Exploring the History of Seosomun Shrine Museum in South Korea

Passing the Inspiring “Wolrakjaecheonsusangjijin” Inscription: Unveiling the Splendors of Seosomun Shrine History Museum

Step into a captivating journey through the late Joseon Dynasty’s Catholic legacy at the Seosomun Shrine History Museum. Delve into the cherished exhibits of artworks, library, and seminar rooms on the first floor. Descend to the B2 level to discover the intriguing special exhibition hall and intimate assembly hall. The Consolation Hall, permanent exhibition, and the breathtaking Sky Square await you on the third basement floor.

Sky Square: A Symbolic Oasis between Earth and Sky at Seosomun Shrine History Museum

Immerse yourself in the allure of Sky Square, the highlight of this remarkable attraction. Witness the seamless connection between the ground and celestial realms, as the ceiling transcends boundaries to embrace the open sky. Experience the profound symbolism of Seosomun Martyrs’ Shrine, bridging the earthly realm with the heavens above.

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“Exploring the History of Seosomun Shrine History Museum: A Window into Catholicism in Late Joseon Dynasty”

The entrance to the Seosomun Shrine History Museum in Seoul.

“Discover the Enchanting Seosomun Shrine History Museum: A Haven for Architecture, Photography, and Cultural Exploration”

Uncover the captivating allure of Seosomun Shrine History Museum, nestled within the historic grounds of Seosomun History Park. Once a somber site of executions during the Joseon dynasty, it has now transformed into an irresistible destination for architects, photographers, and tourists alike.

Despite its painful past, the museum stands as a testament to artistic brilliance, with its striking red bricks contrasting against the vibrant blue sky. Its architectural grandeur draws countless visitors seeking to admire its beauty and pay homage to the hidden sculptures that adorn every corner.

As you embark on a leisurely stroll through the museum’s interior, prepare to be captivated by the unexpected presence of uniquely shaped sculptures that adorn its halls. Each sculpture acts as an irresistible magnet, compelling visitors to pause in awe and fix their gaze upon these exquisite works of art.

Plan a visit to Seosomun Shrine History Museum and immerse yourself in its captivating allure. Witness the harmonious blend of history and beauty, and allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the splendor that awaits.

Address: 5, Chilpae-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul

An exhibition room inside the Seosomun Shrine History Museum, Seoul.

Seosomun, a holy place par excellence

Souimun (Hangul: 소의문, Hanja: 昭義門; also known as Southwest Gate) was one of the Eight Gates of Seoul in the Fortress Wall of Seoul, South Korea, which surrounded the city during the Joseon Dynasty. The gate was also known as Seosomun (서소문, “West Small Gate”). The gate no longer exists, and a marker has been placed roughly where the gate once stood.

The Seouimun Gate (소의문, 昭義門) at the end of the 19th century.

Souimun, meaning “Promotion of Justice Gate,” was originally built in 1396. It was demolished by the Japanese authorities in 1914 during the early years of colonial rule over the country.

A marker has been erected near the location where Souimun once stood. It is situated next to a multi-story car park structure, which is adjacent to the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper building on Seosomun-ro (street), in Jung-gu (district), Seoul.

Memorial plaque at the site of the old Seouimun Gate in Seoul

The current commemorative plaque in place of the Seouimun gate (58-10, Seosomun-dong).

During the middle of the Joseon Dynasty, Souimun Gate was notorious for being a site of executions for state prisoners. It was also referred to as “Sigumun,” meaning “the door where the corpses were transported.” This name served as a reminder for people to steer clear of criminal acts and actions against the royal regime.

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In the 19th century, the monarchy targeted Catholics, as their religion posed a threat to the foundations of the dynasty. The Catholic faith was gaining popularity in the country, leading to a crackdown. Throughout the nation, more than 8,000 people were killed. In 1984, the Church canonized 103 individuals, including 44 who had endured torture at Seosomun. As a result, Seosomun has always held significant importance as a holy site for the Catholic community.

In 1973, the Seoul government established the Seosomun Historical Park, transforming the area into an urban park. A 33-meter-high commemorative sculpture was erected there. However, due to its location wedged between an elevated expressway and the Gyeongui Line railway, the park was challenging to access. As a result, a public car park and a processing plant for recyclable waste were constructed in the vicinity.

