Unknown Masters    The Shepherds of Arcadia
Nicolas Poussin’s Shepherds of Arcadia is a painting at the centre of the controversy of the Priory of Sion. New evidence is able to offer a final analysis of this famous painting, which offers intriguing prospects on the worship of the dead… and the elixir of life.
by Philip Coppens

The Shepherds of Arcadia is a painting from the hand of the French painter Nicolas Poussin. It exists in two versions. Our interest is in the second version, now on display in the Louvre. The painting has become a key ingredient in the enigma of the so-called Priory of Sion, because a code indicates that “Poussin has the key”.

Henry Lincoln, who popularized the enigma of the Priory in the Anglophone countries, requested that Christopher Cornford of the Royal College of Art performed an expertise on Poussin’s techniques. Cornford concluded that at the base of this painting is a pentagram, which Poussin had used for the composition of the characters on the fabric. For Lincoln, it was the green light to conclude that the territory of Rennes-le-Château and other villages were built on a pentagonal design, which for him remains the true secret of Rennes-le-Château. Nevertheless, one needs to ask how Saunière had the possibility of receiving millions of francs from his benefactors because of some type of sacral geometry. At the very least, there needs to be more to it than that… A sacral geometry in the landscape of the Aude has probably nothing to do with Poussin. But this Poussin painting remains of interest, if only because of the use of the inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO.

Latin is often without the inclusion of the verb “to be”, so that this sentence is actually saying: “And in Arcadia I am…” the central question is who is this person that says he is there. A second question has to be: why is there an “and”? This suggests a preceding sentence: “This, blablabla, and I am in Arcadia…”.

This version goes back to ca. 1640. Poussin apparently used the poem of Jacopo Sannazaro, dating from 1502, who transforms the Arcadia of Virgil in a Utopian world. Apparently, the specific lines of interest of this poem are 257-267 and speak about the tomb of Phyllis: “I will make your tomb famous among these rustic people. The shepherds will come from the hills of Tuscany and Liguria to adore this corner of the world only because you were here in the past. And they will read on the beautiful square monument the inscription which pains my heart at all time, and the scars strangle me with so much pain inside: ‘she who was always shown so haughty and rigid in Meliseo we now find buried, soft and humiliated, in this cold stone’.”

First observation: this inscription is different from the inscription in the Poussin painting: ET IN ARCADIA EGO.

This contradiction was noticed, because in 1672, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, in the first Poussin biography, explains that “… the tomb must be found in Arcadia and there death occurs even in those pleasurable surroundings”. He adds that the topic “was apparently suggested by pope Clement IX, when he was a prelate”. In 1685, the second biography, of Andre Félibien, thinks that “this inscription underlines the fact that the person buried in this tomb lived in Arcadia”. Too many researchers pay only attention to this inscription. Such an approach is difficult to validate, because it is a detail, which excludes the other aspects from this painting. Equally, Lincoln made too much about another detail of the landscape in the background, which for him is identical to the landscape near Rennes-le-Château. The original painting, from 1629 Few people have studied the characters – the shepherds – that are obviously the main focus. It is noted that these characters are painted with a very visible symmetry: the two figures on the extreme left and right-hand side place a hand on the tomb. Those in the middle are sitting, and with their fingers indicate letters of the inscription. But it appears difficult to go beyond these initial observations?

It was Henri de Lens who saw the correspondence between these characters and the constellations: “the shepherdess on the right-hand side is the constellation Virgo. The shepherd on the shoulder of Virgo is without any possible doubt the constellation Bootes, known as the “shepherd”. One even took the care to paint him with a foot on a stone, which corresponds with the old representations of the Shepherd. The shepherd of the left, knelt and indicating one of the letters of the inscription, is none other than the constellation of Hercules, whose position is thus characteristic [of his constellation].” De Lens then observes that the whole of the characters on the Poussin fabric are stars suspended on the fabric of the sky; their position on the fabric conforms to their positions in the sky.

It is noted, nevertheless, that for the moment, we have identified only three characters. De Lens identifies the man on the left with Andromeda. It is however difficult to subscribe to such an identification, because Andromeda is female, and the man on the left is clearly male. Because of that, Frederic Pineau and Gerard Lacoste in the “Tomb of Virgil”, propose that the fourth character is Serpens. Although this would make it appear that the man should be a serpent, Serpentarius himself – linked with this constellation – is identified as a male. However, and more importantly, it is noted that Serpens is also identified with Asclepius, the god of medicine; thus, we have a male god, who thus qualifies for the identification on the painting. Let us study, in detail, these constellations. The identification of the woman on the right as the constellation of the Virgin is logical. This constellation is very popular. She symbolizes justice, but also the harvest. In a Catholic interpretation, she is the mother of Jesus. Virgo, the Virgin, is also known as Astraea. She was the daughter of Jupiter and Themses. The Virgin is only one of three female constellations. The others are Andromeda and Cassiopeia. The Virgin searches for peace on the ground, but does not find it anywhere, thus decides to live in the sky.

