I now reside in a small port town on the east coast of the Peloponnese, Greece, in the province of Arcadia, and was actually born in a nearby mountain village.
When people ask me where I live, I jokingly respond: “Et in Arcadia ego.”
To this some intellectuals have replied: “You Greeks think everything has to do with you. Nicolas Poussin’s painting has nothing to do with Greece. He painted it and it represents Arcadia, France.”
But it doesn’t, for it represents an ancient Arcadian area of the Peloponnese.
For years well-known artists and historians made the argument: “That is impossible, for during Poussin’s lifetime Greece was under Ottoman occupation and the clothing worn by the figures would reflect that.”
I too had heard and read about the mysterious Poussin’s painting (pictured above), and having a background in financial and forensic auditing, and some time on my hands, I thought I would also jump in and give it a shot.
Interestingly, the Wikipedia page which included Poussin’s painting had also included “The Shugborough Shepherds Monument.”
That had been a first big clue that the two were somehow related.
Nicolas Poussin was a leading painter of the classical French Baroque style and had spent most of his working life in Rome. Most of his works were on religious and mythological subjects which were characterized by clarity, logic and order.
The marble relief mirrored Poussin’s painting, except for an extra sarcophagus, which was missing from the painting.
“ET IN ARCADIA EGO” had been chiseled onto the relief where the paining had shown some illegible letters.
I decided to ignore the monument’s mysteries and inconsistencies for they seemed to only confuse.
Instead, I turned my attention the painting and its main mystery: “The shadow that should be but is not of the kneeling man’s hand, but instead was of a sickle.” The shadow of the agricultural tool used for reaping grain crops.
What was Poussin trying to say with the shadow? And why was the second sarcophagus missing from his painting?
Turning my attention back to the marble relief I noticed that it is nothing less than a masterpiece. It must have been created by a very talented sculptor I thought, noticing the very fine chiseled details.
After a bit of research, I found that the monument was said to have been built and sculpted by a Flemish sculptor, Peter Scheemakers, sometime between 1748 and 1763, and that it was commissioned by Thomas Anson and paid for by his brother, Admiral George Anson, both sons of William Anson who had purchased the Shugborough manor in 1624.
Scheemakers was best known for a memorial to William Shakespeare, erected in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. I looked up some of his other work and saw that it was mostly of large statues. His other pieces were nothing like marble reliefs.
Then I noticed something I had missed before: that the two young men portrayed in both pieces had wreaths of olive branches over their heads. This meant that both pieces most likely portrayed the classical Greek period, because that is when the Olympic Games took place. The olive wreath, known as “kotinos,” was the prize for the winners of the games in ancient Olympia.
The wreath, though simple, came with great honor and recognition, and only the winners of the different events got to wear the intertwined olive leaf wreaths on their heads.
Both pieces depict a natural landscape scene, and the tomb located next to what seems to be an olive tree.
Yes, the two young men were holding long thin sticks but that does not necessarily make it “a pastoral scene.” They most likely did so to ward off wild animals, as people that go on nature walks continue to do to this day in Greece.
Had the young men recently competed and won at some Olympic event and afterwards stopped at a family tomb to share their great news with deceased relatives? Had it possibly been a monument honoring a great athlete who had passed? Had it possibly been located in ancient Olympia?
Those were the questions that were going through my mind.
I started looking at the other parts of the monument, for the marble relief is part of a very large monument with two columns on the side and ornate decorations on top and it is almost as tall as the trees found next to it. Now I was starting to wonder more about the monument than the painting. I had a strong suspicion that this is where the answers to the mysteries were found.
It was now clear that Poussin was just doing what other great artists and scientists had done generations before him, during the age of religious intolerance and oppression. Just as Leonardo da Vinci had done, he was hiding messages in his painting for people of the future to figure out.
“Et in Arcadia Ego,” the name of the painting, meant that the monument was from the Arcadia region of the Peloponnese.
The extra sarcophagus missing from the painting ties in with the shadow of the sickle, reflecting that “the monument was taken.”
It had been painted in reverse to draw attention to the monument.
He may also be telling us even more, for the title is all in French except for the word “in” word which is Latin. Was he saying that he had seen it “in” England? Possibly on the grounds of the Shugborough residence a century before the date it was claimed to have been commission and sculpted?
Above the marble relief on the sides of the monument are two stone heads, one showing a smiling man, the other the god Pan and under a large mantel is a meander motif, or the “Greek Key” design.
Yes, I believe this is the case, that it is another case of an important ancient Greek monument sitting on a foreign land.
About the author
Diane Ioannou was living in Southern California when a breakdown brought her back to Greece, to a small port town not far from her birthplace. In this town, she discovered that her background and training as a business consultant, research professional and forensic auditor made her a capable historical analyst, mystery solver and effective code breaker. She began to search for clues into the ancient history, mythology and even magic of the “mythical Peloponnese.” She is now working on a series of books regarding the Peloponnese’s antiquity, which she finds to be full of uncovered mysteries. The recently published series is named “ARTEMIS CHILD,” a title that represents the type of strength and endurance that she has found inside herself to get through a difficult transition.
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