Poussin's Mountainous Mystery



When examining the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, it is difficult to ignore the apparent significance of Nicolas Poussin’s enigmatic painting, Shepherds of Arcadia (1638-40), sometimes known as Et in Arcadia Ego (and which I will refer to simply as Arcadia). The discovery of underlying geometric designs in the painting [1], and the conclusion that the landscape portrayed could, in fact, be a location near Rennes-le-Château [2], lend credence to the belief that important information may be encoded in the painting.  This, along with the reference to Poussin in one of the parchments discovered by the priest, Bérenger Saunière, in his church in the south of France, suggests that Poussin was intrinsically tied to a mystery.

In 1886 Saunière began to restore his dilapidated church in the small village of Rennes-le-Château, in the Languedoc region of south-western France, an area which had been occupied by the Visigoths, the Cathars and the Knights Templar.  While conducting his renovations Saunière discovered that one of the ancient pillars in the church contained a hollow compartment with unusual documents inside; excerpts from the Bible, encoded with obscure messages.  Having realised that he may have discovered ancient texts of considerable importance, Saunière travelled to Paris to seek the assistance of Catholic officials. When he returned to Rennes-le-Château he used his new-found wealth to complete the renovation of his church and village, and built a tower dedicated to Mary Magdalene. He also bestowed lavish gifts on the inhabitants of the village. In just one year the village priest had gone from honouring his vows of poverty to becoming a generous benefactor. Just what had he discovered?

Henry Lincoln began investigating the legends of the region, such as Saunière’s mysterious wealth, in the late 1960’s and produced documentaries on the subject for the BBC. This led him to co-author the bestseller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), which Dan Brown used as the source for his novel and subsequent movie, The Da Vinci Code (2003). During his research Lincoln was led to a hidden message, encrypted in the parchments discovered by Saunière decades earlier. The process of decoding this message was extremely complicated and focused on letters placed in the text of the parchments, which did not appear in the Biblical passages.  The encryption followed a series of steps, using key words, to create the following riddle:



While the full meaning of this riddle has never been clear, its reference to Poussin and the word ‘shepherdess’ have led many researchers to study the painting, Shepherds of Arcadia, which features the image of a shepherdess, along with others gathered around a tomb, in the hope of finding answers to the mystery.

The reference to Poussin is intriguing, and when examined in conjunction with the puzzling letter sent by Abbé Louis Fouquet to his brother, Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances to King Louis XIV, the mystery deepens. Abbé Fouquet, who had just visited Poussin in Rome, wrote a letter indicating that Poussin was in possession of a great secret:

‘He and I discussed certain things, which I shall with ease be able to explain to you in detail – things that will give you, through Monsieur Poussin, advantages which even kings would have great pains to draw from him, and which, according to him, it is possible that nobody else will ever be able to rediscover in the centuries to come. And, what is more, these are things so difficult to discover that nothing now on this earth can prove of better fortune nor be their equal.’


Nicolas Poussin, Shepherds of Arcadia, Musée du Louvre, Paris


While the contents of Fouquet’s letter are well known to Rennes-le-Château enthusiasts, the riddle has yet to be solved. Nevertheless, Arcadia remains the most popular candidate to conceal the secret, while Poussin’s other works receive considerably less attention.  However, it is in Poussin’s other works that we see pieces of an elaborate puzzle and the linking of five of his other paintings to Arcadia, and thus to the mystery of Rennes-le-Château.

As we proceed in our deconstruction of the linked paintings, we will assume that any demonstrable connection to Arcadia indicates that the painting in question is also significant. With this approach, we can we see how elaborately Poussin encoded his secret; the technological advances of the past century have enabled insight that would have been virtually impossible in the 1600’s.


The Mountains of Arcadia

I began my research into the mystery of Rennes-le-Château in 2004.  Although I was only sixteen at the time, I was amazed that a mystery so intriguing even existed and was determined to learn everything I could about it.  I began looking at the works of Nicolas Poussin and David Teniers, in order to gain a perspective into their art that might help me find clues in Arcadia. While looking through Poussin’s paintings from the mid-1630’s, I noticed a familiar shape in the background of the Triumph of Pan (1635-37).  In the top left of the painting, partially covered by trees, is the shape of the main mountain in Arcadia


Nicolas Poussin, Triumph of Pan, National Gallery, London


Close-up of the mountain in Arcadia and Triumph of Pan


I was excited about the similarity, but still wary that it could be a coincidence. However, it only took a few minutes to discover that the other half of the mountain appeared in the background of another painting, the Nurture of Jupiter (1636), which was painted around the same time as the Triumph of Pan


Nicolas Poussin, Nurture of Jupiter, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London


I now had two distinct works that appeared to contain links to the Arcadia painting, and my next step was to identify any connections between the two.  Astonishingly, I discovered that, side by side, the two paintings fitted together, as if pieces of a puzzle, forming a complete mountain in almost the exact shape as the one in the background of Arcadia.