In Greek mythology, Bootes and the Virgin are also linked by a legend. Bootes is Icarius, an Athenian who received the secret to create wine from Dionysos. Unfortunately, Icarius gives this product to some peasants, who become drunk, but they think that they are poisoned, and then decide to kill Icarius. Erigone, his daughter, finds his tomb, and decides to hang herself. Zeus decides to transfer them to the night’s sky, she as Virgo, Icarius as Bootes. The presence of a tomb is noted, but it is quite clear that Icarius cannot find his own tomb… Thus… we need to continue… Hercules The second person (from the left) is Hercules. He is on his knees, and one notes that this constellation, in Antiquity and at the beginning of the 17th century, such as for example in the Uranometria from Bayer (1603), is depicted as the “man with the knee” (the Kneeler in English).

Hercules is normally painted with a stretched hand, normally holding an arrow – “arc” in French. Sagitta is the arrow, pointed in the direction of two birds: the eagle, Aquila, and the swan, Cygnus. Even though our person in the painting is not holding an arrow… one notes that Hercules has a stretched hand, with which he indicates the letter R of… Arcadia… a word which contains the word arc… Coincidence? I would rather think it is a very intelligent detail painted by Poussin, which reinforces the bond between Hercules and Arc-adia. In the area of the constellation Virgo, one finds the constellation Bootes, that of Herdsman, or Shepherd. It is noted that the painting is called the Shepherds of Arcadia. Nobody has asked the question about what type of shepherds we are supposed to see. It cannot automatically be assumed these are sheep-shepherds, which the presence of a woman might indicate. But one needs to note that on the painting, the woman is without stick (the shepherd’s staff), which can possibly exclude her from the company of the shepherds, who would thus be three men strong. Note: Bootes, one knows, is a shepherd of bears. His bond with the bear is undoubtedly the result of his position within reach of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. It is said that it was Bootes who chases the Great Bear around the Pole star.

One also notes that the principal star of Bootes is Arcturus, or Arktouros: the ‘Ox Guard ‘. The star sits on the “left knee” of the constellation Bootes. It is the fourth most luminous star in the sky. Arcturus is also known as the “Guard of the Scandinavian Skies”, which betrays his role of guardian. One needs to observe that on Poussin’s painting, Bootes points with his left hand to the tomb, and that his left knee (Arcturus) touches the inscription… and that thus his left knee… is close to Arcadia. Arc-adia; Arc-turus… One such occurrence could be chance, but twice? As such, we definitely need to ask the question whether the references to “Arc” are by design – the design of the intellect of Poussin, who thus gives confirmation of a stellar connotation to the painting. Bootes The constellation Serpens is seen as a unique constellation, as it exists in two parts: Serpens Caput, the head of the snake, and Serpens Cauda, the tail of the snake. But! In between both “parts” sits the constellation Ophiuchus, known as the Support of Snake. But what De Lens or other researchers have not noticed is that the constellation of Ophiuchus is also known as… “the coffin”. And with this observation, one can conclude that not only the characters in this painting are constellations, but that the tomb equally has a stellar aspect to it: that of Ophiuchus. Moreover, it is noted that the relationship between Serpens and Ophiuchus is visible in the position and the relationship of the man on the left and the tomb, which thus continues the rapport that links the placement of the foot of Bootes, and the relative position of Virgo, making the painting conform with a section of the night’s sky. Was it possible that Poussin possessed such stellar knowledge? The constellations which we have identified were all on the list of Ptolemy and thus well-known in the 17th Century. But with the relationship of Serpens and Ophiuchus, one observes an interesting detail, which the astronomers qualify as typically 17th Century, i.e. the Poussin era. They observe that before this century, Serpens and Ophiuchus were normally seen as only one constellation, a kind of “great constellation”, divided into several parts. In the 17th Century, it was referred to as Serpens and Ophiuchus, and also received a legend linking it with the foundation of medicine. Why “the coffin”? Ophiuchus, one says, resembles the surface of a coffin – a tomb. True, but it is only the most elementary layer. In the legends, Ophiuchus – Asclepius – was known as the god of medicine… but also as a mythical healer who could raise the dead!

One can now understand the inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO, and why it is on the tomb: “and even in Arcadia one finds death…” That the subject referred to should be death, is nothing more than the standard interpretation that many have offered as to what was implied. What most critics have missed, is the ability to underpin their conclusion with a logical argument. The resulting question therefore is whether the group of shepherds was painted to indicate that there is somebody amongst them who can raise the dead – and may be able to raise the person inside the tomb – irrelevant of who is inside the tomb… Asclepius is well-known for his staff, around which runs a snake, which enforces his identification with Serpens. It is noted that Poussin painted the person with his staff, but has not incorporated the serpent, thus leaving that ultimate identification only to those who have made the proper identification. After all, if a staff with a circling serpent had been painted by our French master, it would have been a dead giveaway of the identity of this man…

Asclepius appears in various myths. He was the surgeon of the Argonauts, and elsewhere is present in their boat, the Argo – even though this constellation is one of the southern skies. One says that he was able to raise people from the dead, the list including Glaucos, the son of king Minos of Crete. Indeed, it is said that he raised an enormous amount of people – spirits – from death.

