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Et in Arcadia ego
French: Les Bergers d'Arcadie
Artist Nicolas Poussin
Year 1637–1638
Type oil on canvas
Dimensions 185 cm × 121 cm (72.8 in × 47.6 in)
Location Musée du Louvre

"Et in Arcadia ego" is a Latin phrase that most famously appears as the title of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). They are pastoral paintings depicting idealized shepherds from classical antiquity, clustering around an austere tomb. The more famous second version of the subject, measuring 121 by 185 centimetres (47.6 x 72.8 in), 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 myth popularised in the books Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code.



The phrase is usually interpreted as a memento mori - "Even in Arcadia I exist", as if spoken by personified Death. However, Poussin's biographer, André Félibien, interpreted it to mean that "the person buried in this tomb has lived in Arcadia"; in other words, that the person too once enjoyed the pleasures of life on earth. This reading was common in the 18th and 19th century. For example William Hazlitt wrote that Poussin "describes some shepherds wandering out in a morning of the spring, and coming to a tomb with this inscription, 'I also was an Arcadian'."[1] The former interpretation is now generally considered more likely; the ambiguity of the phrase is the subject of a famous essay by the art historian Erwin Panofsky (see References). Either way, the sentiment was meant to set up an ironic contrast between the shadow of death and the usual idle merriment that the nymphs and swains of ancient Arcadia were thought to embody.

Guercino's version of the subject.

The first appearance of a tomb with a memorial inscription (to Daphnis) amid the idyllic settings of Arcadia appears in Virgil's Eclogues V 42 ff. Virgil took the idealized Sicilian rustics that had first appeared in the Idylls of Theocritus and set them in the primitive Greek district of Arcadia (see Eclogues VII and X). The idea was taken up anew in the circle of Lorenzo de' Medici in the 1460s and 1470s, during the Florentine Renaissance. In his pastoral work Arcadia (1504), Jacopo Sannazaro 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 romance 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 between 1618 and 1622 (in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome), in which the inscription gains force from the prominent presence of a skull in the foreground, beneath which the words are carved.

Poussin's 1627 version of the Arcadian Shepherds, in Chatsworth House, depicting a different tomb with the same inscription.

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. In the Chatsworth painting the shepherds are actively discovering the half-hidden and overgrown tomb, and are 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".


The most important difference between the two versions is that in the latter version, one of the two shepherds recognizes the shadow of his companion on the tomb and circumscribes the silhouette with his finger. According to an ancient tradition (see Pliny the Elder, nat. Hist. XXXV 5, 15), this is the moment in which the art of painting is first discovered. Thus, the shepherd's shadow is the first image in art history. But the shadow on the tomb is also a symbol of death (in the first version symbolized by a skull on the top of the tomb). The meaning of this highly intricate composition seems to be that the discovery of art is an answer of humankind to the shocking discovery of mortality. However, death’s claim to rule even Arcadia is challenged by art (symbolized by the beautifully dressed maiden), who must insist that she was discovered in Arcadia too, and that she is the legitimate ruler everywhere, whilst death usurps its power. The duty of art in the face of death, and her raison d’être, is to represent absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and balance emotions, break isolation, and allow communication about the unutterable.

The Shugborough relief, adapted from an engraving of Poussin's second version.

Sculpted versions

The undated mid-eighteenth-century marble bas-relief part of the "Shepherd's Monument", a garden feature at Shugborough House, Staffordshire, England, beneath it is the encoded "Shugborough House inscription", as yet undeciphered.[2] The reversed composition shows that it was copied from an engraving, the compositions of which are commonly reversed because direct copies to the plate produce mirror images on printing.

In 1832 another relief was sculpted as part of the monument marking Poussin's tomb in Rome, on which it appears beneath a bust of the artist.[1] In the words of the art historian Richard Verdi, it appears as if the shepherds are contemplating "their own author's death."[3]

In conjunction with John Andrew, the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay created a marble carving entitled "Et in Arcadia ego" in 1976. Carved below the title are the words "After Nicholas Poussin". The main part of the carving shows a military tank in a pastoral landscape.

