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Conch Shell with Tripod Stand

Conch Shell with Tripod Stand
Conch Shell with Tripod Stand
Cambodia, Khmer, late 12th-early 13th century
(2007.44 a and b)
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 (see) and a ritual conch shell (right), 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 conch shell replicates in bronze an actual shell, but with a cutaway spout at its peak. It is accompanied by a tripod stand to hold it upright. The openwork design on the conch’s lower front shows a figure dancing vigorously amidst swirling vegetation. Decorative bands girdle the shell’s exterior. Each foot of the tripod takes the form of the head of a mythic aquatic animal. Some Angkor bronze conches show the Buddhist god Hevajra on their fronts, though it is not possible to say he is the figure on the Museum’s shell as he lacks Hevajra’s usual eight heads and sixteen arms. Numbers of such bronze vessels are known; they served Buddhist religious rituals and were used for pouring holy water to bless newly married couples, or they were used in other anointing ceremonies.

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 (see) 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 (above) 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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