Friday, January 21, 2011

Art Spotlight: “Heart of Wisdom”

After my exploration into symbolism while working on “The Garden” (see THIS POST for more info), I was inspired to further develop the idea. I had formed a deep connection to the image of the winged heart, and while working on a design of a winged heart with spiraling swirls, it struck me that it resembled an owl.

detail from "Heart of Wisdom by Cristina McAllister

Owls are generally thought of as wise creatures, an association going back to Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, who was often shown accompanied by an owl, and was represented with an owl symbol.

Ancient Greek coin with Athenian owl
This sparked the idea for my first “message mandala”, a circular design that incorporates symbols from around the world and throughout history, as well as my own personal visual lexicon, to express a concept or theme.
I began to research symbols and imagery associated with Wisdom, gathering ideas and sketching and creating a harmonious design.  The result was “Heart of Wisdom”.
'Heart of Wisdom' by Cristina McAllister

At center is a heart (the seat of emotion and Self) made of swirling forms, sprouting a pair of wings (freedom, divinity, aspiration). Together they visually suggest the form of an owl – an animal sacred to Athena, ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, civilization, foresight, strength and strategy. 
Owls have been revered throughout the world as messengers of sacred knowledge, insight and intuitive awareness, as well as scholarly pursuits. Their large, sharp eyes seem to see all, even in darkness, and their seemingly stern and serious expression suggests the gravitas of a sagacious elder.

snake detail
Below this central heart/owl figure twines a pair of snakes. These creatures signified wisdom to the ancient Egyptians, Jews, Gnostics, Eastern Indians and Chinese.  The notion of snakes being wise was based on observations of their behavior.  When hunting, snakes appear to think deeply and consider every move before acting. They are masters of blending into and working in harmony with their environment.

shaman's eye detail
At the top, a Native American shaman’s eye offers wisdom and protection. In many tribal cultures, shamans serve as intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds.  They interpret omens and offer insight through mystical, as well as practical means, in effort to protect and guide their people.

'Sankofa' adinkra symbol
Below this is a West African adinkra symbol shaped like a heart with roots. This design, called sankofa, or “return and get it” represents the ability to learn from the past – retrieving lessons learned from previous experiences and prudently applying them.
'Nyansapo' adinkra symbol
 Another adinkra symbol, nyansapo, or “Knot of Wisdom”, is at the bottom center. This symbol indicates intelligence, wisdom and cleverness. "A wise person has the capacity to choose the best means to attain a goal. Being wise implies broad knowledge, learning and experience, and the ability to apply such faculties to practical ends."*



“Heart of Wisdom” is a visual meditation, an illustrated mantra of the concept of wisdom.

 Digital prints of this piece can be purchased here:



*  W. Bruce Willis, “The Adinkra Dictionary”.
 Adinkra is a system of complex symbols whose origin is traced to the Asante people of Ghana and the Gyaman people of Cote' d'lvoire (Ivory Coast). Each symbol has a name and meaning derived either from a proverb, a historical event, human attitude, animal behavior, plant life, forms and shapes of inanimate and man-made objects.
I will be doing a more detailed article on this fascinating symbol lexicon in the future.

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