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Beyond Angkor

An imposing 12th-century relief sculpture travels from Cambodia to Cleveland
Sonya Rhie Mace, George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art
October 19, 2017

Bas-Relief with Ten-Armed Lokeshvara, c. 1200. Northwestern Cambodia, Banteay Chhmar, reign of Jayavarman VII. Sandstone; 53 blocks; total section averaging 275 x 325 x 22 cm. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Ka.2859. Photo: © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Howard Agriesti

At the end of the 1100s in the country now called Cambodia, a triumphant king named Jayavarman VII built a massive temple far to the northwest of Angkor, the centuries-old capital of the Khmer Empire. Known as Banteay Chhmar, the ruler’s “Second Citadel” covered about 1.7 square miles and served as a ritual and administrative center in his newly reimagined kingdom. Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–1218) used military might to expand the Khmer Empire to its greatest extent ever. He consolidated the territories through an unprecedented building program of temples and hospitals. In the latter, survivors of the wars were healed; in the former, the dead were redeemed and their spirits venerated to ensure the prosperity and protection of the realm.

Eight hundred years after the death of Jayavarman VII, an extraordinary, climactic section of the temple at Banteay Chhmar is now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The nine-foot-tall by twelve-foot-wide, four-and-a-half-ton bas-relief sculpture depicts the bodhisattva of compassion in his form as the ten-armed Lokeshvara (also known as Avalokiteshvara, Guanyin, or Kannon), “Lord of the World.”

Bas-relief sculptures rank among the especial glories of Cambodian art from the reign of Jayavarman VII. Unlike those from earlier periods, the bas-reliefs of this king mainly depict historical and idealized episodes from his reign, including rituals, festivals, and victorious battles. The ten-armed Lokeshvara is one of eight manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion that Jayavarman VII, his army, queen Jayarajadevi, heir Prince Vidyanandana, and extended family members traveled to in procession, following the distribution of alms to the populace.

Southern half of the west wall, c. 1200. Banteay Chhmar. Sandstone. Photographs by Léon de Beylié (1909), George Goloubew (1921), and Luc Ionesco (1965). © École française d’Extrême-Orient; digital photomontage by Olivier Cunin (2012)

The series of eight Lokeshvaras of Banteay Chhmar is unique not only in the surviving corpus of Cambodian art, but also apparently anywhere in the Buddhist world. They are the culminating images of the staggering 1,765 running feet of bas-relief sculptures at Banteay Chhmar. Carved on the west side of the wall that surrounds the sacred precinct of the temple, demarcating it from the outside world, they face the direction of Buddhism’s Western Paradise, opposite the temple entrance. Ten-armed Lokeshvara, featured in the exhibition at Cleveland, stands among smaller figures who pay him homage and imagery that proclaims his superiority over all other gods. He is depicted as having the power to deliver souls from suffering.

Southern half of the west wall, c. 1200. Banteay Chhmar. Sandstone. Photographs by Léon de Beylié (1909), George Goloubew (1921), and Luc Ionesco (1965). © École française d’Extrême-Orient; digital photomontage by Olivier Cunin (2012)

Also on view are highlights from the CMA collection of works of Khmer art dating to the reign of Jayavarman VII. A three-dimensional sandstone head of a Deva gives a clear sense of how the relief figure from Banteay Chhmar was conceived in the round. An important bronze icon of the Buddha seated under the bodhi tree was used to transport the presence of a sacred image from one temple to another around the realm. The exhibition includes ritual objects, statues, and fittings from royal thrones or palanquins. Spectacular photography of the temple site taken by Jaroslav Poncar and digital reconstructions by archaeological architect Olivier Cunin create a transportive experience for visitors.

Map of peninsular Southeast Asia, with distribution of temples established by Jayavarman VII. © Olivier Cunin. Inset: Archaeological reconstruction of the main temple complex at Banteay Chhmar. © Olivier Cunin, 2013

Banteay Chhmar’s location was so remote that after the demise of the Khmer Empire in the mid-1400s, it escaped occupation and alteration by followers of other religions, and thus stands as an important document of Buddhist art and religion during Cambodia’s Angkorian period. Its remoteness, however, contributed to its natural collapse from a lack of maintenance, and made it vulnerable to looting. In 1998 four of the eight Lokeshvaras were forcibly removed from their places in the surrounding wall at Banteay Chhmar. Two of them remain in undisclosed locations, and two were seized at the border with Thailand and subsequently transported to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

In 2015 the National Museum of Cambodia forged a Cultural Cooperation Agreement with the Cleveland Museum of Art, following the transfer of a tenth-century sculpture of Hanuman from Cleveland to Cambodia. The agreement allowed for exceptional works of art to be lent for exhibition at the CMA in order to promote knowledge and appreciation of Cambodia’s cultural heritage. As a result, our visitors have the unprecedented opportunity to see the ten-armed Lokeshvara from the temple of Jayavarman VII. 

Portable icon of Shakyamuni Buddha in the Earth-touching gesture, late 1100s–early 1200s. Cambodia, reign of Jayavarman VII. Bronze; h. 42 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund, 1964.93

Cleveland Art, November/December 2017