(first published September 2000 in the Rennes Observer under the title 'Time, Truth and Arcadianism')
© S. Hamblett Updated May 2007
A few months ago a note arrived at the offices of the Rennes Observer Journal, and the writer, under the pseudonym of Alteo, advised several points that needed to be looked at in regard to the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau. 'Alteo' also felt moved to say that several researchers were 'on the right track' and named three in particular, of which I was included. He then made references to the idea of time and truth & suggested we look into the role of Rospigliosi and the painting 'Shepherds of Arcadia'. While doing previous research into Rennes I had already come across Rospigliosi. He is alleged to have been the brains behind this Poussin painting and its enigmatic motto 'Et in Arcadia Ego ...'.
Nicolas Poussin and his most famous of paintings is said to be central to the mystery of Rennes-le-Château. This assertion came to public notice in the 50’s and 60’s when the alleged secret society called the Priory of Sion presented the story of the priest, Berenger Sauniere, finding parchments in his church. Through the information in these parchments Sauniere was supposedly to obtain a copy of the ’Shepherds of Arcadia’ painting for himself. A few years later the authors of the pseudo-historic Holy Blood, Holy Grail (in which the incredible story of Sauniere was recounted) were told of an exact replica of the Poussin tomb depicted in the ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’. This tomb was in the vicinity of Rennes le Château, the village that Sauniere had been priest of.
All in all one is to simply conclude that there is some deep and abiding mystery associated with Rennes le Château. But what can a tomb and Nicolas Poussin really have to do with the village Rennes le Château?
A Secret of Import?
This possible secret that Poussin may have been in possession of is alluded to by Abbé Louis Fouquet. The letter the Abbe wrote to his brother is often thought to constitute a ‘proof’ of some mysterious dealings by Poussin. Abbe Louis wrote to Nicolas Fouquet in April 1656 (who was Superintendent of Finances at the court of Louis XIVth.) A passage in one of the letters, which is often reproduced was:
"He [Poussin] and I discussed certain things, which I shall with ease be able to explain to you in detail - things which will give you, through Monsieur Poussin, advantages which even kings would have great pains to draw from him, and which, according to him, it is possible that nobody else will ever discover in the centuries to come. And what is more, these are things so difficult to discover that nothing now on this earth can prove of better fortune nor be their equal.”
We may speculate on what the two were referring to. But let us say for a moment that Poussin was in possession of a ’secret’ of great import. What if there was something literal in the words that Louis Fouquet used? For example the secret was something Louis would only discuss in person, so sensitive he would not even write it down. It was something that could give ‘advantages’ but that one could only obtain that advantage 'through Monsieur Poussin’. That Poussin was aware of the ‘secret’ is suggested because Poussin had obviously talked to Louis Fouquet, and told him that it was possible nobody would ever discover ‘it’ in the centuries to come. Having this knowledge would also make you rich, perhaps more than the King himself! So, what could make you rich beyond your dreams, be difficult to ‘discover’, and what secret could even be of your fortune in centuries to come?
A chronicler of Poussin’s life commented on this mysterious letter. The chronicler was Thuillier & he felt that Louis Fouquet and Poussin had talked of an ’archaeological’ treasure, and that perhaps Poussin was aware of clandestine excavations. Why did Thuillier come up with an archaeological treasure as a solution to the mysterious letter? Perhaps it was because one could make money out of it, and you had to ‘discover’ it? It does suggest a buried treasure of some sort that one has to dig for. However, if this is the case, why did one need Poussin to locate the treasure or the archaeological site? And just how are we to ‘use’ Poussin? Or does Poussin not encode a 'treasure' site, but does he suggest the nature of the archaeological treasure?
