, portrayed as virtuous Confucian scholars in “gat” (men’s hat made of horsehair and bamboo) and “dopo” robe, encircle a traditional banquet table.
In 2017, Kim’s series was featured at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin as part of the exhibition, “The Luther Effect,” held to illustrate the history of Protestantism and its effect throughout the world in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
“The Life of Jesus” runs through Feb. 25, 2024 at the Seoul Museum.