A most intriguing explanation for the importance of the figures of Arcadian shepherds in the Renaissance relates to the occult philosophy of the period. It must first be realised that there was at that time a necessity of finding a sanction within the traditions of the then dominant religion – Christianity – for reclamation of the beautiful treasures of the culture of pagan Greco-Roman Antiquity that were coming to light. If a validation for elements of that culture could be found of sufficient elegance, brilliance, and superhuman interconnectivity, it would seem to have divine support. Such an idea was found, still potent enough to fill the body with shivers, and I shall do my best to explain it as well as I can here.
A text named Aristotle's Problem XXX was considered until the 17th century to have been written by Aristotle himself. It was next assigned to the non-specific authorship of a “Pseudo-Aristotle”, and more recently it has been thought by some to be the work of Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor. Working from the idea expressed in Plato’s Phaedrus that “frenzy, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings”, the “Artistotle” text described how the humor of melancholy could become this kind of frenzy. This idea was taken on by Marsilio Ficino, founder of the Platonic Academy of Renaissance Florence, who wrote, in De vita triplica, that there is a type of melancholy that ignites and burns in a spiritual way. This melancholy ignited into a fiery ecstasy, incidentally, was the explicitly stated aim of the song Feel So Sad by the retro indo-rock band Spiritualised, and although Jason Pierce did not, in the interview, reference Ficino, the song provides a clear experiential understanding of the state Ficino was talking about. But what has this to do with the Shepherds of Arcadia?
Shepherds of Arcadia II
But these vague connections between a figure who shares divine child symbolism with Christ and a people loosely associated with Arcadia are just the beginning of the complex, beautiful Renaissance idea of which I am speaking. The key idea of which to take note is that the Arcadian Academy of Rome saw it as particularly significant that shepherds watching their flocks in the fields had been the first to hear word from the angel of the birth of Christ. Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue is just that - one of the Eclogues - pastoral poems sung by shepherds in rustic settings. Hearing word of the coming birth of Chirst, as when the shepherds received word from the angel Gabriel, is, in fact, prophetic insight. Furthermore, pastoral poems were traditionally melancholic in nature, the most obvious theme being yearning for love, and in Virgil the shepherds display a poetic skill seemingly more civilized than their general way of life, and the influence for this could easily be ascribed to the nymphs, the elementals of the Earth. In the earliest known examples of the genre, by Theokritus, the shepherd Daphnis actually died for love. Their simple lifestyle is of the type that goes back to the age before bronze and iron, back to the age of Saturn, who in the Renaissance view was their obvious ruling planet anyway, as they were inspired melancholics. The people of Arcadia were held to be the most skilled in the playing of country music, and this again could be seen as being a result of this same type of inspiration. And so we move on to the big BINGO moment.Jerome in his Cell
Poussin: New Ager
How does this connect in particular to Poussin and his own depiction of the Shepherds of Arcadia? It has been observed that for the figure of the kneeling bearded shepherd in The Shepherds of Arcadia II, Poussin simply borrowed a figure from another of his paintings as the model. But wait ‘til you hear which figure he used - that of a shepherd kneeling in adoration of the new born Jesus in his painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds! Here then is an Arcadian shepherd who is also one of the shepherd-prophets of Christ. But what of the skull on the tomb in his earlier Shepherds of Arcadia I?
This skull in fact simply confirms that the painting relates to the tradition of inspired melancholy, for it goes back to Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in His Cell, which was sold as part of a pair with his engraving Melancholy I.
St Jerome in His Cell shows the melancholy genius at work, with a skull prominently displayed on the window sill, a memento mori, by this time a symbol of a melancholic contemplation of the shortness of our stay in this realm.
So the Shepherds of Arcadia are divinely inspired melancholic prophets of a coming Golden Age. But what then of the river god who pours out water from a jar in The Shepherds of Arcadia I? The simplest reading of the symbolism is that the coming age is not that of Pisces, which was already three quarters through in Poussin’s time, but of the Age of Aquarius, making Poussin or his commissioners the earliest of the New Agers looking forward to the Age of Aquarius.
The poetic products of the Arcadian Academy of post-Renaissance Rome are not judged to be any match for the works of, for example, Virgil, but that is not really the point. The real value of the brilliant Renaissance Arcadia idea is that it allowed elements of the beautiful culture of Classical Antiquity, vessels of the European Dreamtime, to be sanctioned and thus continued even during the dominance of the anti-pagan Christian religion, like the ark allowing the animals and plants to sail over the flood and plant themselves now in less restricted and contrived forms in these more liberal times, at the end of what astrologers call the Age of Pisces.