The most obvious answer is that we need to use a painting. Poussin was a famous artist, much renowned in his own lifetime. But Poussin painted many paintings. How would we know which painting to look for? And how could you possibly encode the whereabouts of a treasure or archaeological site in the type of paintings that Poussin completed? There is a suggestion that the Fouquet later ran into trouble with King Louis XIVth after the above letter was sent. Louis XIVth confiscated all the Fouquet correspondence and inspected it personally. The king also managed to obtain a specific painting of Poussin. It is true that the King was obtaining many pieces of art at the same time, but according to the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the king took great pains to obtain the original of ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’. Unlike the other art he obtained, Louis XIVth placed this painting in his private apartments at Versailles where presumably only he could view it. And why should it be that this one painting is important to some spectators? Why can it not be another painting? Or a group of paintings that had to be read together for example?
The Shepherds of Arcadia
Poussin painted this around 1640. His earlier version of it was painted in the 1630’s. The Louvre version however (this later work and most important of the two versions) shows three shepherds and a shepherdess contemplating a tomb in a landscape. On the side of the tomb is an inscription and one of the shepherds kneels to read it. The inscription is ‘Et in Arcadia Ego" and this constitutes a Latin phrase. The phrase is a Memento Mori, and ‘memento mori’ itself can be freely translated as “Remember that you are mortal", "Remember you will die" or "Remember your death". As one dictionary definition records it, the 'memento mori: ‘… names (the) artistic creations that vary widely from one another, but which all share the same purpose, that is to remind people of their own mortality’.
The memento mori phrase recorded by Poussin - ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ - is usually interpreted to mean "I am also in Arcadia" or "I am even in Arcadia", as if spoken by personified Death. The sentiment was meant to set up an ironic contrast by casting the shadow of death over the usual idle merriment that the inhabitants of ancient Arcadia were thought to embody. Elias L. Rivers suggested the phrase "Et In Arcadia Ego" is derived from a line from Daphnis' funeral in Virgil's Fifth Eclogue Daphnis ego in silvis ("Daphnis was I amid the woods"), and that it referred to the dead shepherd within the tomb, rather than Death itself ( in Et In Arcadia Ego: Essays on Death in the Pastoral Novel).
Art critics have surmised that Poussin, when painting his first and second versions of his ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ - he used in the first version, as a model for the tomb central to the painting that tomb described in the writings by the poet Virgil, the description of Daphnis tomb. In this poem, the occupant is male. However, in the much more famous second version of the ‘Shepherds of Arcadia' (in the Louvre) Poussin seems to have used the poem of Sannazaro and his description for his artistic Arcadian tomb. Except in Sannazaro’s tomb the occupant has changed sex and is a female.
Virgils tomb of Daphnis is described as follows in Virgil's Eclogues V, 42ff:
"A lasting monument to Daphnis raise
With this inscription to record his praise;
'Daphnis, the fields' delight, the shepherds' love,
Renown'd on earth and deifi'd above;
Whose flocks excelled the fairest on the plains,
But less than he himself surpassed the swains."
Above: Daphnis tomb. From Virgil, Opera (Lyons, 1517).The tomb-inscription, "Daphnis ego in sylvis" ("I Daphnis in the woods"), is from Virgil, Ecl. 5.43.
Later Sannazaro depicted this Arcadian tomb as follows in lines 257-267 (relating to the tomb of Phyllis). He mused:
“I will make thy tomb famous and renowned among these rustic folk. Shepherds shall come from the hills of Tuscany and Liguria to worship this corner of the world solely because thou hast dwelt here once. And they shall read on the beautiful square monument the inscription that chills my heart at all hours, that makes me strangle so much sorrow in my breast: 'She who always showed herself so haughty and rigid to Meliseo now lies entombed, meek and humble, in this cold stone'."
According to Poussin’s first biographer Bellori, the idea for the ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ came from Rospigliosi, a prelate of the Roman Catholic church and later Pope. Bellori was at the time a good friend of Poussin (1) and he suggested that it was not only the idea of the Arcadian painting that Rospigliosi gave to Poussin, but to two other paintings around the same time (which we will identify later). These assertions by Bellori seem to have been accepted by art scholars such as Marin. Marin even goes so far as to say that it was Rospigliosi who:
‘ ..invented the phrase ‘et in arcadia ego…’ (2).
