Templar Mysteries

The Shepherds of Arcadia/The Flaying of Marsyas

One of the key themes used in The Larmenius Inheritance was the importance of two paintings by the Italian Baroque artist Guercino. Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591–1666), or Guercino, was indeed a famed painter. Among his famous works were the two used in this novel.

The first is The Shepherds of Arcadia, painted by Guercino 1616–22, now on display in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. The painting itself is a memento mori, demonstrating the instance when two shepherds come face to face with death. The picture is also the first known to include the Latin saying Et In Arcadia Ego. As described in the novel, it concerns two shepherds looking at a skull atop a tomb – or, according to others, a cippus. A mouse is also present close to the scalp, in addition to either a bee or a blowfly. A bird of some description, allegedly an owl, sits perched on a branch in the top right.

The painting has connections with the other Guercino painting mentioned in this novel, The Flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, and was completed around the same time. In Greek mythology, Marsyas was a man famed for his wisdom and the central character in two stories: most famously, his challenging, or being challenged, to a flute contest by Apollo and losing. As a result, Apollo gets to treat the loser in the way he desires. In the flaying scene, the two shepherds from the first painting are also present, though the skull and tomb are both absent.

The Shepherds of Arcadia is particularly fascinating. Many reading this will be aware that its main claim to fame is that it shares a title with one by the French painter Nicolas Poussin.

Like Guercino, Poussin was a historical figure, but his memory is clouded in controversy – not to mention inaccuracies. That said, there are also some pretty spectacular known facts. The original painting of The Shepherds of Arcadia is kept at the Musée du Louvre, in Paris, and depicts three shepherds and a woman gathered around a tomb. Almost certainly inspired by Guercino, Poussin was commissioned to paint the shepherds’ painting by an Italian cardinal, Giulio Rospigliosi, who would later be remembered as Pope Clement IX.

Even more incredibly, the King of France, Louis XIV, was unquestionably interested in Poussin. While in Rome, Poussin was apparently visited by a Louis Fouquet, brother of Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finances to Louis XIV 1653–61. In a letter, dated 17 April 1656, between Louis and Nicolas Fouquet, Louis went into detail of his meeting with Poussin, stating:

He and I planned certain things, which I shall with ease be able to explain to you shortly – 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 rediscover in the centuries to come. And what is more, these are things so difficult to discover that nothing now on Earth can prove of better fortune nor be their equal.

The meaning of this letter has never successfully been explained, making for some pretty elaborate theories. While much of this is conjecture, one aspect that cannot be doubted is Louis XIV’s own interest in Poussin. The king later confiscated Fouquet’s correspondence, and Louis eventually succeeded in purchasing several of Poussin’s paintings for his private quarters.

Unfortunately, the exact meaning of the phrase Et In Arcadia Ego has also come into question – totally unnecessarily. Though the phrase is indeed subject to ambiguity, Arcadia could mean Heaven or an area in Greece, the painting’s standing as a memento mori in an age when such paintings were famous seems a reasonable conclusion. In his poetic work of 1504, entitled Arcadia, the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro had already spoken of Arcadia as a lost world of utopian quality.

Unlike the Guercino painting, the work by Poussin has been the subject of interest because of the position of at least two of the shepherds’ hands. This is particularly interesting and also inspired me in this novel. Matt Anson is drawn to Acadia by the covering of the letter R in the Guercino image on the monument. A similar argument has been put forward regarding the Shugborough monument.

Another intriguing historical enigma is Poussin’s tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo at Lucina, located in Rome. The church is old, allegedly built on ruins linked to an ancient Christian cult. Among its peculiarities is a doorway leading to a throne, once used by the popes in Privy Council meetings. Within this church is a monument to Poussin erected in 1832. Included below his bust is another engraving of the Arcadian shepherds, in addition to a memorial written in Latin.

Parce Piis Lacrimis Vivit Pussinus In Urna
Vivere Qui Deder At Nescius Ipse Mori
Hic Tamen Ipse Silet Si Vis Audire Loquentem
Mirum Est In Tabulis Vivit Et Eloquitur

Or as it reads in English

Hold back your pious tears, Poussin lives in this tomb
He had given his life without knowing how to die,
He keeps quiet in here but if you want to hear him speak
It is surprising how he lives and talks in his paintings.

The monument was paid for by his fellow countryman, the novelist François-René de Chateaubriand. Apart from finding fame as the apparent founder of ‘romanticism’ in French literature, Chateaubriand was also a stout defender of the Catholic faith.

For the conspiracy theorist, there is more than enough material here for one’s head to explode. For those who love their history, connection to the line “without knowing how to die” fits in very nicely with another of history’s enigmatic characters: the Comte de St Germain – that elegant Frenchman who never seemed to grow old and whose legendary identity has linked him with everyone from the Wandering Jew to the Man in the Iron Mask. Intriguingly, this brings me on to another facet of the novel.