Death come to Arcadia


Et in Arcadia ego

et in arcadia ego



 Nicolas Poussin




oil on canvas


87 cm × 120 cm (34.25 in × 47.24 in)


Musée du Louvre



Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was a French painter who spent most of his life in Rome. His classical style embodies clarity, logic, and order. He favored line over color. His work is a welcome alternative to the predominant Baroque style of the 17th century. When you approach his work, be prepared to use your head and your eyes, not your heart.

"Et in Arcadia ego" appears as the title of two of Poussin’s paintings. Both depict idealized pastoral motifs with shepherds around a tomb. The literal translation of the phrase is "I too (was there) in Arcadia" or as "and in Arcadia I am," frequently rendered as "I [Death] too am in Arcadia" or "Even in Arcadia I [Death] am,"  the meaning of the phrase is enigmatic and subject of ongoing academic discourse.

early arcadia


 In an earlier painting (above) of the Arcadian Shepherds, hanging in Chatsworth House in North Derbyshire, Poussin depicts a different tomb with the same inscription. The shepherds are discovering the half-hidden and overgrown tomb, and are reading the inscription with curious expressions. The sexy shepherdess, standing at the left, is 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 in the later painting conforms to the conventions of the Classical "Greek profile".


In early Greece, Pan was worshipped by shepherds and farmers in Arcadia, a region in the Peloponnese. The 8th century BC poet Hesiod imagined a past golden age in Arcadia where:

They lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief, miserable age rested not on them; but with arms and legs never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils.
When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all the good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bore them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed Gods.

Arcadia  is a recurring theme in literature and the visual arts. The Roman poet Virgil took idealized Sicilian rustics and set them in the primitive Greek district of Arcadia. (The first appearance of a tomb with a memorial inscription amid the idyllic settings of Arcadia appears in Virgil’s Eclogues V 42ff.).  The idea was taken up in the 15th century during the Florentine Renaissance and again revived by the Neoclassical movement which Poussin is associated.

Poussin's biographer, Andre Felibien, interpreted the title to mean that "the person buried in this tomb has lived in Arcadia"; in other words, that the dead person too once enjoyed the pleasures of life on earth. This reading was common in the 18th and 19th century.  The ambiguity of the phrase was the subject of an essay by Erwin Panofsky. Others, with an overactive imagination and a lack of evidence, posited that the tomb is the symbolic tomb of Jesus -  a  bad case of critics over yolking the custard.   Either way, the sentiment was obviously meant to set up an ironic contrast between the shadow of death and the usual idle merriment, the carefree unconscious inhabitants of ancient Arcadia were thought to embody.

 Popular Analysis of the 1637 version

1) The bearded shepherd is spelling out the inscription - I-too-was-in-Arcadia - and also is, seemingly, outlining his own shadow. (Note that he is the only shepherd casting a shadow).  By one account, the shadow represents death and the shepherd is about to realize his own mortality.  By circumscribing his shadow inventing art, our only antidote to death. 

2) The second shepherd is contemplating the actions of the first shepherd and is yet to realize the message of mortality. (Nor is his image casting a shadow.)

3) The third shepherd pointing to both the tomb and to the first shepherd is asking of the woman if this means the older bearded shepherd will die; youth always first grasps the concept of death for older companions. (No shadow there either.)

4) The classical noble female is the only figure with both feet firmly on the ground (one figure is kneeling on one knee, another has crossed legs, and the third has one foot on the tomb) and she is the only figure standing erect.  She seems to understand human mortality and her gestures (one hand on her hip and the other comforting the third shepherd ) indicates she will confirm the chilling realization which is slowly dawning on the Arcadian shepherds. She is certainly no rustic shepherdess, more a goddess dressed as a shepherdess. Notice how the trees echo the figures in the painting - with the trees behind the woman reaching up out of sight into the heavens.

   I'll  give the last word about our consciousness of death to a fictional character, Rosencrantz.*

     "Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don't go on forever. Must have been shattering. Stamped into one's memory. And yet, I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there's only one direction. And time is its only measure."  


Louvre Musée du Louvre, Paris


Et in arcadia ego is also the title of Book One of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited  in which the narrator, Charles Ryder, describes his guest room decorated with a skull bearing the phrase. The chapter sets the stage for the novel and Sebastian’s hopeless clinging to his doll and to his vanished childhood and Charles the narrator, now, in a sense, dead as he is loveless, childless, middle-aged, etc., looking back on the Arcadia in which he once lived. Waugh wrote that the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself". This is achieved by an examination of the Roman Catholic aristocratic Marchmain family. In Waugh's preface to the 1959 revised edition of Brideshead the author explains the circumstances in which the novel was written, in the six months between December 1943 and June 1944 following a parachute accident. He is a bit disparaging of the novel; "It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster - the period of soya beans and Basic English - and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful."

*From Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Stoppard also wrote a play, "Arcadia", that  premiered in 1993.

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