Bellori refers to these Rospigliosian group of three paintings as ‘moral poems’ (3) and he ascribes all the ideas in them to Rospigliosi. Then if an important ‘secret’ was hidden in the ‘Arcadia’ painting surely Rospigliosi must have known of it too? How would Rospigliosi have gotten this knowledge and why encode it and why ask Poussin to encode it in a painting?
Perhaps it was through a society such as the Arcadian Academy? Was the continuation of an idea or of particular knowledge entrusted to exceptional artists, poets and clergy? The members of this Arcadian Academy set up by Queen Christina assumed classical Greek names & they were interested in all things Arcadian! Its first president was Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni (4). Other members included people like Gravina, Guidi & Gabrielle Rossetti, father of the English poets Dante Gabriel & Christina Rossetti. The members referred to themselves as ‘shepherds’ and their first gathering was held in the year of 1690, in the Giancola, which was owned by the Franciscans. Noblemen, ecclesiastics and layman alike were allowed to join.
In this they seemed to have been emulating an earlier ’Shepherds of Arcadia’ society created by Lorenzo de Medici (1449 - 1492) consisting of painters and poets that Lorenzo surrounded himself with at his villa. Lorenzo's court included artists such as Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi, and Michelangelo Buonarroti who were involved in the 15th century Renaissance. Although Lorenzo did not commission many works himself, he helped artists secure commissions from other patrons. Michelangelo lived with Lorenzo and his family for several years, dining at the family table and attending meetings of the Neo-Platonic Academy. Cosimo de Medici (a relative of Lorenzo de Medici) had started the collection of books which later became the Medici Library and he had sought to expand it. Lorenzo's agents retrieved from the East large numbers of classical works and he employed a large workshop to copy his books and disseminate their content across Europe. He supported the development of humanism through his circle of scholarly friends who studied Greek philosophers and he attempted to merge the ideas of Plato with Christianity. Among this group were the philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.
Rospigliosi was an ardent admirer of Queen Christina. He also knew Guercino via Christina and Guercino is known to have been the first ever painter to use the enigmatic ‘et in arcadia ego…’ phrase.
Beresford (a modern art critic) tells us to be on our guard, however, regarding the assertion that Rospigliosi gave Poussin the idea of the ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ because the theme had indeed been dealt with earlier by Guercino (5). However Beresford misses the point. Christina is known to have taken an interest in Guercino’s work, even visiting him in his Bologna studio. As Rospigliosi was such an intimate friend of Christina’s couldn’t it be that Rospigliosi may have known Guercino through Christina and given him the idea of his ’particular’ theme of Arcadia in much the same way he did for Poussin?
However, a modern biographer of Poussin, Judith Bernstock reports that most historians concur that Poussin probably saw Guercino’s painting with the ‘et in arcadia ego’ phrase during his stay in Venice in March 1624. This is assuming that the Guercino painting was still in the environs of Bologna. However, others assert that Urban VIII, a writer of elegiac verses bought it soon after his accession in 1623 and that Poussin may have seen it in Rome in a Barberini collection.
What other source rather than Rospigliosi could have been the source for Poussin’s knowledge of Guercino? It may have been Poussin’s good friend Marino. This poet was in contact with Lodovico Carracci with whom Guercino later studied. Marino was patronised by Cosimo II de Medici and as we read above it was Lorenzo de Medici who had created the ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ society. It was this Medici which commissioned from Guercino the painting called ‘Apollo Flaying Marsyas’ in 1618. It is evident from this painting (see below) that Guercino’s later painting ‘Et in arcadia ego’ was a study. This theme of Apollo Flaying Marsyas was a classicising metaphor of Christ’s sacrifice.
