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Statuette of Vishnu

Statuette of Vishnu
Statuette of Vishnu
Cambodia, Khmer, 12th century
Bronze
(2007.43)
Gift of Natasha Eilenberg in memory of Samuel Eilenberg
 

At the end of 2007 the Museum of Art and Archaeology acquired two Southeast Asian bronze artworks through the generosity of Natasha Eilenberg. The two works, a statuette of Vishnu (right) and a ritual conch shell (see), both date to the twelfth century and are products of Cambodia’s Khmer civilization during its high point, known as the Angkor period. Natasha and Samuel Eilenberg were among the Museum’s earliest supporters, both having donated numerous important South and Southeast Asian artworks. It was in memory of the late Samuel Eilenberg that these most recent donations were made.

The statuette shows the Hindu god Vishnu, the Preserver, in a firm upright pose. In his four hands he holds a discus, conch shell, club, and globe. These being his normal attributes, three of them reference his warrior status: the discus and club are weapons, while the conch shell is a sounding device for summoning the gods to battle evil. The globe symbolizes the world. Vishnu wears a crown, elaborate jewelry, and a loincloth that is held up by a beaded girdle. The god’s sturdy, unbent posture is indicative of his role as upholder of order in the universe. This statuette of one of the most important gods of the Hindu pantheon once likely served as a focus of worship in a family’s household shrine.

During the Angkor period, which lasted from about 800 to 1200 CE, a number of Khmer kings embraced Hinduism while others favored Buddhism. Both religions had a profound influence on the character of Khmer society and art, as evidenced in the surviving ruins still visible at such magnificent sites as Angkor Wat. Khmer kings identified with divine power and often had themselves depicted in monumental sculpture in the guise of gods. The Museum’s Vishnu (above) shares something of that tendency. Though there is nothing to indicate it depicts an actual king, the representation displays a heroic pose that is imbued with a regal majesty. In the statuette, a viewer sees a Hindu god but also is reminded of the power and authority of an earthly king. The conch shell (see) evidences the skill with which artisans crafted objects in the service of religion - in this instance, Buddhism. By the very act of creating the object, the maker hoped to gain good karma, just as the user did when he dispensed sacred water from it in a holy ritual.

These two artworks are fine additions to the Museum’s holdings of Southeast Asian art. It is with much appreciation to the Eilenbergs that the Museum can now present them to current and future generations of visitors.

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