April 9, 2019 by Aengus Dewar
Nicholas Poussin - ‘The Arcadian Shepherds’ - 1638/9 - Louvre, Paris - Oil on Canvas

The Reasonable Shepherds

In one respect or another, everyone is a snob. From time to time, all of us find it comforting to sneer at a crass and inferior species hovering pathetically at lower altitudes. Some evolutionary component in our brains clicks nicely together when we can reassure ourselves, in spite of our failings, we’re not quite the last runner in the race, and certainly not the most vulgar. When it comes to the creative fields, the conventional indication that you’re looking at tasteless pond scum is popularity. The more appeal someone has, the deeper down the social strata their reach extends, the more likely it is – so we are led to believe - that they’re crap. This is why Stephen King will never be shortlisted for the Booker prize, even though he’s often been ten times the story teller and crafter of characters than many who have. He’s too chummy with the tastes of hoi polloi.

You’ll be unsurprised to hear that I’ve never trusted this way of sieving the wheat from the chaff. For me, the signpost of popularity doesn’t always point to Hell. Charles Dickens churned out well-liked stories in a cheap journal at a rate most writers couldn’t manage with amphetamines. Naturally, his success and standing with ordinary people raised the hackles of some of the more elevated literary figures of the time who aimed poisoned darts at him. Yet he’s withstood the posterity test much better than many of them have. This is why I’m going to resist the urge – and it’s strong – of starting our examination of Poussin’s ‘The Arcadian Shepherds’ by immediately bashing Dan Brown. Dan, in The Da Vinci Code, hints a couple of times that Poussin stuffed paintings like this with esoteric riddles that concealed ancient conspiracies. Templars, Rosicrucians, the Holy Grail: you get the idea. It’s all guff. Nothing of the sort is going on. But rather than stick my nose in the air and get sniffy about a popular writer, I’ll just walk you through it. Once we’ve cut back some of the brushwood, you’ll see that Poussin was pursuing something a good deal more ambitious than anything cooked up by the conspiracists.

Of course, Dan Brown is not the only guilty party. Since the 1970s, there’s been a stream of people making outlandish claims about the painting. To be fair to them, it is a rather puzzling and mysterious image. Three shepherds and a patrician looking Grecian lady are gathered around a tomb. This doesn’t overlap with any widely known mythological or biblical story, nor even any historical incident. When an artwork is vague, it has always been the case that any commentary can be projected on to it by those of a mind to try. A lot of high profile modern art falls into this category. Too ambiguous to communicate something clear-cut, it becomes the intellectual property of anyone who cares to cook up a half-assed explanation of their own. Inevitably, it’s the ideas of the most persistent voices that start to stick, no matter how bombastic or laughable they are. This, in a way, is what has happened with ‘The Arcadian Shepherds’. Over the last fifty years, a cast of treasure hunters and mystery solvers have found within the painting what they believe are clues that will help them in their search. Thanks to their enthusiasm and perseverance, these claims have trickled into the mainstream more so than others of a more temperate variety. Poussin, they argue, was a sort of all-knowing panjandrum within a secret society. He painted into this picture a cryptic key that could be read only by other members. And they are around us even to this day; mysteriously, silently biding their time.

Coyote Esoteric
If I’m honest, the stuff the conspiracy types propose is bloody good fun. It’s easy to get caught up in it. But it’s also undeniable that many of their theories don’t sit on solid ground. Like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, they shoot enthusiastically over the cliff edge, scramble momentarily for purchase in the air, and then plummet without trace into the canyon of common sense. To give you an idea of just how bizarre some of the efforts to find a key within the painting have been, I recommend you take a look at the schematics here. Each of these is an attempt to identify a hidden geometry that points to places and things in the real world. The first purports to reveal a species of pentagram within the picture. Elements within the pentagram mirror the geographic positions of Templar castles and other landmarks not far from a village called Rennes-le-Chateau in the south of France. These in turn enclose the area where the descendants of Christ secretly settled. The second is a truly daft endeavour to unveil a concealed plan of the interior of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The third – just marginally more credible - is an entertaining attempt to reveal a map which points to a Templar treasure horde hidden on Oak Island in Nova Scotia. The fourth – probably my favourite recent find on the internet - is a mind-boggling effort to tie the painting through ‘sacred geometry’ with a destroyed planet from which a group of alien settlers came to live on Earth. (I’m genuinely unable to tell whether or not this one was cooked up by someone with a dry sense of humour.)

Aside from their hair-curling eccentricity, occult theories like these, which are built on geometry and numerology, always run up against the same problem. Umberto Eco described it best in his novel ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’. He has one of his characters, Agliè, explain to another that once you start on this path, you can drag whatever information you wish from any object you choose. Agliè points out a cigarette kiosk. He makes some guesses as to the structure’s measurements. He then crunches these through one or two straightforward mathematical formulas. Within moments, the kiosk is transformed into a cipher for various astronomical bodies complete with references to key historical dates for the Templar order of knights. All that’s required is that some back of the fag packet calculations be crossed with an Aleister Crowley imagination and the job’s done. This shouldn’t be seen as a claim that no one has ever used numerology or ‘sacred geometry’ to design and build. Far from it. Plenty of people have done as much, and done it well. But it’s a reminder to be wary in these matters. A complex schematic superimposed on a painting may look like a piece of formidable code cracking, but that doesn’t mean there was a code to be cracked in the first place.

For my money, the chances that Poussin had any interest in this kind of thing are nil. The man left behind drawings and correspondence. A friend of his even published a collection of Poussin’s observations on the art of painting. There is nothing written or sketched that points to him harbouring the slightest curiosity in esoteric issues. What we encounter is a diligent and thoughtful artist who was steeped in the antique classical world and had some run of the mill philosophical and religious interests. There is no hint of a second life hidden out of view in a cloak and dagger world of intrigue. It also ought to be pointed out that even if Poussin were a master of subterfuge and the painting was a species of heavily disguised cryptogram, he would have had no choice but to start the underpainting on a carefully drawn diagram. You can’t just eyeball such painstakingly precise geometry with a brush. It needs to be measured and planned meticulously first. But x-rays reveal no such preliminary work underneath the surface. Nor is there any sign of a separate preparatory drawing that deals with such stuff. Anywhere. Ever. Not even a whisper. For me, this is conclusive.

