Arcadia Ego • Or, the Tomb & the Tree that Weeps


Regarding the grave and the willow… One of the artistic visions that profoundly inspired the Grave Willow project is Et in Arcadia ego, of which there are many iterations. The work is also known as Les bergers d’Arcadie (The Arcadian Shepards). The most well-known version is that of the 17th century French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin:

File:Nicolas Poussin - Et in Arcadia ego (deuxième version).jpg

In other iterations, a youthful shepherdess is depicted roaming through a verdant wood. She is bemused when greeted by a standstill reminder of her own ephemeral fate: an enormous tomb amidst the forest. The most well-known versions depict a group of shepherds partaking in the shared experience of bewildered memento mori.

The image shown above is an Etienne Picart etching based on Nicolas Poussin’s original. The French lettering on the larger image reads:

“Le souvenir de la mort au milieu des prosperitez de la vie. L’Arcàdie est une contrée dont les poetes ont parlé coe d’un pays delicieux et par cette inscription on marque que celuy qui est dans le tombeau estant Arcadien n’a pas esté exempt de la mort.”

Roughly translated:

“The memory of death amidst the prosperities of life. Arcadia is a country whose poets have spoken of as a delicious country and by this inscription we mark that the one who is in the tomb being Arcadian was not exempt from death.”

Such reminders serve as the source of Arcadia ego’s power. Often it is among the dense thickness of the fields that death arrives to make itself known. These meetings and relationships are are fonts of power. Such loci are liminal crossroads. They are also sources of profound misunderstanding and fear. Let us offer to courageously explore the zones between life, death, and vision.

The artist and the mystic both know this relational truth:

To Destroy is to Create — To Create is to Destroy

The spirit of this vision is likewise embodied in the image of the willow tree growing among the grave. Weeping, the willow is not hesitant to mourn. Yet, the willow mourns amidst steady growth and radically transformative life. The verdant life of the willow is born amid the same land which holds the dead, grinding their bodies to dust. In turn, Grave Willow acknowledges this relationship as encompassing both the celebratory song and the dirge. Life is known and celebrated only by virtue of death’s presence — and vice versa. The terra infirma between them is where the Grave Willow dwells.


Image credits in order of appearance:

Kirk after Giovanni Battista Cipriani. The shepherds in Arcadia. 1788. Stipple engraving. London. Image via Wellcome Library digital archives. The image is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Nicolas Poussin. Et in Arcadia ego. 1637-38. Oil on Canvas. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Used according to artistic and educational fair use criteria.

Etienne Picart (1632-1721) after Nicolas Poussin. Four figures contemplate the inscription on a tomb in Arcadia. Paris. Image via Wellcome Library digital archives. The image is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)