Close-up, showing the similarities between the ‘complete’ mountain (left) and the mountain in Arcadia


With this insight I was able to conclude that the mountain was, in fact, significant to the mystery. At the same time, I had no idea what it meant.  The only thing that was clear was that it could hardly be considered a coincidence, and that Poussin had intentionally placed the mountain in three different paintings.  It was not until a year later, while featuring Rennes-le-Château in a report for another project that I discovered the next two pieces of the puzzle. 

My research encouraged me to look further into Poussin’s other paintings to try and find the other background features from Arcadia, which do not appear in the Nurture of Jupiter or Triumph of Pan. My process remained the same: search for features in the landscapes that corresponded with those in Arcadia and then join them together and look for further clues. With this approach I discovered that, when added to the right side of Triumph of Pan, the Sacrament of Baptism (1642) matched up, and when added to the left of Nurture of JupiterSt John Baptising in the River Jordan (1630’s) completed the landscape from Poussin’s Arcadia.


Nicolas Poussin, St John Baptising in the River Jordan, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Close-up of Arcadia and St John Baptising in the River Jordan


Nicolas Poussin, Sacrament of Baptism, National Gallery of Art, Washington


Close-up of the mountains in Arcadia and Sacrament of Baptism


Operating under the assumption that the Arcadia painting is special and rather important, the four connected paintings must be examined with equal scrutiny, in order to determine what clues they may hold and how they might help form Poussin’s piece of the ‘key’. 



The complete landscape of Arcadia, reproduced by juxtaposing four other paintings by Poussin


Before examining the connections with other Poussin paintings, let us look at the facts that can be derived from this discovery:

Poussin went to great lengths to create an elaborate landscape background, through four different paintings over at least a seven-year time period; a feat that would have required great planning and execution. Poussin knew that for anyone to be aware of this connection, all four paintings had to be brought together; an unlikely scenario, unless someone was looking for them specifically.  Even today, all four paintings are spread across the globe. It is only as a result of today’s advanced photographic methods, and the use of the internet, that Poussin’s works can now be viewed side by side. This is a concept that would have been inconceivable to Abbé Fouquet, who wrote that it is possible no-one would discover what Poussin had hidden in his art.

I can only speculate about the connections in the paintings and what they mean. If the background is an actual landscape near Rennes-le-Château, is Poussin drawing us a map, with clues as to how to get there?  Or is his objective simply to draw attention to the shape of this mountain, so that it can be identified elsewhere?  After all, Poussin ‘holds the key’ to finding whatever is concealed; but does this mean that it is in his works that the riddles of the Rennes-le-Château mystery can be solved?  One thing is certain: Poussin’s depiction of the landscape in Arcadia and the four other connected paintings is intentional and warrants further attention.


Expanding the Poussin Mystery

So, what is contained in the connected paintings that stand out as significant?  It appears that Poussin has left clues, but what message is he trying to convey? I noticed that there was a seven-year gap between Poussin’s Sacrament of Baptism and the other three paintings.  Whilst studying when, and for whom, these works were painted, I noticed another painting that appeared connected; however, this was not an additional piece of Poussin’s puzzle, but rather a replacement for one already in place.

First, let us look at the history of Triumph of Pan.  It was commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu in the mid 1630’s, along with two other paintings, Triumph of Bacchus (1635-36) and Triumph of Silenus (1637).  It is now accepted that the existing Triumph of Silenus is but a copy of the lost original. However, Triumph of Bacchus is held in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas and would have been kept with the other two paintings in Richelieu’s Cabinet de la Chambre du Roy.  Taking a closer look at Triumph of Bacchus, we can see that the shape of a mountain appears in the background, similar to that found in Arcadia and Sacrament of Baptism.


Nicolas Poussin, Triumph of Bacchus, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City



Comparison of the mountains in Triumph of Bacchus, Arcadia and Sacrament of Baptism


Although the shape is similar to the mountain in Arcadia, this alone was insufficient evidence for me to accept that they were one and the same. However, when reviewing Triumph of Bacchus, I noticed further clues in the symbolism of the landscape. On the right-hand side of Triumph of Bacchus and Sacrament of Baptism can be seen what appears to be a small tower that Poussin placed in both paintings. It was after this discovery that I suspected that Triumph of Bacchus, and not Sacrament of Baptism, was the original far right side component to the four-painting scene.