Above: Guercino’s painting called ‘Apollo Flaying Marsyas’ (1618) See the two shepherds watching the sacrifice on the left? They are identical to the shepherds who later observe the ‘et in arcadia’ tomb (below)
As stated above Rospigliosi not only asked Poussin to paint ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ but also the following: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (ca. 1630’s) & ‘Time Saving Truth’ (ca. 1630’s). These group of three are all said to have been inspired by Rospigliosi and perhaps are even to be ‘read’ together. As Cavendish noted in his ‘Poussin, The Great Artists (No:64)’, Poussin himself said his paintings had a definite and perhaps even secret import when he suggested that “ …these things, (the meaning in his paintings) I believe, will not displease those people who know how to read them”. And modern art scholar Judith Bernstock also supports the theory that to ‘receive Poussin’s paintings …..one must study them continually and closely, always searching them for connections’ In other words, one must read all his paintings together for some unified ‘message’. For as Bernini said, Poussin was ‘an artist who works up here (with his brain), and a great storyteller’. What story is Poussin trying to tell us?
Below: Poussin’s Time and Truth trilogy
Above; Poussin's Dance to the Music of Time, Truth Rescued from envy and discord and the Shepherds of Arcadia
When looking at the titles of the three paintings Rospigliosi commissioned from Poussin, perhaps Rospigliosi intended for us to look at them as ‘one whole’ considering the fact that he commissioned them as a set of three? The recurrent themes are time and truth and in Poussin’s era these artistic themes were common. Was Poussin utilising in these allegories a unique and special knowledge, a secret perhaps given to him to encode?
For now though we will note that these artistic themes are represented by such examples as engravings by Baudet & Dughet (6), sculptures by Bernini (7) and even from the writings of Francis Bacon. Bacon detailed a ‘hidden truth brought forth by time’. His ‘truth’ figure is indeed drawn forth by ‘time’, in the form of a naked woman being pulled out of a cave. Time grasps her by her left wrist. (Apparently this illustration is also constructed upon a hidden geometry which is divided into the zodiac). This time and truth emblem is to be found as a woodblock on the title page of Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis’ (8). The emblem itself depicts time in the form of Saturn, or interestingly enough as Pan (some posit that the statue of the devil in Berenger Sauniere’s church is not, in fact, the devil … but Pan). We have already mentioned the Arcadian Academy, and the extra special god of this Academy was indeed Pan. Pan was celebrated as the author of sacred dancing which was said to ‘imitate’ the movements of the heavenly bodies (echoing the idea in Poussins ‘Dance to the Music of Time‘). The pipes of Pan were thought to signify the natural harmony of these upper spheres, and Pan himself was equated with Saturn because the planet Saturn is found in the constellation of Capricorn, whose zodiacal sign is a goat. (Pan had cloven hooves like a goat).
Corresponding in some mysterious way to these musings is a statement made by Marin. He says that the shadow of the arm of one of the shepherds (in the ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ painting) points to the letter ‘R’ of the motto inscribed on the tomb and its shadow forms the shape of a ‘scythe’. The scythe is an attribute of Saturn who reigns over the Arcadian Golden Age’. This theme, again, is a recurrent idea among artists who refer to the golden age ‘having passed away’ and of the golden age which is waiting to be restored. In a letter to his son, Nostradamus tells him that ‘the monarchy and the golden age will return’.
Bernini's ‘Truth Unveiled by Time’ (pictured below) has truth once again personified as a naked woman. Unfortunately he never got round to sculpturing the figure of time, although we do know that he fully intended to do so.
Above - Bacons 'hidden truth' brought forth by Time.
We can see here then that truth is usually portrayed as a woman. Levi said: “The association between Truth and … Woman is omnipresent in mythology. In Egypt, Truth was represented as a goddess, Maat. In Hebrew, the same goddess became the word Emeth, which means "Truth". In Mesopotamia, Inanna - Ishtar, the goddess of sacred harlots and fertility, was associated with wisdom. In Greece, the goddess of Wisdom was Athena, who was also called Meter (mother). She is a later evolution of Medusa, herself strongly associated with primal wisdom. Sophia, which in Greek means "wisdom", is feminine, and became also a personal name. In Hebrew, where official censorship was able to repress every image of a goddess, all the concepts associated with truth, wisdom, intellectual penetration etc. are feminine: Torah (the written law), Mishnah, Ghemarah (the oral law), Emeth (truth), Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), Daa't (knowledge).” (www.geocities.com/psychohistory2001/truthwoman.html)
Above - Egyptian personification of truth.
