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A summary of Louis Marins semiotic interpretation of, The Arcadian Shepherds.


the views of Marin in relation to what you have gathered from reading other authors.


Art History is about making the visible legible and it is no doubt that The Arcadian

Shepherd which is also known as Les bergers dArcadie or Et in Arcadia Ego is the

most famously and widely discussed of Poussins painting. The painting depicts a pastoral

scene with idealized shepherds from classical antiquity clustering around an austere tomb. In

this painting Poussins work represents the High Art of the classical style, in that it presents

elevated and learned themes with great formal rigour evocation of the antique.

Definition of Semiotics

According to Ross (1966), Semiotics can be defined as, making the study of sign processes

and meaningful communication. It is concerned with how meaning is created. Barthe

(1980) cited in Faoucault (2000) mentions that in any particular work of art, its interpretation

depends on the identification of denoted meaning, the recognition of the visual sign and the

connoted meaning-the instant cultural associations that come with recognition. The main

concern of the semiotic art historian is to come up with ways to navigate and interpret

connoted meaning. Semiotic art history seeks to uncover the codified meanings in an

aesthetic object by examining its connectedness to a collective consciousness. Art historians

do not commonly commit to any one particular brand of semiotics but rather construct an

amalgamated version which they incorporate into their collection of analytical tools. For

instance Meyer Schapiro borrowed Saussures differential meaning in an effort to read signs

as they exist within a system (Ross, 1966)

Semiotics operates under a theory that an image can only be understood from the viewers

perspective. The artist is supplanted by the viewer as the purveyor of meaning, even to the

extent that an interpretation is still valid regardless of whether the creator had intended it.

Semiotics can be applied to everything which has meaning within a culture, which can be

seen as signifying something. The goal of using semiotics interpretation is to establish the

underlying conventions, identifying significant differences and oppositions in an attempt to

model the system of categories, relations, connotations, distinctions and rules of combination


The Arcadian Shepherds Analysis

The painting depicts three shepherds and a monumental, statue-like woman grouped around a

large stone tomb. The natural setting, and the paintings title all situate this in the mythical

realm of Arcadia. Arcadia is a utopian world of bliss where the inhabitants lived in harmony

reminiscent to the golden ages of Islam and Hindu, the resting place of virtuous and the

heroic souls. In the midst of the paradise, however, the shepherds look somewhat concerned.

The female figure, a mysterious woman provides a beautiful contrast to the discovery of

Death. She is the only figure who fully understands the meaning of the tombs inscription,

thus investing her with a far higher purpose. However, Art historians have waged fierce

battles as to whether she represents Reason or not, the goddess Athena, or is she Death


On the other hand Panofsky indicates that the painting illustrates a text. The words on the

tomb are meant to be the visual centre of the painting. Symbolism was important to Poussin

because he was interested in making philosophical statements with the images in his

paintings. He sought to make statements about, the here and now often the iconography of

his work is very intricate. In his work everything is subordinate to the idea of composition,

line and colour (Ross, 1966).

Panofskys Views

Panofsky and Marin acknowledge Wolffins distinction in their discussion of Poussins

Arcadian Shepherds by stating that the painting reverts back to the classical stlye which

shows order, discipline and clarity. However, their analysis takes different paths. Panofsky

analyzes in his classical study of the picture, that the scene is one in which virtually all

movement has been eliminated. Three shepherds and a shepherdess appear welded into a

single group which follows the contours of the tomb, as though already confined by its

controlling law. The composition is of the utmost simplicity which is why the picture is

regarded as the quintessence of Poussins art.

According to Essays presented to Cassirer (1936) Panofsky notes how its current normal

sense has enjoyed unsurpassed happiness, which is enduringly alive. He defines the nature of

Arcadia as the ideal place the visionary and literary realm of harmony and natural sweetness.

Natures own laws are reversed under the pressure of suffering and the good things of nature

are withheld to be replaced by things of ugliness. Pliny the Elder an ancient historian regards

the painting as a rational response to mortality, which is shown by the kneeling shepherd in

the centre of the painting. The shadow he casts is thus interpreted as literal foreshadowing of

his future death.

Marins Hypothesis

Marin is of the view that besides the existence of the painting nothing in the iconic message

marks its situation of emission and reception, that is to say no figure is looking at us as

viewers, nobody addresses us a representative of the sender of the message Marin quoted in

(Preziosi, 1998) All the viewer experiences is the figures caught up performing their

narrative functions and they do not need us in order to narrate themselves. We are only

distant spectators of a story, separated from it by a spectacular distance that is the

insuperable distance of the painter-narrator of the story. Which means the scene represented,

operates in a propositional content, the negation of all marks of emission and reception of the

narrative message.

For Marin, the painting functions as a metapictorial sign, making a larger statement about

pictures in general. Poussins painting tells us something about the language of painting by

positing a series of equivalences between the verbal and visual language. Marin reveals the

painting as a form of address. A shift takes place when we turn what we see into language,

when we verbalise all the semi-conscious thoughts and fleeting sensations that occur when

we look at the painting. A cut happens when we move from what Marin calls a perceptual

continuum into a figurative discontinuum when seeing turns into reading. He regards the

painting as giving us clues on how to look. Our reading of the painting converts depth into

breadth and the four figures are arrayed into a frieze. It is as though we need to rotate the

picture plane to 90 degrees forward to understand the painting or look at it sideways from the

right. The painting moves us from ignorance to wisdom represented by the poised woman

who looks down in quiet contemplation.