To be fair, the most famous conspiracy of all those attached to the painting is one that relies less on geometrical computations and more on innuendo. It emerged properly in 1982 with the publication of a book called ‘The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail’. I sincerely recommend it. The authors – there were three of them – were wholly convinced by what they thought they were uncovering. Their conviction makes it an absorbing read. It’s breathless in places and the coyote repeatedly sails clean over the cliff edge. But you can’t help turning the pages. By the book’s end, we learn that for a thousand years a secret society has been charged with the protection of the direct descendants of Jesus Christ. Because they were of Christ’s blood, these descendants were viewed as a biological Holy Grail. From the 5th to the 8th century, they ruled France as a royal dynasty known as the Merovingians. Since then, their protectors – who call themselves ‘The Priory of Sion’ – have been attempting to return the family to their throne in the hope of restoring a pan-European age of religiosity. At the same time, the Priory members are hell-bent on infiltrating and controlling trans-national political bodies like those of the European project in Brussels. It’s marvellous stuff. Although he denied it in a high profile court case where he was accused of plagiarism, it is obvious where Dan Brown found his inspiration. (The court cleared him of the charge, by the way.)

The Village And The Priest
So how exactly does ‘The Arcadian Shepherds’ fit into the weirdly wonderful world of ‘The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail’? It’s convoluted, but worth sticking with if you enjoy colourful tales. In the 1960s, a curious little book was published in France by a man called Gérard de Sède. De Sède described how, in the 1890s in the small village of Rennes-le-Chateau, a priest called Bérenger Saunière became suddenly and unaccountably wealthy. According to the book, while renovating his parish church, the priest discovered several ancient pieces of parchment in a hollow pillar that supported the altar. They were covered in an antique looking script, and two of them appeared to conceal a code. The priest conferred with his bishop who despatched him with the documents to Paris in the hope that the Church authorities there might be able to cast some light on what these codes concealed.

What Saunière learned when he showed these strange documents to the Church authorities was never divulged. But when he returned to his village, he seemed to be swimming in cash. Local rumour had it that the parchments had directed the man to an ancient lost treasure. With time, this theory ballooned into something vastly more colourful. Saunière had not just found a horde of booty, he had discovered a secret that the Church did not want exposed. Jesus, it seems, had survived the crucifixion and retired - like many people since - to a more agreeable life in the south of France. He had also made an honest woman of Mary Magdalene and in due course became a Dad. On a superficial level this was all very happily ever after. But it goes without saying that senior Catholic prelates would kick off their slippers and brave a skidding halt on a cheese-grater sooner than allow rumours like these to spread unchecked. If they gained any currency, the clergy might as well pack their bags and rent out the Vatican as a music venue. To keep the priest from blabbing, the Church did the sensible thing. They paid him out an immense sum of shut-up money.

The Smokers Summit
In the late 1960s, an English scriptwriter called Henry Lincoln came across a copy of de Sède’s book. He was transfixed by the story and set about research of his own. From reproductions of the parchments, he attempted to disentangle the codes they contained. Satisfied he was making progress, he got in touch with Gérard de Sède to compare notes. Once the two men had met, they somehow mangled and squeezed Poussin’s name out of one of the codes. The manner in which this was done wasn’t at all convincing. It required the selection of 128 letters from one parchment, their arrangement into the Vigenère coding system, and multiple transpositions of new letters via the introduction of governing key words. After several passes of this kind, the new letters were deployed on a chess board. Then the code crackers played out a chess puzzle called the ‘Knight’s Tour’ and moved a knight around the board. As the piece advanced hither and thither according to the crackers’ preferences, the letters were rewritten a final time in the order in which the knight landed on their squares. You follow? Perhaps not. But I’ll bet you’ve picked up on the unmistakable whiff of rat wafting round all of this. The entire process of letter choice and arrangement is wide open to a biased selection. With so many twists and turns, the code could be steered in any direction whatsoever. Even so, the uncertain message tortured out of the parchment text barely rose to the level of gobbledegook. Apart from mentioning Poussin, it muttered about shepherds, demons, keys and blue apples. It was as if a crossword compiler took a dose of LSD and then stumbled pie-eyed into a medieval re-enactors convention with his pen in hand.

A Tomb In Common
The dubious appearance of his name in this gibberish was not the only thing to link the painter with the mystery. Shortly after the two men had met, de Sède announced to Lincoln that the tomb we can see in the picture was in fact real, and could be found just six miles from Rennes-le-Chateau. Poussin, he suggested, was deliberately referencing the locations at the heart the Merovingian Jesus conspiracy. The painter was signalling those in the know. He had been a member of the Priory of Sion. It didn’t stop there. In ‘The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail’, Lincoln tells us that 80 years before, the priest, Saunière had identified the artist and his picture as crucial to what he had been uncovering, and had bought back from his meeting with the Church authorities a reproduction of the painting. Exactly how the picture aided the priest in his exploits is never explained properly. But Poussin’s involvement in the mystery was sealed. When Lincoln and his two co-authors published their book in 1982, the artist was presented as up to his neck in a plan to preserve and protect the royal descendents of Jesus Christ.

