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Reconstructing Krishna at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Krishna gets his debut this weekend after years of restoration. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]
Krishna gets his debut this weekend after years of restoration. 

A 1,500-year-old statue of the Hindu god Krishna received a 21 st-century facelift at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The results go on display this weekend.

Multimedia producer Mary Fecteau captures conservator Colleen Snyder chipping away at old filler on the Krishna sculpture in 2018. [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]

Three years ago, Colleen Snyder fired-up what looked like a high-powered hairdryer and focused a blast of heat on the thigh of this Cambodian relic in the art museum’s conservation lab. Krishna arrived at the museum as a collection of broken fragments in 1975. Conservators tried to put him back together at that time, but they didn’t quite get it right, so a new generation of museum staff decided to give it a try.

Beth Edelstein, Conservator of Objects for the Cleveland Museum of Art  [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]

"We do have large sections of his anatomy that are missing, like his knee. And that big area of his thigh," said Beth Edelstein, the museum’s conservator of objects. "So, we have to decide what we're going to do about that."

The conservators also took care to preserve the cultural importance of Krishna. The deity is one of the most popular in the Hindu world, and this particular sculpture depicts one of his most spectacular stories. Legend has it that he lifted a mountain into the air to protect his people from a devastating rainstorm.

Sonya Rhie Mace, the museum’s curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, said this Krishna was built in a mountain cave temple in southern Cambodia.

"In the back of the temple, Krishna spanned from floor to ceiling," she said. "So, he’s actually holding up the mountain itself."

But, the statue was found in pieces on the abandoned temple floor about a century ago, possibly the victim of thieves looking for sacramental gold hidden in its base. Those pieces were then bought, sold and traded a number of times over the next 60 years or so. For instance, Mace said Belgian banker Adolphe Stoclet and his wife, Suzanne, liked the head and torso, but weren’t that interested in the rest of it.

The Krishna torso on display in the mansion of Belgian banker Adolphe Stoclet [Cleveland Museum of Art]

"So, they buried the pieces," Mace said.  "Some of them were used as edgings for the garden." 

Years after the banker died, the Cleveland Museum of Art bought the torso and had the other pieces exhumed from the garden in Brussels.

"They attempt the reconstruction. It is not easy," said Mace. "There are no joints between the pieces, the angles are difficult."

And, a key piece was missing - the left hand which holds the mountain over Krishna’s head. It turns out that fragment had been mistakenly attached to a different statue, still in Cambodia. This was confirmed, thanks to some modern technology from Case Western Reserve University. In 2014, the Cleveland Krishna and his missing hand, on two opposite sides of the world, were each digitally scanned and then virtually combined on a computer screen.

"So, if you do a virtual reconstruction, you can see that it looks right," Mace said.

Once the digital match was made, the actual piece of stone was shipped from Cambodia to Cleveland. 

Sonya Rhie Mace, curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, shows how Krishna's long-missing hand would be reattached to it's owner. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]

Over the past several years, the local conservation staff has worked to restore the aging sculpture to its divine glory. This focus on cultural respect and getting it right is part of a larger relationship the Cleveland Museum of Art has developed with Cambodia in recent years.

Cleveland Museum of Art visitors like Beth Gatchell loved to pose with the Hanuman sculpture before it was returned to Cambodia. [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]

For example, in 2015, Cleveland discovered that a visitor-favorite sculpture of the monkey god Hanuman - bought in good faith in 1982 - had likely been looted from a temple site during the 1970s. The museum sent it back.  

Cleveland Museum of Art director William Griswold said there are more collaborations to come.

William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]

“We are immensely grateful to all of our colleagues at the National Museum of Cambodia,” he said. “And also in the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia."

After years of separation, the pieces of an ancient heritage have come back together.

"Revealing Krishna" is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art from Sunday to the end of January 2022.


David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.