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Restored 'Cleveland Krishna' Finally Goes on Display

'Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan' is a seventh-century statue from Southern Cambodia, and will finally be on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Cleveland Museum of Art
"Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan" is a seventh-century statue from Southern Cambodia that will finally be on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

A previous version of this article stated the Krishna statue had been removed from Southeast Asia in the 1970s; it has been updated.

A new exhibit coming to the Cleveland Museum of Art Nov. 14 will show off the long-awaited restoration of a seventh-century Cambodian statue.

The museum acquired what's known in the art world as "The Cleveland Krishna" in 1973. The statue depicts the Hindu deity lifting a mountain and was purchased from the estate of the Brussels collectors Suzanne and Adolphe Stoclet, who acquired it in 1920, after it had already been out of Cambodia for more than a decade.
In 2015, the museum entered into an agreement for cultural cooperation with the National Museum of Cambodia. The Cleveland Museum’s George P. Bickford Curator for Indian and Southeast Asian Art, Sonya Rhie Mace, and her team then began restoring the Cleveland Krishna once they realized that its pieces didn’t fit together.

“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," Mace said.

“Not every sculpture left its country of origin in the same kind of way. I think that the work of museums is to research these stories and bring them out to the public so that we can make really informed judgments of the propriety of where objects belong. And also to learn the story and to try to reunite and conserve and preserve these works of art.”

The new exhibit also includes digital components which allow visitors to learn of the importance of water management in Southeast Asia.

“Krishna is a Hindu God but the sculpture was made in southern Cambodia about 1,500 years ago. It's monolithic, made of sandstone, and is over life-size," Mace said. "The sculpture depicts Krishna actually as an eight-year-old boy who is raising up a mountain so he has one arm raised up high. The pose is a very naturalistic stance. The sculpture will be on view with only the original pieces, no fills [and] no additional components added in, just the pieces which actually belong to the sculpture. It will be shown alongside another Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan which was from the same site.

“It actually had some of the leg pieces and arm pieces that the Cleveland Museum of Art had gifted to the National Museum of Cambodia, and in 2020 there was another exchange of limb fragments between both sculptures.”

How does something like this happen where pieces of different statues end up scattered all over the world?

“This is a very ancient site. It's really one of the oldest surviving sacred sites of southern Cambodia or of the Khmer Empire at all," Mace said. "These date from 500 years prior to Angkor Wat. So it's really from the very beginning of stone sculptural production by the people. Probably around 1300 to 1400, the site was abandoned. The Khmer Empire had receded from the region. A new power came in. New religions came into the area so that the region was no longer inhabited by worshippers of Krishna and Vishnu and Hindu deities. There were new Buddhist groups who moved into the area.

"It seems vandals came to the site and the sculptures were toppled off of their pedestals. It was well-known that gold and jewels were kept underneath these massive, monolithic, stone sculptures. So very probably, those were knocked over in order to get to the treasure. There are [also] natural planes of weakness in the sandstone that caused the breakage of the sculpture. Over hundreds of years, they were buried under collapsed rooftops, debris from outside, and bats moved in and the caves became full of bat guano. So these sculptures were completely abandoned and already broken for hundreds of years.

“The first evidence we have that pieces were found again is when the Vietnamese Buddhist community moved into the site in the early part of the 20th century.”

"Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain” also includes digital components that allow visitors to learn the history of Cambodia, as well as see how the “Cleveland Krishna” was restored.

In 2018, Ideastream Public Media's David C. Barnett profiled the restoration in this story.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.