As you might imagine, there are cracks in the ideas that underpin ‘The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail’. But that’s to be expected. What’s less tolerable is that there are so many of them that they undermine the interest and fun of the madcap dash through alternative history. It’s worth remembering that for its fans the entire Rennes-le-Chateau confection towers over the field of conspiracy theories in the same way Einstein’s relativity does over physics. It’s put forward as a brilliant, extraordinary and all encompassing hypothesis. But in truth the necessary clarity of vision just isn’t there. There are too many components that don’t seem to fit with each other and don’t seem to go anywhere. Lincoln and his co-authors lead us into a maze comprised solely of alleyways. It lacks the single unbroken corridor that’s essential to navigate the puzzle from entry to exit. Every time a dead end looms into view, the authors leap to an unrelated track nearby and rush onward as if on the same continuous path. Before long, the reader is lost and has no clue how any one element within the scheme relates to the last. This is a pity. A good conspiracy theory should have a  gestalt  quality. As the individual chords are combined, a unified harmony should emerge, one that is greater than the mere sum of its parts. That’s emphatically not the case here. Too many strings are squeaking in isolation. And there are other irritations besides. For example, the personal motives of the people implicated in the mystery aren’t examined. It doesn’t occur to the three writers to ask why Poussin would want to publicise his secret knowledge in a cryptic painting. It’s just assumed that he would. I don’t know about you, but if I was tangled up in secretive dealings with powerful and shadowy societies, I’d keep my mouth shut rather than risk the trouble.

But these are minor quibbles when placed against the larger hammer blows that have since demolished much of the conspiratorial edifice. Around the time of the publication of ‘The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail’, it emerged that Gérard de Sède along with two other Frenchmen had forged the parchment documents and their codes as part of a gigantic hoax. These three gents each had their own reasons: boredom, the satisfaction of a prank well set up, surreal artistic expression. In the case of one, it was a bizarre effort to promote a familial link to the Merovingians and thence to the throne of France – an optimistic agenda to advance in a republic. Whatever their motives, the foundations on which the conspiracy stood had evaporated overnight.

From our point of view, perhaps the most important piece of information to emerge concerned the tomb found near Rennes-le-Chateau which de Sède had identified as the one we can see in the painting. This, it transpired, was not the case. The tomb had been constructed in 1903, two and a half centuries after Poussin had painted the picture. The most persuasive link between the painting, the area and the conspiracy was bogus. For me, it is obvious that Poussin instead based the structure on the sort of sepulchres that lined the Appian Way outside Rome where he was living at the time. Whatever else can be said of it, the painting is not pointing to the secrets of the Grail.

Now that we’ve cleared the view a little, we can properly attend to the picture. It was painted in the late 1630s in Rome, where Poussin had settled after leaving France. These days it can be found in Paris in the Louvre. It clocks in at a little under 3 foot by 4, which at the time was the scale Poussin generally liked to paint at. Over the years, it’s acquired a couple of names. There is the one that is generally applied and which I’ve used so far: ‘The Arcadian Shepherds’. But there’s an alternative that does the job better: ‘Et In Arcadia Ego’. These are the words the shepherds point to, which are visible (just) on the tomb. You can translate this tight nugget of Latin literally to get ‘And in Arcadia I (am)’, as if it were the antique world’s equivalent of ‘I woz ere’. But that doesn’t really do it justice. To get a better sense of things, we need to know what exactly it is that literary and artistic people are thinking of when they reference Arcadia in their work.

Arcadia is one of the oldest inhabited regions of Greece. It’s a mountainous and remote area that has always seemed apart from the rest of the Hellenic world. As the tides of myth and history buffeted and shaped the great city states of Argos, Thebes, Athens, Sparta and Corinth, rural Arcadia quietly plodded along its own track, out of sight and free of interference. No blood-splattered hero with bronze greaves and a swaying horsehair crest came down from the region’s mountains to slaughter his way into the verses of the Iliad. No poet whose name has survived sang his songs at an Arcadian hearth. No lofty Olympian divinity extended their patronage to the area, as Athena did to Athens. Even the youthful messenger God Hermes, who was born in Arcadia, left the place immediately. This was a land given over to grazing livestock, shepherds and slow life. Its scrubby woods and jagged valleys were thought to be the home of the rustic deity Pan. He would play his flute and dance with the nymphs in clearings by night, or snooze during the day, holed up in a cave. Travellers passing along the lonely paths that traversed these places had to keep quiet as they went. If they disturbed Pan, he would give out a hair-raising scream that could strike a man through with terror. This is how we got the word ‘panic’. What we learn from this ancient superstition is important. It tells us that Arcadia was not just a place that hadn’t been disturbed by civilisation; it didn’t want to be civilised. It was the old world. It was a world where man had not made a mark.

Although Arcadia was Greek, towards the end of the 1st century BC, it began to turn up in the poetic literature of the Romans. When they wrote of it, they were usually looking back to a time long past so as to better understand the religion and politics of their own. Two traditions emerged. One of these didn’t gain much recognition. It was put forward by the poet Ovid in ‘The Fasti.’ Here, Arcadia was a harsh place. The typical inhabitant was depicted as a rural yokel. Not the brightest but very dependable; the sort of person you could rely on to struggle badly with a two piece jigsaw puzzle, but who could safely whip a breached lamb out of a pregnant ewe in under ten seconds. These unfortunates clawed out a skinny existence on the stony slopes they sporadically inhabited with their sheep. There was no wine, only water. And even that had to be scooped from the stream by hand for want of a jug. Rain fell, cold winds blew and comforts were scarce. Ovid’s Arcadia, it has to be said, is not a holiday destination. However, another Roman poet of the time, Virgil, took a different view of things.

For Virgil, Arcadia was an unspoilt land. Beauty, plenty and an almost supernatural perfection were its hallmarks. The people who lived there led basic but blissful lives in harmony with nature. It would be wrong to equate this vision with a Utopia. Outwardly, there are no politics in this world. It’s more a lost Golden Age. Even so, it’s tempting to see in Ovid and Virgil’s differing positions an early foretaste of the gap between the politically minded philosophers Hobbes and Rousseau. For Hobbes, a life led in a state of nature without the structures of civilisation is one we can expect to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. For Rousseau, the same state of nature is our best ticket to an existence that is wholesome. The intellectual battle between overly pessimistic realists and overly optimistic idealists has rumbled across many territories and many years. However, when the two Romans clashed over Arcadia, the result was settled relatively quickly. Virgil’s vision of an idyllic land where long ago men led kinder, richer lives became the norm. This is the country we are looking at in Poussin’s painting.

