“Et in Arcadia Ego” is a Sibylline Latin phrase that first appeared in a painting, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino), (1618-1622), depicting two shepherds looking ecstatically at a human skull on a tomb, in a forest. The painting is posted in the National Gallery of Rome (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica).
Shortly afterwards, this expression appears in two paintings by Nicolas Poussin, one of 1627 and one of 1650, entitled The Shepherds of Arcadia. In both of Poussin’s works, three Arcadian shepherds and a woman figures stand next to a tomb they are curious about and seem to wonder about the enigmatic phrase “Et in Arcadia ego” carved into the tombstone. In fact, in the first painting, there seems to be a skull on the tomb – as in Guercino’s painting. The scene reflects a melancholy contemplation of death with the depicted figures possessed by contemplation and deeper reasoning and perhaps melancholy – the feelings of awareness of the ephemeral and transient of life.
The fact that Poussin created two different paintings with the same subject and the same title, 22 years apart, shows that his works did not emerge simply as a personal spontaneous inspiration of the moment but possibly reflected the prevailing social perceptions of that period. This can be seen from the great artistic movement that emerged at that period, with many artists creating paintings and engravings with scenes depicting the Arcadian ideal with idyllic bucolic landscapes starring gods and nymphs – with the god Pan holding a prominent place. Some artists of that movement were Laurent de la Hyre (1606-1656), Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781), Francesco Zuccarelli (1702-1788), Richard Wilson (1714-1782), Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), Leon Vaudoyer (1803-1872), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), George Wilhelm Kolbe (1877-1947), Augustus John (1878-1961), as well as many other contemporaries:
Et In Arcadia Ego – Proekt Fabrika
Et in Arcadia ego – Mark Woods
Et in Arcadia Ego – Johann Louw
Et in Arcadia ego – Harry Steen
Et In Arcadia Ego – Francis Wheatley
Et In Arcadia Ego – Francis Wheatley
Et in Arcadia Ego – Johann Georg Schütz
Et in Arcadia Ego – European School, 18th Century
Et in Arcadia Ego – Alexander Runciman
Et in Arcadia Ego – John G. Boyd
Et In Arcadia Ego – Virgil Mancaş
The expression “Et In Arcadia Ego” was also adopted as his motto by the German writer Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832), in his work “Italian Journey” (1816), after seeing Guercino’s painting. “Et in Arcadia Ego” is also the title of Evelyn Waugh’s book Brideshead Revisited (1945), but also the title of the ninth and tenth episodes of Star Trek: Picard.
Although literally the expression “Et in Arcadia Ego” ( without a verb) translates to “I in Arcadia too“, which is often translated as “even in Arcadia, I am there“, its meaning has not been deciphered. Who is it about? To the unknown dead of the grave? To the owner of the painter’s work? To the Painter himself? To every traveler in Arcadia? or at the end … to Death itself?
Most art critics converge that the message on the stone has been left by Death (“Even in Arcadia, I (Death), I exist“), and that shepherds realize that the phrase means that even in a blissful paradise, like Arcadia, the death is also present, and that life is not eternal.
An alternative explanation is to mean ” and me (the man in the tomb) I also lived in Arcadia“, meaning that the person buried in the tomb once lived (enjoyed the pleasures of life) in the land of Arcadia.
Both versions reflect the view of the time that Arcadia was an idyllic paradise.
The word Arcadia is often depicted with a tombstone or fountain, and associated with an underground stream – it seems to have been the river Alpheus (from Alpha = the source) – which in ancient times was considered sacred – and was believed to have flowed underground and poured out into the fountain of Arethusa in Sicily (Arethusa, Sicily).
The word Arcadia itself is probably composed of the words Arca (= tomb) and Dia (= of Zeus or God), meaning “The Tomb of Zeus” or “Divine Tomb“. See also other etymological versions in Post ARKADIA:
In a mystical approach the expression “Et In Arcadia Ego” rewritten as “I Tego Arcana Dei” meaning “I keep the Secrets of Heaven (= of the God)” was used on Temples’ tombstones, warning the approaching: stay away …
In Jacopo Sannazaro’s book Arcadia (1772) Arcadia is described as Shangri-La! that is, a remote, idyllic, beautiful imaginary place, where life is close to perfection, a utopia …
Theocritus (3rd century BC) contributed to the idealization of Arcadia as a place of bliss with “Romance” and the Roman lyric poet Virgil (70-19 BC) with his work “Elections”, which is a a collection of bucolic poems (where he imitates Theocritus) depicting Arcadia as a dream country, where people were part of wildlife and lived in perfect harmony with it.
This approach later became the “Arcadian Ecology”