Proposed hidden meanings

While the phrase "et in arcadia ego" is a nominal phrase with no finite verb, it is a well-formed construction because substantive and copular verb omission is perfectly acceptable in Latin. Pseudohistorians unaware of that aspect of Latin grammar have concluded that the sentence is incomplete, missing a verb, and have speculated that it represents some esoteric message concealed in a (possibly anagrammatic) code. In The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, under the false impression that "et in arcadia ego" was not a proper Latin sentence, proposed that it 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 another important Biblical figure. They claimed that Poussin was privy to this secret and that he depicted an actual location. The authors did not explain why the tomb depicted in the second version of the painting should contain this secret while the distinctly different one in the first version presumably does not. Ultimately, this view is dismissed by art historians.

In their book The Tomb of God, Richard Andrews and Paul Schellenberger, developing these ideas, have theorized that the Latin sentence misses the word "sum". They argue that the extrapolated phrase et in arcadia ego sum could be an anagram for arcam dei tango iesu, which would mean "I touch the tomb of God — Jesus". Their argument postulates that:

  1. the Latin phrase is incomplete
  2. the extrapolation as to the missing words is correct
  3. the sentence, once completed, is intended to be an anagram
  4. Andrews and Schellenberger selected the proper anagram out of the thousands of possibilities.

Andrews and Schellenberger also claim that the tomb portrayed is one at Les Pontils, near Rennes-le-Château. [4] However, Franck Marie in 1974 and Michel Vallet (aka "Pierre Jarnac") in 1985 had already concluded that this tomb was begun in 1903 by the owner of the land, Jean Galibert, who buried his wife and grandmother there in a simple grave. Their bodies were exhumed and reinterred elsewhere after the land was sold to Louis Lawrence, an American from Connecticut who had emigrated to the area. He buried his mother and grandmother in the grave and built the stone sepulchre. Marie and Vallet had both interviewed Adrien Bourrel, Lawrence's son, who witnessed the construction of the sepulchre in 1933 when a young boy. Pierre Plantard, the creator of the Priory of Sion mythology, tried to argue that the sepulchre at Les Pontils was a "prototype" for Poussin's painting, but it was situated directly opposite a farmhouse (behind the foliage) and was not in the "middle of nowhere" in the French countryside, as is commonly assumed. The sepulchre has since been demolished.


  1. ^ Hazlitt, W, Why the Arts are not Progressive, Complete Writings, vol 18, p. 9-10.
  2. ^ Shugborough: "The Shepherd's Monument"
  3. ^ Warwick, G. & Scott, K., Commemorating Poussin: Reception and Interpretation of the Artist, Cambridge University Press, 1999. Cf. "Introduction: Commemorating Poussin" by Katie Scott, p. 9. "As Richard Verdi has noted, this change of context resulted in Poussin's shepherds being led to contemplate their own author's death, and invited the viewer to ponder the monument with the same solemnity and poignancy with which the shepherds brood on Death's incursion into Arcadia."
    • Also cf. Verdi, Richard, "Poussin's giants: from romanticism to surrealism", in this collection.
  4. ^ Images of the Les Pontile tomb


  • Becht-Jördens, Gereon, and Wehmeier, Peter M. (2003). Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin. ISBN 3-496-01272-2. 
  • Brandt, Reinhard (2000, second edition 2001). Philosophie in Bildern. DuMont Buchverlag, Köln. ISBN 3-7701-5293-x. 
  • McCarthy, Cormac (December 1993). Blood Meridian : Or, the Evening Redness in the West. Pan MacMillan. ISBN 0-330-31256-1. 
  • Panofsky, Erwin (1993). Meaning in the Visual Arts. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-64551-7. 

Further reading

External links



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