In every story of a Golden Age or paradise, it is always the case that darkness enters through a chink. The snake slithers into Eden; the drip of poison falls into the wedding cup. This is the inescapable chapter in the book of mankind. No matter the happiness we might know, human beings must suffer and die. Virgil was not blind to this. His vision did allow for those terrible moments that eventually come for us all. In his ten part poem the ‘Eclogues’, he introduces death to the beautiful country. He writes of two Arcadian shepherds mourning their friend, Daphnis, who has recently died. They each sing a song to mark his passing. The songs express how badly missed Daphnis is, and what an outstanding fellow he was. But they also describe how he will be praised and commemorated. The two shepherds sing of how altars will be built to Daphnis as if he were a God, and how a tomb will be fashioned on which there will be words that exalt his name to the stars. These may seem like fairly routine declarations for an ancient poem. And in some ways they are. But we ought to note the sentiment here. There’s a defiant wish to see the memory of Daphnis endure beyond the finality of death. Gods and stars: these are things which Death cannot touch. It is no accident that Daphnis’ friends are trying to link him with them.

A Nod To Daphnis
Now we’re familiar with this part of Virgil’s Eclogues, we ought to look at the painting again. We see a beautiful and undisturbed landscape; a small gathering of simple shepherds; a sepulchre that reminds us of mortality; an inscription that speaks of Arcadia. There is even what looks like a bay or laurel tree behind the tomb, a plant species which the Greeks called Daphne, and from which Daphnis derived his name. (He was discovered as a baby underneath such a tree, where his mother had abandoned him.) The overlap between the Roman’s poem and the Frenchman’s picture sixteen hundred years later is unmistakable. As we dig into the latter, however, we will see that the most important element that is common to both is not the setting, the props or the cast. It is the effort to discover a path that leads past human mortality. The optimistic song of the shepherds’ - their desire to see a punch landed on the jaw of Death - is something that Poussin is very much interested in exploring. But he won’t follow Virgil’s lead too closely. Like most artists who decide to have a bounce on someone else’s trampoline, he will bring a few moves of his own. If his picture were a movie adaptation, the opening credits would state that it was inspired by, not based on the Eclogues.

Man And The monolith
We should look at the tomb. It’s a heavy structure and it dominates the picture. Yet it is not without the uncomplicated elegance that a well proportioned piece of stonework can sometimes convey. On its face are graven the words ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. Thanks to our detour through Virgil, we know more or less what these words reference. There have been those who interpret the phrase to mean that the tomb contains the remains of someone who was an Arcadian. But it is commonly accepted now that it is more a direct message from Death itself to us: The abyss, my dears, awaits you all, no matter how lovely the life you lead. It’s probably easiest to view the tomb as similar to the mysterious monolith in ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’. It’s an artefact deposited in the world of humans by an entity that we can’t see or know, but which nonetheless holds sway over our lives. Like the chimpanzees in 2001, the local inhabitants have stumbled across it. We see them trying to understand what they’ve discovered. Or so it seems at first.

Noble Nose
The three shepherds are preoccupied by the words carved in the stone. Each of them points or stares at the letters. Death’s little memo has grabbed their attention. The fourth figure stands apart. She’s the tall Grecian looking lady on the right hand side. She’s the largest figure in the painting. This means she’s important. We should spend some time trying to understand who she is and what she represents. While the shepherds have weathered skin, she has a pale complexion that looks like it was chiselled from a block of marble. The draperies that hang from her form seem uncannily close to those we see in the sculptures of the ancient Greeks. She also has a facial physiognomy that we associate with the statuary of that period. I should explain this. Most of us have a slight depression where our nose meets our forehead. You’ll see what I mean if you press your finger firmly between your eyebrows, then slide it down to the bridge of your nose. Your finger will bump into that pocket like a tyre hitting a pothole. In the case of the pale lady, however, the dip is missing. Her brow and snout are on precisely the same plain. This configuration may look odd to us. But – unless they were required to create an exact likeness of someone - it was normal in the sculpture of the Greeks. It could add a noble and heroic quality to the most unpromising face. Living in Rome, Poussin saw countless examples of such Hellenic statues and their signature facial alignment. If he decided to make use of the formula, we must assume he wanted us to see in this figure qualities that were ancient, timeless and dignified. And we do. But who on Earth is she?

Conceptual Art
This is not an easy question to settle. Over the years, all manner of identities have been foisted onto the pale lady. Death and Athena are the most frequent contenders. The former makes no sense to me. Apart from the Viking deity Hel, no woman has been cast as Death in a western culture. And this is clearly not a Viking picture. Besides, Death is well represented by the tomb and its inscription. It needs no further ambassador. Athena makes a little more sense. But apart from the mystery figure’s Hellenic vibe, we see nothing that is associated with the goddess such as an owl, a spear, a helmet or even an olive tree. We need to find a better clue. We need to look through Poussin’s other paintings in the hope we can find a hint of this lady elsewhere in his body of work. Seeing her in a different context might help us to pinpoint what the artist had in mind. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long. 

A quick flick through the man’s catalogue reveals that twenty years later, in the background of a self portrait, Poussin painted a similar face. We see the same uniquely Grecian nose, the same golden curls and the same protruding chin. Poussin was a very deliberate and methodical chap. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. 