From the historical park to the Seosomun Shrine History Museum

In 2014, when Pope Francis visited Korea to beatify 124 martyrs, a decision was made to undergo a radical transformation of the site. The aim was to create a museum of history and a place of meditation that would be fitting for the occasion, while also making the park accessible to the public.

The visual identity of the museum is particularly noteworthy. The consonants of the word “Seosomun” (ㅅㅅ ㅁ in Korean) form a single line: the first “s” (ㅅ) represents people walking in the park, symbolizing the connection with the citizens. The second “s” represents the pilgrims who walk on Earth, highlighting the spiritual journey of faith. The final “m” (ㅁ) represents the holy place that preserves the spirit of the martyrs, signifying the significance of the site. This use of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, emphasizes the harmonious connections that exist between Heaven, Men, and Earth.

Overall, the transformation of the site aimed to create a museum and meditation space that honored the history and sacrifices of the martyrs while providing a meaningful and accessible park for the public.

The entrance to the Seosomun Shrine History Museum
A sculpture in the internal courtyard of the Seosomun Shrine History Museum in Seoul.

The gallery showcased an exhibition titled “Otchil and Korean Mother-of-pearl,” which highlighted the traditional techniques of lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay. These techniques have a rich history dating back to the time of the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392). The exhibited works were created by nine contemporary artists who have mastered these ancestral techniques, resulting in pieces of exceptional beauty.

As visitors strolled through the exhibition, they were encouraged to take their time and explore not only the showcased works but also the hidden corners of the gallery. These hidden corners may have held additional artistic treasures or provided a quiet space for reflection. Furthermore, the gallery’s location likely offered picturesque views outside, which visitors could appreciate and capture in photographs due to their photogenic quality.

The combination of admiring the artistic works and appreciating the overall ambiance, including the hidden corners and captivating views, created a delightful and immersive experience for visitors to the gallery.

One of the exhibition rooms in the the Seosomun Shrine History Museum, Seoul.

The Hall of Consolation

After exploring the exhibition, the visit continues to the Hall of Consolation. This rectangular space offers a stark and minimalist atmosphere, enhancing the sense of silence and tranquility. The absence of embellishments and decorations creates an environment that encourages visitors to find inner calm and engage in meditation.

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The four walls of the Hall of Consolation are covered with metal mesh panels. These panels serve a dual purpose, not only providing a textured aesthetic to the space but also functioning as projection screens for special events. When needed, the mesh panels can be utilized to project images, videos, or other visual displays, transforming the space into a versatile venue for various occasions.

Whether used as a serene retreat for personal reflection or as a dynamic setting for events, the Hall of Consolation offers visitors a unique and adaptable experience within its minimalistic and flexible design.

A darkened room with a light display, inside the Seosomun Shrine History Museum, Seoul.
The collected letters of Andrew Kim Taegon in the Seosomun Shrine History Museum, Seoul.

Saint Chong Ha-Sang Chapel

Paul Chong Hasang, also known as Saint Paul Chong Hasang, was a Korean Catholic priest and one of the martyrs of Korea. He was born in either 1794 or 1795 and died on September 22, 1839. His feast day is celebrated on September 22, which marks the anniversary of his death. Additionally, he is also honored on September 20 along with the other martyrs of Korea, as part of a collective celebration dedicated to their sacrifice and devotion to the Catholic faith. Saint Paul Chong Hasang holds a significant place in Korean Catholic history and is remembered for his unwavering faith in the face of persecution.

Seosomun Shrine History Museum Chapel

Paul Chong Hasang, born in 1794 or 1795, was the son of Catholic martyr Augustin Jeong Yak-jong and the nephew of philosopher and scientist Jean Jeong Yak-yong. Both his father and uncle were among the earliest converts to Catholicism in Korea. When Paul Chong Hasang’s father and older brother were martyred, he was separated from his mother at the age of seven.

As he grew older, Paul Chong Hasang chose to become an interpreter and government official, which allowed him to travel frequently to Beijing. During his visits there, he met with the bishop and requested that priests be sent to Korea. In 1825, he wrote a letter to the Pope through the bishop, requesting the establishment of a diocese in Korea.

