Et in Arcadia ego. A Semiotic Exercise regarding the Relation between Text and Image

Author:Cristinel Munteanu
ISSN: 2067 9211 Miscellaneous
Et in Arcadia ego. A Semiotic Exercise regarding the Relation between Text
and Image
Cristinel Munteanu1
Abstract: In this paper I aim at examining the way i n which a famous Latin phrase, Et i n Arcadia ego,
modified its meaning due to a homonymous painting made by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), a French painter.
Initially, the respective Latin phrase may have had the function of explaining or even generating Poussin’s
painting (in its both variants). However, those who interpreted the meaning of the painting also reinterpreted
the inscription inserted in the image and gave it a new meaning. That is why, nowadays, the phrase Et in
Arcadia ego is used and understood exclusively in its latter meaning, and not in its original meaning. In my
analysis, I will start from both Roland Barthes’ remarks concerning the relation between language and image,
and Erwin Panofsky’s commentaries regarding Poussin’s painting, Et in Arcadia ego.
Keywords: semiotics; text and image; Nicolas Poussin; Latin phrase; meaning
1. In most of the bibliographical sources I consulted it is stated that the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego
was used as an inscription for the painting The Arcadian Shepherds, made by the French painter
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), signifying the regret of the lost happiness. Its meaning derives from the
fact that Arcadia, a region in Ancient Greek (in the heart of Peloponnese) inhabited by an innocent
people of shepherds, came to designate in the verses of the old poets (especially in Virgil’s wor ks) an
imaginary country (therefore, a literary realm), a land of purity and joy, a heaven on Earth
symbolizing the idyllic, patriarchal life. The phrase is also used as a reminder of the inconstancy of
1.1. As a matter of fact, Poussin painted The Arcadian Shepherds twice. The earlier variant (around
1630) differs from the latter (around 1640) by an important detail: on the tomb, a skull can be seen, a
symbol of Death (both variants depict a group of people next to a tombstone engraved “Et in Arcadia
ego”). According to many interpreters, the meaning of the Latin inscription is the same, regardless of
the presence or absence of the skull: “Even in Arcady there am I [=Death]”. The French anthropologist
Claude Levi-Strauss shared the same opinion, stating that the woman in a yellow-bluish cloth (from
the latter variant of the painting) personifies Death or at least Destiny.
1 Associate Professor, PhD, “Danubius” University of Galati, Faculty of Communication and International Relations,
Romania, Address: 3 Galati Boulevard, 800654 Galati, Romania, Tel.: +40.372.361.102, fax: +40.372.361.290,
Corresponding author:

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