Khmer Sandstone Bodhi Tree High Relief
10th Century, Koh Ker Style
Height 50.3 cm
Width 69 cm
Depth 5.3 cm
Condition: Very good, a few minor losses and some deposits from burial
This stunning semi-circular representation of the Bodhi Tree was formed with breathtaking attention to detail and refinement, the culmination of highly advanced technical skills and ingenious artistic abilities.
The vertical plane of the relief is expressed through the tapered trunk of the tree, presented in high relief, which gracefully descends the length of this magnificent work of art. The expanses of its diminishing width and the lateral plane of this sculpture are accentuated by the incised motifs supporting the six symmetrically placed, undulant branches, which issue forth from the upright and centrally located element of this piece. The tips of the branches and the top of the tree appear to continue around the boulder, which imparts a soft, natural and three-dimensional quality. Densely populated and lightly textured foliage, with raised central ridge and sinuous elliptical tips, creates a rich contrast against the smooth poised branches. Emanating from the tender young stems, each verdant form dances upon the surface of this stone in the same way a leaf, dangling from outstretched limbs, flutters in the wind.
All the major religions of India spread to Cambodia hundreds of years prior to the 10th century. Thus, the sculptors of the Khmer devarajas were obligated to follow rules, conventions and motifs originally devised in India that were just as syncretic as their religions. With that being said, this particular stele was created with three representations, of equal importance. The Bodhi Tree is symbolic of the Brahmanic Trimurti. Brahma is represented by the roots, Shiva the trunk and Vishnu the branches. All are equal within the Trimurti, no deity can take precedence over the other, and sometimes their functions are interchangeable (inspired by the syncretic religious practices). The Buddhist connotation of the Bodhi Tree is Prince Siddartha’s attainment of the Sambodhi, (“Full Enlightenment”), which is said to have occurred under such a tree. Indian and Buddhist legends refer to the sacred site of Bodh Gaya as the “vajrasana” (“the Diamond”/”Adamantine Seat”), the only place where all Buddhas, past, present and future did, do and will attain enlightenment. Additionally, historical Buddhist texts use the term Bodhimandda when referring to the site of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and believe it to be the location that prevents the destruction of the worlds, indicating the end of the cosmic period.
One of the most significant characteristics of Koh Ker art and architecture is the use of immense blocks of sandstone. The sculpture of this period is sometimes large in scale. In fact, most of the massive pieces housed in the Phnom Penh National Museum are in the Koh Ker style. Sculptures of this style are also imbued with movement and grandeur, rather than the anatomical accuracy and formality of subsequent and prior periods. Each of these traits is present in this important relief.
This sculpture was originally purchased in the early 1970’s from a gallery in New York City.