There is some disagreement over the details, but the experts are broadly united in viewing the pale lady in Poussin’s self portrait as a symbol more so than a personality. Some think she stands for Friendship. Others are sure she’s Art. A few believe she is Perspective. But all agree that she is a concept. Figures like this, which signify abstractions, have been a mainstay of representational art since the afternoon Fred Flintstone picked up a charred stick and started doodling on his cave wall. An example with which we are all familiar is that of Romantic Love represented by a chubby (occasionally blindfolded) kid with a bow and arrow. Symbolic figures such as Cupid and countless others are an important tool in art that deals with storytelling, emotion, religion, myth or philosophy. They make it straightforward to include an abstract idea in a picture in such a way that it’s readable for the viewer. We call them ‘personifications’. Of course, over time, their popularity has waxed and waned. And since the last century, they’ve fallen entirely out of favour. The majority of the art that our cultural elites have promoted since World War I is far too daring and pioneering to have need of the out-dated devices that served human expression for the last 30,000 years. But back in Poussin’s day, they were all the rage. A chap called Cesare Ripa even compiled a glossary of richly described personifications from Abundance through to Wisdom. This dictionary was called ‘Iconologia’. We know that Poussin was familiar with it and made use of its figures in other works of his. Perhaps we should have a look through its pages and see if we can uncover anything that tallies with the pale lady.

The Elephant Woman
It’s worth indenting briefly to describe Iconologia. If ever there was a book that oozes esoteric knowledge and forgotten times, this is it. In places, it draws on people whose names can still be found on the shelves of any bookshop: Ovid, Pliny, Aristotle, Petrarch. But Ripa also found material in places that are utterly alien to regular modern people: Alciaticus’ ‘Emblemata’, Boccaccio’s ‘Genealogia degli Dei’, Boethius’ ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae’, Valeriano’s ‘Heiroglyphica’ and Horapollo’s text of the same name. He sifted through Medieval compendiums, bestiaries and treatises on herbs. It’s not unusual to find references taken from both ancient Egypt and a Church saint sitting side by side on the same page. The accompanying illustrations – there are more of these in later editions - are every bit as out-there as you would expect. Many of them look as if they’ve been lifted from an occult book of spells. Each personification is depicted with assorted paraphernalia so as to distinguish them from the others. Some of the combinations are marvellously bizarre. For example, Bashfulness carries a falcon in one hand, a large open scroll in the other, and wears an elephant’s head as a hat. This is a weird, arcane and brilliant encyclopaedia of 17th century symbolism. No artist’s shelf should be without a copy. Poussin’s certainly wasn’t.

Artists often make use of the formulas of others. But they are rarely slaves to them. When including a personification within a painting, very few followed the full list of distinguishing characteristics described in Iconologia. The majority would deploy just an element or two and trust that to do the job. Let’s face it, there aren’t many pictures crying out for a hat made from an elephant’s head. Certainly no painting by Poussin, who could be a good deal more frugal with his imagery than many of his contemporaries. This was a man who didn’t like his art over-cooked. Like any artist with something worthwhile to communicate, he intended his pictures to be legible for the onlooker. But he didn’t want them too easily read either. A painting should open itself gradually, like a sun-kissed flower, not spill its guts in response to a casual glance or a flick through a glossary. Poussin wanted his audience to think, to consider and - with patience - coax the meaning gently forth. It’s also clear that as he painted Et In Arcadia Ego, he was keen to create a meditative and calm image. There’s a stillness and purity about the picture that would be badly messed up with the addition of too much clutter or weirdness. If we bear these considerations in mind, it is out of the question that Poussin would import one of Iconologia’s personifications in their entirety into the painting. They’re too elaborate, noisy and rambunctious to translate harmoniously into the scene he’s creating. Instead, he would have used just a couple of their more subtle and discreet characteristics. Enough to reveal the personification’s identity to an attentive eye; not so much as too alter the feel of the picture.

The Colour Of Victory & Reason
For me, the most interesting item that the pale lady wears is the yellow garment around her shoulders and torso. As we’ve previously noted, it’s a form of clothing that is frequent in ancient Greek art. It is called a ‘chlamys’. Perhaps it would be sensible to read through the 1625 edition of Iconologia (the most recent version at the time Poussin was painting the picture) with an eye for those personifications which are described as wearing one. Once we do this, we find several mentions of the garment. (If you’re of a mind to go looking, it’s called a ‘clamide’ or ‘clamidetta’ in 17th century Italian.) Only three personifications, however, wear a chlamys that is yellow or gold. All of them are female. They are Temperance, Reason and Ancient Victory. In the case of Temperance, there is nothing more in her description that overlaps with what we can see in the painting. Both Victory and Reason, however, share some extra traits with the pale lady. Apart from her gold chlamys, we find that Reason is supposed to wear blue. Check. Victory is mentioned as also wearing white, a colour that is well represented by the caul wrapped around the pale lady’s hair. Both personifications are described as bearing laurel wreaths. We can spot such wreaths on two of the shepherds. (Perhaps they’ve just been given to the men.) We seem to be getting closer to an understanding of who this mysterious woman is. It makes sense, of course, to include Victory in a picture that will be concerned with overcoming Death. There is also, as we shall see a little later, a credible case to be made for Reason. We might assume that it must be one or the other. But it’s perfectly possible that Poussin has rolled both into a single figure. Before we can settle the matter properly, we should unpack some more of the picture.

Learning To Paint
We ought to move onto the shepherd in blue. He kneels on the ground, and touches one of the letters carved onto the side of the tomb. At first, this seems an unremarkable gesture. But if we pay attention, we see there’s more going on. He’s tracing his shadow with the tip of his finger. This has grabbed the attention of many observers. There is an ancient tale of man discovering how to paint in this fashion. It can be found in ‘The Natural History’ which was written by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. Pliny speaks of how the art of painting originated in people tracing outlines around the human shadow. Whether or not there’s any truth to the legend doesn’t matter. The important thing to note is that Pliny’s book was known to almost everyone armed with an education in the 1600s. Poussin was certainly familiar with it. But why would he include an allusion to the origins of painting in a picture which is so preoccupied with the presence of Death?

