Museum Home Past Exhibitions Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia

February 22–August 14, 2011 at the Getty Center

Vishnu-Vasudeva-Narayaa / Cambodian, Angkor period
Vishnu-Vasudeva-Nārāyaṇa, Cambodian, Angkor period, late 1000s–1150s, bronze. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh

The ancient capital of the Khmer people at Angkor, in northwest Cambodia, was once the heart of a large sphere of influence that extended over much of mainland Southeast Asia. The bronzes in this exhibition—masterworks from the collection of the National Museum of Cambodia—represent the achievements of Khmer artists during the Angkor period (the ninth through the 15th centuries).

Bronze, a mixture of metals consisting primarily of copper and tin, was a preferred medium for giving form to the Hindu and Buddhist divinities worshipped in Angkor and throughout the Khmer empire. The Khmer have always viewed bronze as a noble material, connoting prosperity and success, and it has played a deeply meaningful role in their culture over many centuries.

Conservators at work at National Museum of Cambodia
Conservator Hem Kannitha at work in the Metal Conservation Laboratory at the National Museum of Cambodia. Photograph by S. J. Staniski

Metal Conservation at the National Museum of Cambodia

The conservation of metal objects in Cambodia has a long, though episodic, history. Past efforts generally were made in conjunction with archaeological excavations throughout the country, mostly in the region that once made up the ancient capital of Angkor.

In 2005 the National Museum of Cambodia began a working relationship with the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. In collaboration with the Freer and Sackler's Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, and with major funding from the Getty Foundation, the National Museum of Cambodia established its first permanent metal conservation facility. In addition to caring for the museums collection, the laboratory's staff of five provides conservation expertise to archaeologists, monasteries with collections, the country's five provincial museums, and the new Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap.

Figure of the Buddha / Cambodian, pre-Angkor period
Figure of the Buddha, Cambodian, pre-Angkor period, 650–700, bronze. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh

Early Cambodian Bronzes: The Pre-Angkor Period

Khmer sculptors produced figural images of divinities in response to the international religions—Hinduism and Buddhism—that had arrived in mainland Southeast Asia by the fifth century. Indian traders and traveling priests brought knowledge of Shiva, Vishnu, and other Hindu gods. Buddhist texts and images carried by Chinese pilgrims who passed through the region on their way to and from holy sites in India also had an influence on the Khmer.

In the pre-Angkor period (500–800), as Khmer metalworkers developed the skills to cast sculptural figures, they experimented with transforming older, established representations into new versions befitting local religious and aesthetic traditions. This process eventually led to the distinctive sculptural styles associated with the Angkor period (ninth to 15th centuries).

This Buddha was found together with six other figures in 2006 in Kampong Cham province, about 50 miles northeast of Phnom Penh. The find was accidental, and the sculptures did not appear to be connected to an ancient temple or other archaeological structure. Nothing is known about why the figures were buried together, but they suggest the international range of influences that varied styles of Buddhist images had on Khmer artists and patrons as Buddhist religious practices reached Cambodia and became established.

Ganesha / Cambodian, Angkor period
Ganesha, Cambodian, Angkor period, 1200s, bronze. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh

The Angkor Period

The Angkor period began in the year 802. Khmer rulers established a sequence of capitals in the Angkor region, culminating in the walled complex of Angkor Thom built by Jayavarman VII (ruled 1181–about 1218). Successive monarchs built temples and monasteries to honor their ancestors and their own reigns—the monuments that visitors to Angkor see today.

The bronze images and ritual objects commissioned for the temples, royal palace, and private chapels of the nobility convey a relatively consistent treatment of facial features, dress, and adornment that is recognizably "Khmer." These objects were rendered through a mastery of lost-wax casting. The process generally involves making a model out of wax, often over a core made of clay or plaster, and encasing it in a fireproof mold. When baked, the wax runs out, and molten bronze is poured into the space left by the melted wax.

A son of Shiva, Ganesha, with an elephant head on the body of a boy, is one of the most popular Hindu gods, serving as an icon of protection and a remover of obstacles. In this representation, the snakes forming his armbands and cord over his chest symbolize water and fertility, while a hoe and a broken tusk (serving as a plow) in his hands symbolize agriculture. Ganesha was absorbed into the larger Buddhist pantheon, a role he retains today in Cambodia and Thailand.

Naga-Protected Buddha with Avalokiteshvara and Prajnaparamita / Cambodian, Angkor period
Nāga-Protected Buddha with Avalokiteshvara and Prajñāpāramitā, Cambodian, Angkor period, late 1100s–early 1200s, bronze with mercury gilding. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh

Bronzes in the Reign of Jayavarman VII

Jayavarman VII (ruled 1181–about 1218) decisively shifted the prevailing religious balance in which the Buddha was worshipped alongside Hindu gods. He positioned the Buddha at the apex of a system that included Hindu gods in subsidiary roles, and the bronze images cast during his reign reflect this transformation.

At the center of Jayavarman VII's walled capital, Angkor Thom, he built the Bayon as his state temple; its central feature was a towering stone sculpture of the Buddha protected by a nāga (multiheaded serpent). The other principal monuments he built were the monastic complexes of Ta Prohm—dedicated to his mother as the bodhisattva of wisdom, Prajñāpāramitā—and Preah Khan—dedicated to his father as the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.

The king's personal icon, frequently replicated in bronze, was the triad of the nāga-protected Buddha flanked by Avalokiteshvara and Prajñāpāramitā, as seen in the sculpture illustrated here. The king's appearance is known from temple reliefs and portrait sculptures, and his features are reflected in the figures of the Buddha and the Avalokiteshvara in this sculpture.

This exhibition is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the National Museum of Cambodia. Major funding is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Leon Levy Foundation.