Truth has traditionally been personified as a naked woman -- Bernini's example is famous -- and nakedness in general has been understood as a revelation of raw, vulnerable existence. The body is presented as naked as the day on which it is born, hardly ready to take on the world. The naked body is the moment of truth, and the naked truth is something we prefer to avoid, and often refuse to see, even when it stares us in the face. The naked body thus poses a moment of truth for the viewer: it demands that we strip the veil of preconception from our eyes, forcing them to see what is in fact right in front of them. That is, to really see the naked figure, the eye must become as naked -- exposed or "open," as it were -- as it is.” (Kuspit: http://www.artnet.com/magazine/features/kuspit/kuspit11-12-01.asp )
Henceforth, truth is not just like a woman, but it is a woman. The later overlay, namely the metaphor or the allegory, is engendered in a concrete thing - the naked woman becomes “Truth”.
When we look at the next ‘moral poem’ in Poussin’s trilogy on truth and time, in ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ we find the concept of time and human destiny. Poussin’s ‘Time Saving Truth’ may be a further allusion to ‘time’ one day revealing a ‘truth’, but until but until then, truth is being hidden, concealed and protected. It is like a tradition concerning that truth – which has to be hidden – until a better time arrives – when it will then be appropriate to reveal it.
Because the ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ is so central a mystery and perhaps related to Rennes Le Chateau and because the shepherds are contemplating a tomb – could this be the common denominator in the three paintings together? Is the secret that the shepherds are privy to, or contemplating, be the truth that is being hidden? And that it is to do with a tomb, and its inscription? And the occupant of that tomb? A female?
The motto ‘et in arcadia ego …’ reinforces perhaps the idea of mortality, destiny & time as in ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. Panofsky(9) translated the motto ‘et in arcadia ego …’ as something like ‘even I death am in Arcadia’, Arcadia being some sort of beautiful Virgilian idyll, where after death, we all would like to be.
However, Panofsky is a more modern translator of the tomb inscription. I believe we must go back through time, back to those who were contemporary with Poussin, and who might therefore have had a better idea of the meaning of the motto, and who indeed may have known how Poussin intended us to read & understand the motto. Thus, it is to our friend Bellori we now return. It is Bellori who made the first ever translation of ‘et in arcadia ego …’ and who is to say that he is less informed than we are? Bellori’s translation of the motto was:
‘the grave is to be found, even in Arcady’ (10).
Poussin’s second biographer, Felibien (a pupil of Poussin’s) also translated this motto as the following:
‘the person buried in this tomb had lived in Arcady’ (11).
Let us remember that Gombrich insists that Bellori correctly translated the motto, and furthermore argues that it is the person buried in the tomb who is speaking to us. Therefore is the person in the tomb the important point? Is there someone literal in the tomb who lived in the area in times gone by who is of significance? A writer, Weighell (1987) refers to Poussin’s ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ (both versions) and his painting of 1633 ‘the Adoration of the Shepherds’
Above - the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Shepherds of Arcadia.
He suggests a direct link between the paintings because the three shepherds and one shepherdess in both paintings are almost the same figures. In particular he highlights the astounding virtually identical shepherd pointing at the tomb inscription in ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ (Louvre version) and the shepherd kneeling to adore the Virgin and Child in the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’. Is it allegorical with a layer of meaning? Does the shepherd in one point to the baby Christ, in the other he points to Christ’s tomb?
We have already seen earlier that Poussin may have used two models for the tombs in his two versions of ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’. The famous ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ appears to have utilised Sannazaro’s description of an arcadian tomb, a tomb that contained the body of a woman. The poet had described that body of the woman and said that she will become famous in the land that she is entombed and that she will be ‘worshipped’ by the rustic folk. Was then Poussin drawing attention to the burial of a woman in a certain landscape?