A few years later, Bishop Laurent Imbert arrived in Korea with two priests. Recognizing Paul Chong Hasang’s talents, zeal, and virtue, the bishop taught him Latin and theology and intended to ordain him. However, a persecution erupted before the ordination could take place.

Paul Chong Hasang was arrested and presented a written statement defending Catholicism to the judge. Although the judge agreed with the content of his statement, he insisted that Paul Chong Hasang renounce his faith in accordance with the king’s decree. Paul Chong Hasang firmly declared his allegiance to Christianity and stated that he would remain a Christian until his death.

Despite enduring a series of tortures, Paul Chong Hasang maintained a serene demeanor. Ultimately, at the age of 45, he was beheaded in Seoul on September 22, 1839. His unwavering faith and martyrdom serve as a testament to his devotion to the Catholic Church in Korea.

Sky Square

Located just across from the Hall of Consolation, one can observe an open space through a series of glass doors. This area is known as the Celestial Place and symbolizes the connection between Earth and Heaven.

The Celestial Place is situated a few meters below ground level, enclosed by walls made of red bricks that provide a striking contrast against the sky. This area of the museum is filled with various works of art, and the square itself is adorned with unique wooden sculptures depicting the 44 martyrs.

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These wooden sculptures serve as a remarkable sight, capturing the attention of visitors with their intriguing and distinct representations of the martyrs. Each sculpture carries its own symbolic meaning, offering a visual homage to the individuals who sacrificed their lives for their faith.

As visitors explore the museum, the Celestial Place stands as a significant space, connecting the earthly realm with the spiritual realm. It not only enhances the artistic experience but also serves as a poignant reminder of the martyrs’ enduring legacy and the profound connection between Heaven and Earth.

The hall dedicated to the permanent exhibition

In reality, the space of immaculate whiteness in the museum consists of two halls. These halls make up the permanent section of the museum, entirely devoted to the captivating and dramatic history of Christianity in Korea.

The collections within these halls are displayed in a setting that resembles a vault, embellished with arches and columns made of white marble. This modern aesthetic creates a striking contrast with the historical aspect of the museum, emphasizing the blend of tradition and contemporary elements. As visitors move through the exhibition, they encounter various themes presented within different modules, forming a cohesive and natural path of exploration.

The carefully curated arrangement of the museum’s exhibits ensures that visitors can follow a coherent and engaging narrative, transitioning seamlessly from one theme to another. This design enhances the overall experience, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the compelling story surrounding the Christian religion in Korea.

The Sahak Jingui (1801), a record of persecuted Catholics, on display in the Seosomun Shrine History Museum, Seoul.

The inclusion of explanations in both Korean and English within the museum is highly appreciated, as it allows a wider range of visitors to engage with the exhibits and understand the historical context. These dual language explanations enable visitors to learn not only about the Christian history in Korea but also about the vibrant neighborhood surrounding Seosomun.

The area around Seosomun was known for its bustling medicinal herb market and the thriving crafts industry, attracting residents from diverse backgrounds. People from various professions such as merchants, teachers, acupuncturists, and even geomancers called this place home, creating a vibrant and socially diverse community.

Exploring the neighborhood around Seosomun can be done by following a designated route marked with numbered stones from 1 to 11. This route takes visitors to the residences of historical figures, allowing them to trace the history of Seoul and gain a deeper understanding of the area’s significance.

I hope this virtual visit has sparked your interest and curiosity about the museum and its incredible architecture. To help you plan your visit, you can find below some additional information and resources. Enjoy your exploration of this remarkable museum!

Directions to the museum
In Korean : 서소문성지 역사박물관 (seosomunseongji yeoksabangmulgwan)
Address : 5, Chilpae-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul
Transportation : Line 2, Chungjeongno Station, Exit 4. Or a 20-minute walk from City Hall station (line 2).
Opening hours : 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Tuesday, Thursday to Sunday), 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (Wednesday). Closed on Mondays.
Prices : Free.
Website : www.seosomun.org (in Korean)

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Mohamed SAKHRI
Mohamed SAKHRI

I am Mohamed SAKHRI, the creator and editor-in-chief of this blog, 'Discover the World – The Blog for Curious Travelers.' Join me as we embark on a journey around the world, uncovering beautiful places, diverse cultures, and captivating stories. Additionally, we will delve into mysterious and, at times, even bizarre destinations.

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