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Et in arcadia Ego

“Et in Arcadia Ego’ Version 2, by Nicolas Poussin.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is the concluding chapter from Jean Seznec’s celebrated study: ‘The Survival of The Pagan Gods’-here in its English translation-Princeton/Bollingen Paperbacks, 1972.


‘At the conclusion of this study, let us attempt to formulate what we have been able to learn from it of the Renaissance, its nature, and the causes of its decline.

The long history of the gods, as we have outlined it here, brings forward a supporting argument for those who refuse to see the Renaissance as a break with the past, an initiation of something completely new. One can no longer speak-at least or not literally-of a ‘rebirth’ of the gods, when one has followed their fortunes, as we have done, from late antiquity on; when one has watched them being absorbed into medieval culture, which saves them from oblivion and protects them from hostility; when one has seen elaborations and new glosses constantly added to that tenacious, uninterrupted tradition which gathers up all that has survived of the fabulous world of the ancient and transmits it as common currency down through the ages; when one has gazed at the great mass of naïve or barbaric images, scattered offshoots of the Olympian line-obscure in their descent, no doubt, but still endowed with the divine right of immortality.

For these last, survivors, the Renaissance was no more than a Fountain of Youth within which to bathe their deformed and important limbs. But, then, for a time, other divinities did eclipse them by their triumphant beauty rising from their ancestral soil after a sleep of a thousand years, having known neither decadence nor exile.

It is indeed worthy of note that during the most radiant period of the Renaissance, the iconographical types that had been ‘handed down’, and therefore altered, were almost everywhere abandoned in favor of types ‘rediscovered’ in their primal purity. It is also significant that during the same period there seems to be an interruption in the mytho-graphical tradition, at least in Italy, (no Italian history of the gods appeared between Boccaccio and Giraldi). It is as if nothing more was needed, in order to know and understand the gods, than to look out at the surrounding world and listen to the voice of instinct; as if man had at last penetrated to the inner meaning of mythology, now he was engaged in rehabilitating, along with physical beauty, the realm of nature and the flesh.

But beneath this gaiety and enthusiasm lurks a stubborn disquiet; just because a ‘pagan’ cult of life is now being professed, with the gods as its incarnation, the need is felt of bringing that cult into line with the spiritualized values of Christianity-of reconciling the two worlds. Humanism and art appear, for a brief moment, to have succeeded in accomplishing this result; the Renaissance, in its moment of flowering, is this synthesis-or rather, that fragile harmony. But the equilibrium is disturbed after only a few decades. The sixteenth century, as it advances, is forced to avow the disaccord which it thought had been successfully hidden. An era of crisis and reaction then dawns. The gods no longer arouse the same sentiments. Zeal is succeeded by admiration grown reticent and overscrupulous; intoxication with beauty, by a cold archeological interest, by a scholarly curiosity. From being objects of love, the gods are transformed into subjects of study. Thus, the medieval tradition of the ‘libri de imaginabus deorum’ is born again, and by a strange cycle of return, the gods of Martianus Capella once more appear. Once more, as in the twilight of the ancient world, the Olympians give way before idols of Egypt and Syria. But at the same time, since the gods cannot be excluded from art, poetry, or education, a compromise is more than ever necessary to satisfy the demands and conventions of morality, and the traditional compromise consists in presenting each of the gods as an edifying symbol. Thus, the allegorical method dear to the Middle Ages flourishes again with new vigor. All mythology is nothing more-or pretends to be nothing more-than a system of ideas in disguise, a ‘secret philosophy’.

Increasingly erudite and diminishingly alive, less and less felt but more and more intellectualized-such, from now on, it seems, is to be the inescapable evolution of mythology. Indeed, the discussion which takes place in seventeenth-century France, for example, on the topic of the ‘merveilleux paien’-the arguments advanced by the defenders of the gods, as well as by their adversaries-give proof of the drying up of poetic sentiment in the realm of Fable, which is now regarded as no more than ‘an amas de nobles fictions’ and ‘ormements reçus’ or as an adjunct in teaching, intended for the edification of the young, and especially, for the instruction of princes.

Nevertheless, in the same century, the very gods, who have been reduced to the function of chamberlains or tutors, experiences astonishing revivals of power and acquire new prestige. At precisely the moment when, in Italian art, mythology is being relegated to the stage machinery of opera, Flanders, with Rubens, recalls it to primitive realities, to brute and elemental force. Sated with wine, gorged with meat and fruits, the gods are nourished to a point where their majesty, it is true, may be lost, but their animal vigor reappears. The naturalism of the North once more lends them its own flesh and blood, while the intoxicating effects of pantheism free them from all restraint.

With Poussin, meditating in Rome in the silence of the ruins, the gods are surrounded by a different atmosphere, strangely dreamlike and grave. We feel that for this artist the world of Fable represents the Golden Age, gone never to return; everything breathes regret for a lost world and for its serene delights.

The fact is that the ancient world has become irrevocably detached from our own; it is an enchanted isle, lost beyond a luminous horizon, forever invisible. The sentiment of nostalgia which pervades the works of Poussin is the fruit, at once bitter and delicious, of the Renaissance; it means that the perspectives of the mind have changed. The notion of antiquity as a distinct historical milieu, as a period that had run its course, did not exist in the Middle Ages; and this is the cause of the relative facility, so surprising to us, with which, in spite of the immense revolution created by Christianity, medieval thought found points of agreement and formulas for reconciliation with the pagan spirit. The Renaissance, on the other hand, perceived this historical distance, and had to make a conscious effort to establish harmony between two worlds separated by a lapse of centuries. When this effort failed, ‘the Antique world…which had proven incompatible with the Christian culture, appeared all the more as a prefect harmony in itself…’ In that world, ‘physical beauty and carnal desires, heroic pathos and playful amorousness had never entered into conflict with moral or theological conceptions. Thus, the classical past becomes, in Baudelaire’s words:

‘the memory of those ages

when beings stronger and more beautiful than ourselves

tasted without deceit or disquiet

the joys of that imaginary kingdom,

that serene Arcadia,

towards which the anguished mind of modern man

turns for refuge among the gods’

The Shugborough relief, adapted from an engraving of Poussin’s second version

“Et in Arcadia Ego’ by Nicolas Poussin:
Et in arcadia Ego

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