The Lines Of Love
We can find the first hint of Poussin’s reasoning if we read deeper into Pliny. A little later in The Natural History, he tells the story of a girl in Corinth around 600 BC. The youth she loved was about to embark on a long journey. This is never an ideal situation for young lovers. The pain of parting can be unbearable. Before he left, she traced a line around the shadow his head cast onto the wall. Then, her father took some clay and, using the outline as his guide, modelled the youth’s face. If you’ve ever carried with you a photo of a child or a loved one, you’ll understand exactly why this was being done. A beautiful image of someone we cherish can be packed with intense power. In the right circumstances, it can even appear to contain something living and vital of the person it represents. This is not confined to images of those we love either. Years after his death, the lifelike appearance of a statue of Alexander the Great gave one of the king’s rivals such a shock when he came across it unexpectedly that he was reduced to shuddering and trembling. The young girl from Corinth understood all of this. She was determined she would keep something essential and authentic of her beau. Art was deployed to overcome a man’s absence.

Fifteen hundred years later, another writer pushed the notion that art was well placed to remedy situations of distance or loss. But this time it was a much more ambitious claim. It was put forward by a chap called Leon Battista Alberti. Alberti was the ultimate Renaissance man. He was much like the infuriating kid in school who excels at everything: a cheerful, broad-shouldered, multilingual scholar, poet, mathematician, sportsman, brawler. You name it, the bastard can do it. He’s not just better than you; he’s better than instructors who’ve had decades of practice. When Alberti decided to set down his thoughts on painting, it was inevitable he’d give posterity something meaty to chew on. His ‘Della Pittura’ is a classic which has convincingly withstood the test of time. It’s as widely read by representational artists these days as it was five hundred years ago by painters like Poussin, who, we are told by a friend and biographer, was an admiring fan. So, what did the great man have to say that Poussin might have picked up and used in his painting?

Who’s Watching Who?
From our point of view, the most important observations Alberti makes are those which overlap with the intuitions had by the girl in Corinth. He speaks of how the art of painting carries within it a divine power. He even tells us – and this is where Poussin may have sat up straight in his chair – that painting can give life to those who are dead. He’s not proposing Frankenstein alchemy here. He’s pointing to the capacity of a well crafted image to act as a surrogate - a totem – for the person it represents. It’s easy to think he’s suggesting an occurrence similar to that feared by tribes who refuse to be photographed. But that would be a mistake. There’s no hint of anyone losing their soul; Dorian’s portrait isn’t convulsing in the attic. Rather than steal from its subject, Alberti implies a good picture will instead duplicate within itself some of what is vital and essential to that person. The portrait can’t sit down for dinner with friends. But it won’t be lifeless either. We moderns tend to scoff at such stuff. We live in a scientific age. We always know better than those who inhabit the past. But when you next have a chance, go to a museum when it’s approaching closing time and the rooms have emptied out. Find a wall of portraits. Take a moment to centre yourself in the moment and place. Then walk the length of the wall slowly and in silence. Unless your imaginative spark is so dim it hardly shines at all, you’ll very quickly get a sense of what Alberti was talking about.

More Nuanced Than We Might Think

Now that we’re boned up on Poussin’s bedside reading, it’s easy to grasp what is happening with the shepherd in blue. We’re watching a man discover a craft which can deliver a form of life after death. If we look closer though, we spot something disconcerting. The shadow cast on the tomb by the shepherd’s outstretched arm doesn’t follow the lie of his anatomy. Instead, it has the unmistakable shape of a scythe blade. Scythes are synonymous with death in the modern mind. We forget that for previous generations they had a meaning which was bit more nuanced. They could just as easily indicate time or mortality. Poussin wants us to know that this is a man whose existence is subject to the march of time; a man who is inseparable from his mortal nature. We are being reminded that his life – like that of all of us – is no more than a brief flicker. Only through the discovery of art, will he move beyond this limitation. It’s interesting to see how his breakthrough is about to be made on the face of the tomb – the seat of Death - rather than somewhere else. It’s as if a chipmunk was poking a wolf in its eye. Yet nothing in the inert tomb can reach out to stop the shepherd’s progress. He’s on the threshold of a triumph. For me, this confirms the pale lady is Victory; at least partially. She watches from the side, patiently waiting as the shepherd stumbles closer to his flash of realisation. It looks as if he’s only moments away. But what about the two other shepherds?

Features & Faces

The first thing we ought to note about the shepherds in red and white is that each is crowned with a laurel wreath. In the ancient world, wreaths could make an appearance on all manner of occasions. They were normal at religious rites and festive events such as a wedding or a rowdy all-night booze up. But it’s as a symbol of triumph and victory that they’re best known. It seems to me that both these figures have already acquired the understanding that their un-wreathed companion is groping towards. As a result, they’ve been crowned by Victory. Poussin nails down their transformation from rural rubes to enlightened champs with a clever trick. Have a look at their faces. These guys are not the leathery herdsmen we might expect. Compare them to the kneeling shepherd. The latter has an unruly beard and a stubby, rustic physiognomy. The others are whiskerless and refined looking. They each have the sort of well proportioned face that’s sported by the guy who groped himself disturbingly in the 2018 Paco Rabanne PURE XS advert. (It’s on Youtube, if you really need to). They’ve more than a touch of the pale lady’s classical appearance as well. Poussin is too thoughtful for this contrast to be a coincidence. We’re supposed to spot that these men have been elevated, improved and in some sense immortalised by the knowledge they’ve gained.

