A Botched Restoration Left These Ancient Cambodian Statues With Swapped Limbs

Now properly pieced together, the sculptures of Hindu deity Krishna are on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art

A rendering of the virtual reality experience, which shows a manmade cave cut into the side of a mountain to reveal a Krishna statue
Virtual reconstruction of Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan as it may have looked around 600 C.E., when it decorated a manmade cave temple in southern Cambodia Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Conservators at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) and the National Museum of Cambodia (NMC) recently solved a nearly 1,500-year-old sculptural jigsaw puzzle with the help of 3-D scanning and modeling technology.

The researchers corrected the botched restorations of two statues, both of which depict the Hindu deity Krishna as a young boy. The sculptures were carved around 600 C.E. to decorate adjacent manmade cave temples on the mountain Phnom Da, in what is now southern Cambodia, according to a CMA statement.

By the time archaeologists excavated the Krishnas in the early 20th century, the statues had been broken into fragments. One of the incomplete Krishnas was transported to Europe and acquired by the CMA in 1973. A few years later, conservators attached some newly unearthed fragments—a thigh, two calves and two feet—to the statue, mistakenly believing them to be the correct fit.

In actuality, these pieces belonged to the second Krishna statue, which is now housed at the NMC in Phnom Penh. Much like its twin sculpture in the United States, the Phnom Penh Krishna had been incorrectly paired with the wrong left hand, reports Nancy Kenney for the Art Newspaper.

A reconstructed statue of a young boy, with left arm raised to the sky and lifting the base of mountain
Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan after the 2020 restoration Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Now, after decades apart, the two Krishnas have finally been restored to more complete—and accurate—versions of their former glory. Museumgoers have the unprecedented chance to see the rebuilt statues side-by-side at the Cleveland institution’s “Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain” exhibition, on view through January 2022.

The show takes visitors on a multimedia trek to Phnom Da, writes Steven Litt for Cleveland.com. Attendees walk through 22-foot-long corridors with immersive sound and video installations that evoke the journey to the sacred site, which overlooks the nearby floodplains of the Mekong River delta.

At the center of the exhibition is the Cleveland museum’s six-and-a-half-foot-tall statue, officially titled Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan. Visitors equipped with virtual reality (VR) headsets will be able to investigate life-size reproductions of what the statue may have originally looked like in its mountainside home, according to the statement.

Carved from dark, polished sandstone, both Krishna statues depict the god as an 8-year-old boy who heroically lifts a mountain to protect a village and its residents from the rainstorm of a vengeful god. Created toward the start of the Khmer Empire, the works predate the Buddhist temple at Angkor Wat by 500 years, demonstrating the early influence of Hinduism on the region. This timeline makes the statues some of the oldest works of monumental religious art discovered in southern Cambodia, reports Kabir Bhatia for WKSU.

A slightly different but similar statue with a darker brown coloring
The Cambodian National Museum's Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh / Photo © NMC

For years, both statues were displayed with mismatched limbs. Conservators first noticed their predecessors’ mistakes around 2015. Using 3-D scanning technology, they realized that two pieces of a large upper section affixed to the Cambodian statue belonged to its Ohio-based twin. (Ironically, CMA conservators had previously attempted to fit these precise chunks of sandstone onto the Cleveland sculpture; failing to do so, they sent the pieces to Cambodia in 2005.)

This return prompted an effort to properly reconstruct both statues. With help from Case Western Reserve University, curators digitally modeled the Krishnas and virtually maneuvered dozens of fragments to determine how they fit together 1,500 years ago, per the Art Newspaper.

Sonya Rhie Mace, curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art at CMA; Beth Edelstein, head of objects conservation at CMA; and Cambodian colleagues Sok Soda and Bertrand Porte worked together to conduct the extensive research, reports Cleveland.com. Eventually, the team concluded that the appended lower half of the Cleveland sculpture did not line up correctly with the rest of its body.

As Mace tells WKSU, “When we took apart the epoxy and steel pins that held the pieces together before, we realized that some of the pieces belonged to a different sculpture.”

Speaking with Cleveland.com, Mace adds, “After the initial shock you realize, wow, ... now he’s looking this way.”

The Ohio and Phnom Penh institutions have enjoyed a close working relationship since 2015. Thanks in large part to Mace’s efforts, the Cleveland museum has been unusually proactive in attempting to repatriate looted works to Cambodia.

A slide of four images side by side that detail the many stages of restoration that the Cleveland statue has gone through
Curators only properly reassembled the statue in recent years through a collaboration with the Cambodian National Museum. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Mace’s research previously revealed that a sculpture of Hindu monkey god Hanuman, which entered CMA’s collections in 1982, was probably looted from the ruins of tenth-century city Koh Khmer during Cambodia’s civil war. She convinced the museum to return the statue to NMC in 2015, as Litt reported for Cleveland.com at the time, and the museums agreed to a memorandum of understanding.

The newly opened exhibition unites the Krishnas with two additional statues from Phnom Da. One depicts Krishna’s brother Balarama, while the other features the four-armed dual god Harihara, who is half Vishnu and half Shiva, according to the statement. All told, these four statues number among eight monumental sandstone sculptures excavated at the mountainside worship site that epitomize the “Phnom Da Style,” a key turning point in the history of Cambodian art.

The four additional statues not on view in Cleveland were deemed too fragile to travel. In their stead, the museum is featuring virtual reconstructions that allow visitors to explore high-resolution, 3-D models of all eight artworks in one place.

All told, says Mace in the statement, the exhibition “presents a unique opportunity to see the masterworks from Phnom Da together, in their new, true forms.”

Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain” is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through January 30, 2022.

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