Et in Arcadia ego

From Academic Kids

Template:Painting"Et in Arcadia ego" is a Latin phrase that most famously appears as the title of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin (15941665). They are pastoral paintings depicting idealized shepherds from classical antiquity, clustering around an austere tomb. The more famous second version of the subject, measuring 122 by 85 cm, is in the Louvre, Paris, and also goes under the name "Les bergers d'Arcadie" ("The Arcadian Shepherds"). It has been highly influential in the history of art, and more recently has been associated with the pseudohistory of the Priory of Sion popularised in the books Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code.

The phrase is a memento mori, which is usually interpreted to mean "I am also in Arcadia" or "I am even in Arcadia", as if spoken by personified Death. However, Poussin's biographer Andre Felibien interpreted it to mean that "the person buried in this tomb has lived in Arcady" - in other words, that they too once enjoyed the pleasures of life on earth. The former interpretation is generally considered to be more likely. Either way, the sentiment was meant to set up an ironic contrast by casting the shadow of death over the usual idle merriment that the nymphs and swains of ancient Arcadia were thought to embody.

The first appearance of a tomb with a memorial inscription (to Daphnis), amid the idyllic settings of Arcadia, appears in Vergil, Eclogues V, 42ff. Vergil took the idealized Sicilian rustics that had first appeared in the Idylls of Theocritus and set them in the primitive Greek district of Arcadia. The idea was taken up anew in the circle of Lorenzo de' Medici in the 1460s and 70s, during the Florentine Renaissance. In 1502 Jacopo Sannazaro published his long poem Arcadia that fixed the Early Modern perception of Arcadia as a lost world of idyllic bliss, remembered in regretful dirges. In the 1590s Sir Philip Sidney circulated copies of his poem The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia which soon got into print. The first pictorial representation of the familiar memento mori theme that was popularized in 16th century Venice, now made more concrete and vivid by the inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO is Guercino's version, painted in stages during 1618–22 (in the Galleria Barberini, Rome), in which the inscription gains force from the prominent presence of a skull in the foreground.

Poussin's own first version of the painting, now in Chatsworth house was probably commissioned as a reworking of Guercino's version. It is in a far more Baroque style than the later version, characteristic of Poussin's early work. Here the shepherds are actively uncovering the half-overgrown tomb and reading the inscription with curious expressions. The shepherdess, standing at the left, is posed in sexually suggestive fashion, very different from her austere counterpart in the later version. The later version has a far more geometric composition and the figures are much more contemplative. The mask-like face of the shepherdess conforms to the conventions of the Classical "Greek profile".

To those not familiar with Latin, the phrase "et in Arcadia ego" appears to be an incomplete sentence, since it contains no overt verb. (In reality Latin, like many other languages, allows dropping forms of the word 'be'.) This presumed defect has led some Pseudohistorians to believe that it represents some esoteric message concealed in a (possibly anagrammatic) code. In The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Baigent, Lee and Lincoln proposed that the phrase is an anagram for I! Tego arcana Dei, which translates to 'Begone! I keep God's secrets', suggesting that the tomb contains the remains of Jesus or of another important Biblical figure. They claim that Poussin was privy to this secret and that he depicts an actual location. This view is dismissed by most art historians.

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