The Reading Process

Marin further looks at the painting from a syntactic level, the challenge of iconic deixis

(forms of expression) as it works in classical representation. What corresponds here to the

equivalence between painter and viewer is also found in the example of the full-face portrait.

The sitter of the portrait appears only to be the represented enunciative. Alberti articulates

the problem, that the figure is called the commentator in which it makes the painting more

emotionally effective to introduce the istoria , a character who by his gestures and emotional

expression points out the important part of the story to the viewer at whom he looks at and

thus establishes a link between the scene represented and the viewer.

On the other hand Panofsky views the work as a symbolic form, which is the contradictory

axioms of the representational system. The representation screen is a transparent window

through which the spectator, man, contemplates the scene presented on the canvas as if he

saw the real scene in the world. To him the screen is a surface, a material support which is

also a reflecting device on which the real objects are pictured. The canvas as a surface does

not exist the first time that man encounters the real world. However, the canvas does exist to

operate the duplication of reality, the canvas at that time is simultaneously posited and

neutralized, as it becomes technically and ideologically transparent. It becomes invisible and

at the same time a necessary condition of visibility, reflecting transparence, which

theoretically defines the representational screen. What is represented is the very process of

representation. Panofskys builds an argument in which he says, it is Death itself that writes

the inscription on the tomb; the dead shepherd has written his own epitaph. Panofsky poses

the problem in the manner that is perfectly consistent with his philosophy of art history as a

constant displacement of motives and themes, forms and legends, vision and iconographic-

connections and displacements. These point out the iconological level of cultural symbols.

However, the question of the translation and meaning of the painting does not seem correctly

raised by Panofsky in his rigorous philological analysis. The phrase Et in Arcadia ego is has

an unexpressed verb which must be suggested by words given by the reader, which were

never present. On the contrary, it is not possible to suggest a past tense. Bagient and Lincoln

are of the same theory that there is a missing word and it should read Et in Arcadia Sum

which translates to I touch the tomb of God-Jesus.

Marin sheds more light on the fact that there is an iconic dialogue that happens between the

figures, gazes and gestures are exchanged and these are recognizable through the positions of

the heads and the orientation of the eyes. The three figures exchange a message whose

referent is what the fourth figure is dong. Jakobson quoted in Marin defines the

communication exchange as: Emission- message reception reference code. He

summarizes the painting as the pictorial representation of that model, the painter or the

beholder occupies the metaiconic or linguistic position of the linguist who constructs a model

about a communication process. The scheme is oriented between the figures in the

composition for pictorial reasons and the legible text is carved on the tomb.

The message conveyed by the painting is shown by the shepherd who is looking at a written

line pointing at it with his forefinger, reading as if trying to decipher it. He is visually saying

the written sentence since the first three words, Et in Arcadia are inscribed just out of his

open mouth in a modern version of the medieval phylactery. The kneeling shepherd points

at, reads and says the written message whose signification he attempts to grasp.

In Principles of Art History (1915) Wolfflin concentrates on situating a painting historically.

He notes the development from the lateral arrangement of forms in the 16th century painting

to the use of the vanishing point in the 17th century. His views culminate in a discussion of

unity, which he believes both centuries strived to achieve in different ways; the classical

combination of independent components and the Baroque painting being one main


Panofskys analysis of the painting notes a shift in representation over time, as he asks why

the iconography used in Poussins paintings illustrates about the periods in which they were

painted. Panofsky interprets Poussins move from Baroque back to classical representation

as a reflection of the shift in attitude towards death in the French society at that time. Marin

argues that the figures in Poussins painting purposely do not look at the viewer in order to

better convey that they are contemplating the message of death that is being represented to


Marin and Foucault iconographical analysis shed light on the fact that painting is always self-

referential, since artists are always trying to find new ways to exploit the medium. Marin

explores how the exchange of looks in Poussins painting helps to convey that a

representation of death (signified by inscription) is being related to the figures in the image.

Further Marin and Foucault reveal that a painting conveys more than one message. Paintings

can take on different meanings depending on what the viewer infers about the cultural and

historical background in which the work was created (Friedlaender, 1966). The viewer

engages in an iconological analysis of the painting, because he is relating it to history. An

iconological analysis of a painting reveals that conclusions can be drawn it by looking outside

the painting itself. Looking at the qualities of The Arcadian Shepherd a new dimension of

meaning to the painting is added that can be appreciated at a universal level.


Marin acknowledges Wolffins principles but unlike Panofsky his approach to the painting

remains iconographical and does not stray into iconological analysis. The iconographical

approach focuses on the painting itself and its formal qualities. Marin looks at the formal

qualities that Wolffin acknowledges as being common to the classical style and his analysis

centres on how an economy gaze conveys meaning about Poussins painting to the spectator.

Marins analysis of the painting shows that not all painting is limited to one message.


Essays presented to Cassirer, E .ed. Bansky, K and Patton, H. Oxford (1936) 223-254

Foucault, M (2000) Las Meninas In The Continental Aesthetics Reader . New York :

Routledge 401-11 print

Friedlaender, W (1966)Nicolas Poussin, a New Approach. Abrams.

Ross, M. (1990) Ideal Landscape: Annibale Carracci, Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain.

Yale University Press: USA

Preziosi, D (1998) The Art of Art History : A Critical Anthology. Oxford: OUP

Wolfflin, H. Principles of Art History In the Art of Art History : A critical Anthology.

Oxford : OUP 115-126 print - retrieved

14 December 2015.