The idealized faces the sculptors of ancient Cambodia so skilfully managed to draw forth from stone represent strikingly realistic portraits that capture the majesty and impassivity of gods, as well as the compassion of divinities imbued with a gentle inner smile.
In their bas-reliefs, these artists devoted their talent not only to depicting the deities, but to realistically reproducing the secular world as well: the temple gallery walls are lined with military processions, raging battles, or simple everyday scenes carved with an amazing sense of movement and composition.
Starting with the first Preangkorean masterpieces - which can be traced from as early as the 6th century AD - and continuing during the Angkorean period from the 9th to the 15th centuries as well as during the Postangkorean period, Khmer stone sculptors looked to religion for inspiration. It is in glorification of their gods or deified kings that the artists, forever condemned to anonymity, created their temples, statues, and bas-reliefs. Indeed, their works represent genuine professions of faith and honor with respect to India's two main religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, introduced to Cambodia during the first centuries of the Christian era.
In the sanctuaries, the statues were sculpted in a contemplative sitting pose or standing upright, and were represented holding out in their hands the attributes by which they could be identified. They were expected to be inhabited by a deity (mainly Shiva and Vishnu, but Buddha too), from whose protection and blessing believers hoped to benefit.
It is the Brahmanist belief that Shiva, god of both regeneration and destruction, incarnates the cosmic order of things. The images of this god - dancing, with one head and two arms, with five heads and ten arms, in the form of a lingam, etc... - translate his complexity. Shivaism remained the most steadfast of Cambodia's religions during the Preangkorean and Angkorean periods.
Vishnu, the god of preservation, also inspired a major religious movement. Iconographically, he is most often represented as a four-armed god, with at first a cylindrical mitre as headdress and, later, a sort of stone diadem. The discus, conch, mace, and sphere (symbolizing the world) are this god's emblematic attributes.
In Khmer tradition, Buddha is often depicted in a meditative pose, seated on a base in the form of either a spread out lotus or a naga serpent whose seven heads fan out above him to afford protection.