Close-up of the small tower in Triumph of Bacchus and Sacrament of Baptism


The revelation begged the question: when placed next to Triumph of Pan, did Triumph of Bacchus match up?  The answer is yes, and no.  The background that appears in Triumph of Bacchus does not match up with Triumph of Pan like the others obviously do, but in the foreground of the painting they do match up quite well.


Triumph of Pan alongside Triumph of Bacchus


Close-up of foregrounds matching up


There are yet other connections, including a character from Poussin’s earlier Shepherds of Arcadia (1629) painting.


Nicolas Poussin, Shepherds of Arcadia, The Duke of Devonshire and the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees, Chatsworth



Similar characters in Triumph of Pan and Shepherds of Arcadia (1629)


One of the clearest symbols in the connected paintings is the dove above the mountain in both Arcadia and Triumph of Pan. Looking back at the mountain comparison pictures, one can see the shape of a dove in the outline of the clouds in Arcadia and an actual dove in Sacrament of Baptism, and what is believed to be Hercules riding across the sky on a chariot drawn by horses stolen from Apollo [3] in Triumph of Bacchus.  All these images seem to draw attention to this specific mountain.  With the dove being a worldwide symbol for peace, is it possible that the dove is the connection to the word ‘peace’ being placed into the riddle; and the horses Hercules is riding may refer to the ‘horse of God’ from the Rennes-le-Château parchments?  Although speculative, the possibility is intriguing.

The question then becomes: why would Poussin return to a theme seven years after he had created his original paintings?  I believe the answer is that Poussin feared that the original dove in Arcadia was not readily apparent and that by going back and repainting the landscape with a real dove he would draw more attention to it.  What does the dove mean, what could it represent, and why did Poussin go to so much trouble to make sure that its symbolism was not lost?

I believe that Poussin interwove many complex connections into several paintings that, until now, have not been connected.  If Fouquet’s letter is indeed true, and Poussin did possess knowledge that was more valuable than any treasure on earth, would he have let that secret die with him, or would he have ensured that the information would be passed on to those who knew how to find it? It is also certain that if Poussin returned to paint the Sacrament of Baptism to encode his message in a different and easier to find way, at least part of the message would be preserved.

A further question remains regarding the fate of the Triumph of Silenus.  If only a copy of the original exists, what was held in the third work that was commissioned for Cardinal Richelieu; and how important is it to the discovery of the secret that Poussin concealed? Why were they painted for Cardinal Richelieu?  Why give two of the four works that comprise the complete landscape to Richelieu (and possibly another, if the Triumph of Silenus is connected) if the secret was to be known by only one person?  Was it Poussin’s intention that Richelieu be the one to discover his secret, or were there other reasons for the placement of these paintings?  A possible explanation lies in the connection that Poussin’s landscape may have with other artists’ paintings; most prominently, David Teniers, the other artist mentioned in Saunière’s parchments.  A verifiable link between the two painters has never been proven, except for their mention in the priest’s parchments.  However, it is the discovery of Poussin’s hidden landscape that creates a ground-breaking connection between two seemingly unrelated painters.


Bridging the Gap

We now return to the riddle and ask: if finding this landscape proves that Saunière’s decoded parchment is indeed a valid resource for unravelling the Rennes-le-Château mystery, then the other elements need to be examined with equal merit.  Operating on the belief that the word ‘shepherdess’ points to Arcadia as being significant (as well as the five other paintings), then the words ‘no temptation’ could also point to David Teniers’ contribution.  It is widely accepted that ‘no temptation’ refers to one of Teniers’ many portrayals of the Temptation of St Anthony; specifically, one where he is not being tempted.  There is much symbolism connecting these paintings with the Rennes-le-Château mystery; however, alternate interpretations can be drawn.

In 1651 David Teniers completed a series of at least four paintings that served as a visual archive for the gallery accumulated by the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria.  Teniers was mindful of being precise, even noting the names of each artist in the frames of the represented paintings. The ‘no temptation’ reference in the decoded message could refer to these paintings, and one in particular.  I believe it is referred to in this way because Teniers was never tempted by the knowledge of the secret and its value, but rather conveyed the message through copies of paintings created by those who did have the knowledge, whether or not he held that information himself. 

