The slender wooden image of Shō Kannon -original, principle, unchanging bodhisattva or bosatsu of compassion, known also as Avalokitesvara or Guanyin—stands upright in full frontal posture on the two-tiered original lotus pedestal, which was carved separately and mounted on a base that was not part of the original assemblage. Layered drapery lays flat against the body, with a scarf pulled straight across the back and over the shoulders, draping into loops over the legs, a sash crossing diagonally over the chest, a short jacket covering the long skirt, which hugs the legs down to the narrow bare feet. The delicate fingers of the left hand hold a lotus while the right hand with the thumb and middle finger pressed together forms the shuni mudra (“Seal of Patience.”). The clean lines and geometry of the dress are carried into the hair with two swags over the forehead, the hair pulled into a pointed chignon and the head fitted with a simple wreath-like crown. Downcast eyes, heavy brows carved in smooth, gentle curves from the bridge of the nose, and a small mouth with pursed lips produce a sense of great serenity. Most of the pigment and what seems to be a coating of lacquer beneath has worn away revealing the grain of the hinoki (cypress) from which the figure was carved while gold leaf survives in relative abundance for such a figure.
Since the Nara period in the 7th century, Buddhist advocates would commission and dedicate to their temples large sets of paintings or sculptures comprised of images closely related in form and style; such ensembles referred to as sentai-butsu, “one-thousand Buddhas,” or sentai-kannon,“one-thousand Kannon.” The Shō Kannon here was a member of such an entourage, one of a multitude of similar icons produced contemporaneously and enshrined since the mid-12th century in the Kōfukuji in Nara and originally housed in the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas. In modern times, in the early 1900s, when funds were required for temple repairs, these images were sold and a good number of them are held today in museums in Japan and a very limited number outside of Japan. For an insightful review of the subject and the Kōfukuji group, please click on “Download PDF File” below, to see Kazuko Kameda-Madar’s essay, “One Thousand Kannon Sculptures of the Kōfukuji Temple.”