what is this painting? is it a monster, a sphinx, a riddle, a mental labyrinth, the resting point of an idea that has travelled thousands of years in the mind of humanity, or a secret guide to the future?
is it in fact a painting, or is it one of those things that transcend art, transcend their form, a question that immortality poses to mortality?
at the center of the painting is the tomb. and at the center of the tomb is the inscription: et in arcadia ego. those four words are among the most debated in the history of art, the most enigmatic, puzzling, mysterious, and endless.
i too have lived in arcadia, the inscription reads. who is the i? is it death? is it the one who died? there is no name on the tomb. so it can’t be the one who is buried in it. the tomb itself seems to be the i; or the unnamed dead within it. this unnaming makes it all of us, therefore it might be anyone who has died. they too have been in arcadia. they too have lived. and now they are dead. we who look upon the painting are implicated. we stand with the shepherds. we too are in arcadia. we are alive. we too will… but if the tomb itself is the one that speaks its own inscription then it is saying that death too has been in arcadia, and is still there, in the form of the monumental tomb.
like a silent explosion, a quiet inner revolution, a provocation to enlightenment, a ticking time bomb of illumination planted right in the midst of life’s splendours, it is impossible for an intelligent human being to see this painting, to think about it, and to live the same way they lived before.
ben okri – in arcadia