This large and magnificently carved figure likely depicts the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, known in China as Guanyin. In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are beings who achieve enlightenment, but forgo the process of nirvana (the liberation from the cycle of rebirth) in order to act as spiritual guides for the rest of humanity. Unlike the Buddha, who is always depicted in the simple robes of a monk, bodhisattvas wear the rich garb of a prince, as seen with the present figure by the luxurious garments, armlets and necklace. Because of his compassionate nature and accessibility, Guanyin rivaled or even surpassed the Buddha in terms of popularity after his introduction to China.
Extant large wood sculptures of Guanyin from the Song and Jin dynasties are relatively rare, and in most cases the bodhisattva is depicted standing or in the “water-moon” posture, with one leg raised and the arm extended and resting on the knee. The present figure is part of a small corpus of works that depict Guanyin in the yogic padmasana, with the legs crossed in front of the body with the soles of the feet up; such a posture in Chinese sculpture is often reserved for images of Buddha. A few other examples of this type and from the same period are known, including the figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, illustrated by D. Leidy, Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, p. 125, cat. no. 27, and another in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, illustrated by R. Jacobsen, Appreciating China, Chicago, 2002, p. 62, no. 30.