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Moving Mountains: The Conservation and Reconstruction of a Masterpiece

Beth Edelstein, CMA Objects Conservator
September 9, 2021
Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan, c. 600. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Phnom Da. 1973.106
Krishna’s torso is moved into alignment with the upper section of the sculpture in the new reconstruction, 2021

According to Sanskrit texts, Krishna, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, once hoisted a mountain overhead to shelter people and cattle from a mighty storm brought upon them by Indra, the god of rain and lightning, whom Krishna had angered. At the time, the dark-skinned god was just eight years old, and after this feat, his fellow villagers came to recognize him as a divinity.

Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan, carved around 600 for the temple site of Phnom Da in southern Cambodia, is one of the central works of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Southeast Asian sculpture collection. The sculpture depicts the boy god, standing larger than life within an integral stone niche, pressing the weight of the mountain overhead with his left hand.

Some museumgoers may remember this sculpture, on view for decades at the CMA, as standing securely on complete stone legs and feet, with his arm raised into thin air. Today, after seven-plus years of research, international collaboration, and conservation treatment, the sculpture looks very different. In a dramatic change, the lower base and parts of the legs have been removed and a large upper section, showing the top of the stone niche and the figure’s left hand, has been added.

Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan in 2017 (left) and 2021 (right)

The new reconstruction is based on scholarship and analysis that illuminated the complex history of this sculpture and seven others that were found on the sacred twin-peaked mountain, Phnom Da, in southern Cambodia.

Krishna and His Journey to the CMA

The story of the Cleveland Krishna spans many centuries, with the past 100 years being especially action packed. On this blog in 2019, conservator Amaris Sturm shared the story of the early 20th-century excavation of the fragmented sculpture, the journeys of the various pieces to different parts of the world, and their reunion in 1978 when the sculpture was first reconstructed at the CMA.

That article also discussed the CMA’s reassessment of the section with the figure’s upraised left hand, which had been sent back to Cambodia in 2005 with the understanding that it did not belong to this figure. Three-dimensional scans and digital models revealed that the section did in fact belong to the Cleveland Krishna, and it was returned to the museum in 2015. That discovery launched a project to reverse the 1978 restoration, so that we could fit the upper section back into the figure in its proper position.

Conservator Beth Edelstein cutting through a steel rod at a gap in Krishna’s left knee, 2018

However, this soon proved to be more difficult than anticipated. With the help of new 3D models created at Sears think[box] at Case Western Reserve University, we were able to show that once the upper section was placed in proper alignment to the torso, the feet and base section could not line up without forcing the legs to bend too far behind the figure’s center of gravity. This called into question whether the five pieces of the lower legs — two thighs, two calves, and a base section with feet — really did belong to this sculpture.

Digital models assembled by Joel Hauerwas, Case Western Reserve University, 2019

The Tale of Two Krishnas

This isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. There was a second Krishna sculpture — known as the Phnom Penh Krishna —found at the same temple site and currently at the National Museum of Cambodia (NMC) in Phnom Penh, and it was quite possible that their broken limbs had been mixed up. Too many limb fragments for one figure had been excavated from Phnom Da in the 1930s, but all had been sent to join the Cleveland Krishna’s body in its then home in Belgium. When these parts came to Cleveland in 1977, there was no way to communicate with the NMC to learn more about the Krishna and the other sculptures from Phnom Da, as the country was cut off from the world by the extremist Khmer Rouge regime.

Today, with open communication with colleagues at the NMC and videoconferencing tools at our disposal, we were able to exchange measurements and digital models of our respective sculptures to help determine which pieces belonged to which figure.

Digital models assembled by Marcus Brathwaite, Sears think[box], 2019, showing the hip of the Phnom Penh Krishna (light gray) placed atop the right thigh of the Cleveland Krishna (dark gray)

To look for further information in the stone itself, we brought detached parts of the sculpture’s legs to Cleveland Clinic for a CT scan, that could reveal fault lines or mineral inclusions that might help match pieces together.

Preparing Krishna’s right leg for CT scanning, 2019 (left), and a CT image showing hairline cracks in the calf section (right). With thanks to Anthony Magnelli, MS, Cleveland Clinic

Finally, we sent samples of the stone to Dr. Christian Fischer of the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology to assess whether there were any differences in the minerals found in the various sections. Together, these efforts clarified the puzzle, revealing that the right thigh and calf, left calf, and base section with feet in fact belong to the the Phnom Penh Krishna at the National Museum of Cambodia.

Levitating 900 Pounds of Stone

With the sculpture now entirely top-heavy, we were faced with devising a method to safely and accurately suspend the massive stone pieces that make up this graceful figure. Together, the torso, right thigh and upper section weigh 899 pounds. Without Krishna’s divine ability to defy gravity, we turned to structural engineering and quasi-magical feats of mountmaking to lift, rotate, and support the pieces in their proper orientation to each other.

Lifting and rotating the body to the proper position (left); the pieces assembled on the mount (right), 2021

Having spent countless hours detaching stone pieces connected with steel and epoxy, we wanted to keep them separate, but hold them securely and in proper alignment, so that the sculpture looks as complete as possible. The goal was to make the supports easy to remove from the stone, with no permanently attached parts. And it was important that the beautifully carved stone pieces were highlighted, without adding modern materials between them that could be distracting. The ingenuity, teamwork, and hours that went into creating the modular support system could fill its own book, but in the end, the final design checked off all our boxes.

Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan will be on view for the first time in four years in the upcoming exhibition Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain, opening November 14. Revealing Krishna will present not only the Cleveland Krishna but also his counterpart from the National Museum of Cambodia, each now with their existing original parts. Curator Sonya Rhie Mace has succeeded in gathering these and other sculptures from Phnom Da that have never been shown together. This unprecedented exhibition also incorporates beautiful immersive video and mixed-reality experiences, like HoloLens 2 in collaboration with Microsoft. We are excited to share the journey of Krishna, and we hope that you will come to celebrate this extraordinary achievement with us.

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Members can reserve Revealing Krishna tickets now and public ticket sales begin September 20. #CMAKrishna