When Asclepius tries to revive Orion, who was bitten by a scorpion, his actions are finally noted by the gods. Pluto starts to complain. He says so to Zeus, the supreme deity, that if Asclepius perseveres on his present course and continues to raise the dead, Hades, the kingdom of dead, under the rule of Pluto, will soon be empty. Zeus agrees with Pluto, indicating that the gods cannot allow men to become immortal. Zeus therefore kills Asclepius with lightning, places him in the sky, with Serpens, the symbol for the renewal of life. Asclepius learned the curative art from Chiron. Some myths say that Asclepius received this wisdom by observing a snake. After he killed it, he saw another serpent, with a herb in his mouth. Asclepius took this herb and from that moment had the power to revive.

Apollodorius indicates that it was Athena who gave him a magical potion, namely the distilled blood of the Gorgon. The legend indicates that the blood of the Gorgon has a specific effect, depending on which side of its body the blood was taken. If taken from the right side of the Gorgon, it has a miraculous effect and would be able to bring the dead back to the life, but taken from the left side, it is a mortal poison. This underlines the mythical message that the snakes symbolize the two essential characteristics: positive and negative.

With such a magic potion, Asclepius has a capacity that is above the mandate of the majority of the mortals. Therefore, he drew the attention of the gods, and apparently Zeus was even more offended as Asclepius accepted money in exchange for raising the dead. The crime of Asclepius was that he was a man, who had the ability to revive the dead. This, in the eyes of the gods, could not continue. As such, Zeus took his life and transformed him into an immortal, a constellation. It is an interesting punishment, underlining that the “crime” is severe from the perspective that it breaks the “rules of life” the gods have given to humans, but that it is not a “genuine crime”; Asclepius is just to clever to remain a mortal…

It should be noted that the same “fate” applies to the other characters on Poussin’s painting: Hercules, after performing his works, was poisoned and ascended to the sky from his funeral pyre. Poussin has painted the “as above, so below”, but has not painted the gods as “above”, but as below, turning the immortal constellations into shepherds. Even though dead exists in Paradise – Arcadia – these shepherds had experienced dead, but had also become immortal. Though death may be present, they are no longer subject to it.

Let us conclude with a final important observation: the blood of the Gorgon, from the right side, can be seen as the “elixir of life”, which can be seen as the elixir that makes men immortal – though not in the same sense as the immortality of the gods, but in the sense that death, by the grace of this potion, can be conquered by man. It thus underlines the two possibilities of immortality: one by the grace of the gods, the other by magical practices. Is this the secret of Poussin? We note that in the writings of the Priory of Sion, or rather in the research into that organisation, performed by the French author Gérard de Sède, there is a letter between the two brothers Fouquet, dated to ca. 1656. It is a letter from Louis to his brother Nicolas, the right hand man of the French king, Louis XIV. Louis reports that while in Rome, he met with Nicolas Poussin and that the latter possesses certain information that will be able to give the person aware of this, certain privileges, even with the king… For obvious reasons, Louis does not commit to paper what this “secret” is, but informs his brother they will talk about it next time they meet. A decade later, Nicolas spectacularly falls from grace, and the king personally decides to round up and inspect his former aide’s personal belongings himself, obviously looking for something. What exactly has never been satisfactory explained, with the official charge being fraud, but which nevertheless resulted in a most severe imprisonment for Nicolas, whom for the rest of his life was not allowed to talk to a single person, his prison warden living in the same isolation as Nicolas. Asclepius It is logical that Louis would have told Nicolas of Poussin’s secret at their next encounter. Would Nicolas on his term have “informed” the French king? Or worse, tried to get certain “privileges” from the king, the latter not taking kindly to this type of blackmail?

It is a possibility, which does, however, takes us far from the immediate subject of the painting: an enigmatic scene, whereby the constellation of the skies were transposed on the landscape of Arcadia, with the possible message that death is more intriguing that most of Poussin’s contemporaries felt it was. At its core, it may have been a message on death, but also on alchemy, and the “elixir of life”, which were sought by many in the 17th century, whereby Poussin may have injected a more original, Greek flavour into the debate, in the most artistic manner imaginable, and perhaps to underline that true immortality should not be the bailiwick of mortals, whereby any dabbling, would eventually receive the wrath of the gods… who should remain solely in charge of the rules of immortality. This article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets 4 (2006).