The Ascent Of Man

To my eye, Poussin has set up the three shepherds in a deliberately graded sequence. When I look at the trio, I can’t help thinking each of them is meant to represent a different point in a cycle of knowledge. The blue shepherd, although tantalisingly close, hasn’t yet figured out where the act of tracing the shadow can lead him. He’s in a state of ignorance and is presented to us in a kneeling position. He’s the lowest figure in the picture. The red shepherd points to the shadow cast by his companion’s head. The penny has just this moment dropped for him. He turns to Victory to check his intuition is correct. She confirms it is by placing a hand gently on his shoulder. This shepherd is in an unfolding state of revelation. He is presented in a crouch; not as lowly as his blue buddy, but not upright either. The white shepherd has already achieved insight. He looks on while his friends play catch up. He is in a state of knowing and is shown to us almost fully upright. All three use their staffs to support their weight. But the white shepherd also leans his body against the sepulchre. The fact that he can do this tells us that he is not afraid of what the tomb represents. His insight has dispelled his fear. In fact, with that languid stretched out arm of his, he seems almost to embrace the stonework. Kneeling, crouching, standing. This is no accident. It’s a carefully planned progression from ignorance through revelation and on to insight. Even the colours the shepherds wear seem to suggest this, moving from dark to light in step with their evolution. It’s hard not to think of the famous pictogram of the ascent of man. I believe there are good grounds to suppose Poussin had something similar in mind.

There are essential qualities which are crucial for a human being to rise from a state of ignorance to one of insight. We can’t expect to stumble up a ladder. A propelling force is needed. We had better investigate what Poussin thought that force should be. I don’t want to drag you too deeply into the world of Stoic philosophy in 17th century Rome. But we need to have a quick squint at it if we’re going to get a handle on things. Poussin moved in circles where this stuff was fully immersive and a way of life. Although it had pagan origins, by the 1630s, Stoicism had been squared agreeably with Christianity. Respectable sorts could publicly espouse it without fear of getting into trouble. And they did. Poussin was very much a part of this set. There’s a lot that we can say of the philosophy. But we’ll keep it simple. At its heart, it was a way of navigating life’s challenges with the head up and the chin jutting forward. It was realistic, useful and was supposed to be road tested daily in the real-world school of hard knocks. But it had an abstract side too. Here, there was a very heavy emphasis on Reason. It was thought to be a governing principle of the universe. It was supreme; it permeated everything; it was a living force. Those who searched would find the evidence for it in things like nature’s harmony and human virtue. In some respects, Reason was interchangeable with God. For a man of Poussin’s outlook, lowly shepherds wouldn’t have a prayer of navigating past Death unless they had the divine gas of Reason in their tank. We touched on the possible presence of this quality within the painting when we saw that the pale lady has been depicted with some of its attributes. For a Stoic, its inclusion would make a great deal of sense. Because of this, we can have some confidence that Poussin painted the pale lady as an amalgamation of two personifications. She is Victory. But even more so, she is Reason. I ought to explain how this claim stands up.</span> <span>It might strike us as unlikely that a painter would use a single figure to represent two different qualities. But in other areas such stuff is normal. In religion, the combination of two entities is called syncretism. &nbsp;We find a good example of it with the merger of the Greek god Zeus and the Egyptian god Amun into the single god Zeus-Ammon, who became popular with an enthusiastic fan club around the time of Alexander the Great. There is no rule which states a painter couldn’t do the same with a pair of personifications in the 17th century. It’s also worth pointing out that the picture would lack coherence if Victory is the only quality present. Something worthwhile has to steer the shepherds towards their triumph. Without an improving force guiding their efforts, their attainment is just a stroke of good luck. It has no moral meaning or weight. Victory can’t play the role. Apart from anything else, she enters the equation - by definition - after an achievement, not before. Reason, on the other hand, is exactly the thing to push a humble shepherd onto the right path. We even have an occasion where Poussin as good as said it. ‘We should not let our judgement be guided by our desires alone, but by our reason,’ he remarked archly to a patron who was struggling to warm to one of his pieces. Once we grasp the importance of this quality to him, the picture and the arrangement of the three men becomes much more legible. It swims into focus as a parable for man’s improvement. With the help of Reason he wins insights that enable him to rise from his knees; so much so that he can find a form of victory over Death. Painting - as we might expect a painter to suggest - is his best weapon.

Seeing as we’ve had one quote from the man, we may as well mention another: ‘Drawing is the skeleton of what you do and colour is its flesh.’ For Poussin, there’s no question that painting has a structural logic. Like a tower of Jenga blocks, there are certain planks which are non-negotiable and can’t be removed without collapsing what’s balanced on top. Drawing is the main load bearing girder. We can see it in almost every work Poussin left behind. Clear, clean outlines are a hallmark of his figures. Everything is definite and precisely mapped. Nowhere in his work do we spot the more painterly, edgeless, blurry transitions that contemporaries like Rubens sometimes favoured. This probably explains his interest in Pliny’s account of how a traced outline of the human shadow gave rise to painting. For a precise draughtsman, this is a story with some resonance. But colour also mattered to Poussin. Et In Arcadia Ego would not be complete if the only reference to the art of painting was its skeleton. We should expect him to give a visual mention to the flesh too. To my eye, it’s there in plain view.

No two painters select exactly the same array of colours for their palette. But irrespective of their choice, there are a handful which must always be present. White is sacred; it is the light which reveals form. Black is too; without shadow, there is none of the contrast which enables light to work its magic. The two are the inseparable yin and yang of visual representation. But black can be fashioned by combining other colours. For that reason it doesn’t have quite the same cardinal significance. Those that do are red, blue and yellow. This trio alongside white form a supreme quartet. When it comes to paint, almost every other colour with which we’re familiar is derived from some combination of the four. They are the parents, while the greens, greys, purples oranges, browns and pinks are their children. When we stop to look, we see that the big four have been arranged in a cluster of clothing on the right of the painting. On its own, there’s not much to write home about here. Certainly nothing meaningful. But when we spot how the red shepherd’s left arm emerges from the arrangement and points to his companion’s shadow, things take on a different feel. It’s as if he’s directing the cardinal colours towards the lines that are about to be drawn by the blue herdsman. In a way, we’re seeing a high-minded parallel with a child’s colouring book where the colouring pens are about to touch down within the printed outlines. The shepherd checks with Reason to see if he’s on the right track with his idea. We can see she approves. Line and colour, skeleton and flesh are about to be brought together. We are witnessing the birth of painting.