The two people nearest Poussin in time seem to be telling us that Poussin, (via the motto inscribed on the tomb) could have been leading us to contemplate a specific grave, and perhaps even a specific person.
Is there any particular reason why Poussin (and Rospigliosi) would want to draw our attention to a particular grave & a particular person? Is this grave of an important person described as that ‘hidden truth’ that time has protected, and which time will reveal? The next most obvious and most pressing questions are of course ‘Which tomb’ and ‘who’s tomb’?
There are only two historical people that have been described in concepts such as ‘truth’ and ‘naked truth’. They are also the two historical figures which crop up time and time again in the researches of Rennes Le Chateau. In fact, they are the two most common solutions to its mystery! They are Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ.
In her work on Mary Magdalene Susan Haskins identified Mary as the origin of the vanitas figure (12). This was because the Magdalene had been associated with the ‘supposed’ vanity of all women & to which made Mary symbolic of the ‘fall’ of women from a perfect state into all that is vain. The Magdalene, to illustrate this concept, was often depicted as a penitent in her grotto or cave and in this way she became emblematic of all human frailty. As a penitent in her cave, she is usually depicted naked, or in various states of undress, with her long hair (often blonde) flowing. This nakedness of Mary Magdalene has, by certain artists, come to represent Truth, the naked truth (13). During the Renaissance the Magdalene was used to depict ‘naked truth, obviously allied to the discussions above concerning naked women personifying truth. Could Mary Magdalene be the truth referred to by Poussin and others?
However she is not the only person who could be ‘truth’. Christ himself has been depicted nude, and he has also been described as a ‘nude veritas’ and through this, he symbolises naked truth.
Above - two paintings showing Mary Magdalene as naked truth and penitent.
Above: Jesus Christ shown as naked truth (Ravenna).
If truth is to be found in Arcadia – where then is Arcadia? Does it have a material and earthly place, as opposed to its heavenly and astronomical associations? We know about the geographical area of Arcadia in Greece, but could there be somewhere else indicated, which is more pertinent to Poussin and any of his three paintings referred to here?
We must, I believe, go back once again to Bellori and Felibien who translated Arcadia as ARCADY. Some see this as a ‘poetical’ rendering of the same heavenly utopia, symbolising all sorts of ideas including the ‘golden age’. But what if Bellori & Felibien did not intend the symbolic? At least one author describes Arcadia & Arcady as the PAYS MYTHIQUE (mythical country), the geographical area known as the Pays d’Arques – ie the country of Arques (14). We know, of course, that Poussin’s tomb in his ‘Shepherds of Arcadia’ has been said to have represented a tomb in the area of Rennes-le-Chateau, and in particular a tomb at Arques. This is especially relevant as the right hand side of the painting does indeed bear a striking resemblance to the local landscape around Arques. The arguments as to whether Poussin had been to the South of France, and whether he had actually ‘seen’ the tomb (if it was there during his time) is largely irrelevant. Poussin associated with individuals who were on intimate terms with the Joyeuse family. This family owned the land at Arques, and presumably the land that the tomb of Arques may have been situated on. Knowledge of the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau could have been transmitted to Poussin by any number of people. We also know that Poussin lived for three years in Lyon (which after all is not too far from the Aude).
The legends of this particular area of France also claim to ‘hide’ a very important burial. They revolve around two people, the historical figures of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. In fact the ‘legends’ speak of a huge underground temple, a necropolis of major importance containing several ancient burials which would seem to have been known by the heretics of the Middle Ages.
Above - The right hand section of Poussin's 'Shepherds of Arcadia' painting, said to bear some resemblance to the landscape of Arques, when viewed from a certain direction by the 'Poussin tomb' at Pontils.
This landscape is shown below in a recent photograph.
It is interesting to note that the tomb appeared in the lifetime of Sauniere and one wonders whether it was built over the site of an original tomb or perhaps made to fit .....