Buddhism was particularly favored as a royal religion during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) when it received numerous commissions, land grants, and tax exemptions, and conducted rites for individuals and the state. Members of the aristocracy paid for Buddhist works of art for family altars and to be placed in local temples and monasteries.
A painting such as this was probably commissioned in the hopes that it would bestow honor and blessings on the patron and his family.
The central figure in the painting, surrounded by a large halo, is Amitabha. Amitabha is a cosmic figure, the Buddha of eternal life and boundless light. Amitabha presides over a heavenly realm known as the Pure Land of the Western Paradise. Pure Land Buddhism began in the Unified Silla period (668–918) and gained popularity among all classes, since, it was claimed, devotees with a pure heart only had to evoke Amitabha’s name to be admitted or reborn into the Pure Land.
In this painting, Amitabha is flanked by eight Bodhisattvas, saintly figures who assist worshippers in their efforts to seek enlightenment. On the left are (by their Sanskrit names) Avalokiteshvara (Korean: Kwanum), Manjushri (Munsu), Maitreya (Miruk). On the right are Mahasthamaprapta (Taeseji), Samanatabhadra (Pohyon), Ksititgarbha (Chijang) and Sarvanirvana Viskambin (Chejang’ae). Each bodhisattva is richly attired, with elaborate jewelry and distinctive headdresses, in contrast to Amitabha, who is more simply attired and bare chested.
The placement of halos and the different size of the figures reinforces the hierarchical arrangement. The individual halos also reinforce the circular composition. Faces and figures are depicted simply, with static frontal poses, but the garments are rendered in bright reds, greens and blues.