Giulio Rospigliosi - Carlo Maratta - 1669

While we’re in this area of the canvas, we’d better make mention of ‘R’. This is the letter against which the blue shepherd rests his finger. For many commentators, it’s a reference to the man who commissioned the painting, Giulio Rospigliosi. (It’s less of a tongue twister if, like an Italian, you barely pronounce the g in his surname.) Giulio held high offices in the Roman Curia which governed the Catholic Church. In time, he would be made a cardinal before navigating his way through the piranha tank of Vatican politics and becoming Pope Clement IX. He was an extraordinarily well educated and lettered bloke with tremendous enthusiasm for arts like music and painting. Some years before, he’d ordered a piece from Poussin. As is often the case with cultivated patrons, he’d dictated much of the content of the picture along with the themes he wanted it to address. In fact, there are excellent grounds to suppose it was Giulio who first coined the phrase ‘Et in Arcadia ego’. Because of this, it’s often supposed that Poussin highlighted the letter R to give due credit to the chap both as patron and innovator. I can see why people like this explanation. It’s persuasive and neat. But I’m not convinced. I think the R references something quite different. If you keep in mind the overall message we’ve uncovered within the picture, I’ve no doubt you’ll guess where I’m about to go with this.

R Is For Reason

R is the first letter of the word reason. This is also the case in Italian, the language Poussin spoke for most of his adult life: ragione. It is almost unthinkable that having painted a picture that proclaims this quality’s importance, the man drew our attention to its first letter coincidentally. As I’ve hinted several times, Poussin is one of the most thoughtful painters in the western canon. There are no accidents or flukes on his canvas. Et In Arcadia Ego is perhaps the most restrained, dignified and controlled piece he ever painted. We cannot expect that he’ll jab a finger at a letter unless it fits exactly with his subject. Spontaneously pointing out the name of a patron at the centre of the painting is too extraneous. It takes the viewer away from the contemplative truths Poussin is trying to help them explore. If the picture was a piece of verse, we could pose the problem as an awkward jarring line that doesn’t really rhyme or even follow time, prose now. See what I mean? The R must click smoothly into place within the overall scheme. For me, it is clear that the letter is brought to our attention so as to act as a helpful clue in identifying Reason as the hook on which everything hangs.

The Runners Up

Many artists will revisit a theme and paint it a second time. Poussin was no different. The picture we’ve been looking at had a forerunner that he completed a decade previously. This was also called Et In Arcadia Ego, and it was a much more straightforward effort. The shepherds here don’t have an answer to the skull that stares down at them from atop the tomb. There’s no sign of salvation through Reason or anything else for that matter. These guys are in the waiting room and there’s only one exit. This pessimistic theme began with an artist called Guercino, who painted the first Et In Arcadia Ego (yes, there are three of them) around 1620, ten years before Poussin’s first effort. There is something unbearably bleak about Guercino’s picture. If I’m honest, I don’t enjoy looking at it. It oozes gloominess, decay, corruption and death. Once again, the poor shepherds have no escape route. They’re passive, helpless witnesses to their own mortality. I think this morbid fatalism that Poussin once shared with Guercino, began to grate on him as he got older and more heavily steeped in Stoicism. When Giulio Rospigliosi tasked him with painting a new&nbsp; version (the churchman had also commissioned Guercino’s twenty years previously), it was a chance to attack the subject with a little more optimism and hopefulness.

It’s generally thought that Giulio heavily influenced Poussin’s intellectual approach to the painting. Until someone uncovers a stash of musty letters in a forgotten corner of a Vatican archive (good luck with that) we’ll never know for sure. But it’s very possible. We know the future pope was fascinated by the theme, and that the phrase et in Arcadia ego probably originated with him. Nonetheless, even if he had the cerebral firepower of a learned prelate at his disposal, Poussin had a tricky task on his hands. This is a painting that probes deeply metaphysical ideas. It takes us to places which are both more elusive and more theoretical than those explored by any abstract or conceptual artist over the last century. It is extremely difficult to convincingly address such intangible things with a single coherent image. It requires great skill in design and limitless invention. Normally, paintings that tread into this territory get busy and messy as more and more elements are introduced to do the necessary talking. But there’s none of that here. Like a great chef, Poussin uses the minimum of ingredients and cooks them exactly right. He gives us a simple, clean, beautifully balanced composition. There’s a purity to it. It’s a meditation. He’s at his absolute best when he paints like this. For me, if all his pictures were to disappear (there are a couple of hundred) and this was the only survivor, his reputation would still be secure.

Et In Arcadia Ego

There is something that has struck me forcefully as I’ve tried to map a path through this painting. The ideas Poussin put forward in Et In Arcadia Ego have, after a fashion, been proven right. Nearly four centuries ago, a man picked up a canvas then drew and painted on it. Et voila. It gave him a form of life after death. I mean, here I am writing and thinking about him. And here you are, wherever you are, reading and thinking about him. Something of him lives on. Ars longa vita brevis, goes the Latin refrain. Our lives are brief, but our art is long. There’s clearly some truth to this. Yet in spite of his endurance, I think Poussin is at times short-changed. He’s more often written about than he is looked at. His imagery can be so classical and remote that the casual viewer moves swiftly on, leaving him alone in the bloodless company of those who write monographs, articles and theses. But if we normal people were to slow down, look again and think a little, we’d be richly rewarded. Underneath that grown-up and serious style of his, Poussin delivers some juicy cuts. Even those who don’t – as we have – dig down to the bedrock ideas that underpin Et In Arcadia Ego can come away with something. They can take pleasure in the tendrils of mysterious meaning that reach out from the surface to brush briefly against us. It’s a rare type of artwork that can do this; that can whisper so suggestively from the wall without revealing an iota of what it contains. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that people in the 1980s got over-excited, mistook that subtlety for secrecy, and then dragged the picture into a world of codes, cloaks and daggers. It’s just a pity they missed the real message. But I don’t think we have.