With further research, I discovered Poussin’s mountain once more, this time in David Teniers’ archive paintings.  In the top left corner of the painting below, entitled simply, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery (1647), I identified the same mountain which Poussin had explicitly included in other paintings.  Its features are very distinct and, again, seemingly intentional.


David Teniers, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery, Museo del Prado, Madrid


Close-up of painting containing the ‘Arcadia mountain’


There was now a direct connection between the works of Poussin and the works of Teniers, the two artists referenced in the decoded message. Immediately, this raised more questions, such as: did this mountain, which existed in multiple paintings, provide a clue as to what the key is, or was it a key at all?


Close-up of mountain in Teniers’ Gallery painting (left), Arcadia (centre) and Nurture of Jupiter and Triumph of Pan combined (right)


There are facts about this work and, in particular, the individual for whom the painting was commissioned, that create an interesting perspective, if these paintings are, in fact, those required in order to solve the riddle. At least two of the five connected paintings that form the background landscape in Poussin’s paintings were commissioned for Cardinal Richelieu, and the Teniers Gallery painting was commissioned for Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. In their day, these two notables were at odds politically.  Cardinal Richelieu was in complete opposition to the rule of the Habsburg family in Europe, of which Leopold was a member.  If these paintings had to be used together in order to discover what was hidden in them, then there was a very slim chance of the secret being revealed, given the animosity between their owners.

As with many discoveries in the Rennes-le-Château mystery, these findings raised yet more questions, most prominently: if Teniers’ Gallery painting simply depicted reproductions of other paintings, was there another artist, completely separate from Poussin and Teniers (and who may have held the same knowledge possessed by Poussin), who was now involved and had placed clues in his own art?  Who was this new painter and what clues did he hold?


The Sun Amidst Small Stars

The artists displayed in Archduke Leopold Wilhelm’s gallery included, amongst others, Palma Vecchio, Jacopo Tintoretto, Lorenzo Lotto and the artist that our attention now turns to, Tiziano Vicellio, or Titian, as he was known.  In his painting, Nymph and Shepherd (1575-76), we find the next piece of the puzzle.


Titian, Nymph and Shepherd, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


Titian was one of the most influential Italian artists of the 16th century and his works are considered to be masterpieces.  His painting is reproduced by Teniers in his gallery archive and what is interesting, with regard to the mystery, is that he lived in the century before Teniers and Poussin.  He painted Nymph and Shepherd in 1575 and it was not until 1636 that Poussin painted his mountain, and 1647 when Teniers recreated it in his gallery paintings. 

When looking at Titian’s work, Nymph and Shepherd, darkened over time, it is difficult to determine whether the same mountain appears in the background.  Therefore, even if someone was aware of the importance of the mountain from Poussin’s paintings, they would not see it, because the painting is worn.  A slight outline still exists, but it is not distinct enough to determine if it is the same mountain.  It may be thanks only to Teniers’ strict attention to detail when reproducing the painting that we can see the features which existed when the painting was merely 72 years of age, as opposed to its current age of 435+ years. This affords us the unique insight that the mountain was possibly portrayed by another, even more influential, artist.  Until further x-ray analysis of the painting is carried out, it is impossible to be sure.

If the painting by Titian had been commissioned, it is not known by whom.  This was one of Titian’s last works, painted in the final months of his life and not discovered until after his death [4]. Tracing Titian’s connection to the Rennes-le-Château mystery at first seems to provide no answers.  However, when one looks into who his friends were, more possible connections surface.

Titian, in his later years, became good friends with, and, some speculate, even intimate with, a man named Pietro Aretino.  Aretino was an author, playwright and poet.  He is considered one of the world’s earliest pornographers and often mocked prominent political and religious leaders; he was considered one of the wittiest writers of the Renaissance.  Despite Aretino’s political incorrectness, Pope Clement VII appointed him to the Knights of Rhodes. This group was originally known as the Knights Hospitaller during the crusades and was renowned for working closely with the Templars in the Holy Land. It was the Knights of Rhodes who received the Templars’ possessions after most of the order was killed by the Church and French government.  This is important to note, because many believe that what is held at Rennes-le-Château was placed there by the Templars; the area around Rennes-le-Château in the Languedoc was inhabited by the Templars for many years while they prevailed in Europe.  Might there be a connection between what the Templars may have left in Rennes-le-Château and what was given to the Knights of Rhodes?

So, what does all this mean with respect to the mystery of Rennes-le-Château?  These discoveries open up a new direction that could help unveil the hidden message, prompting new questions, such as:

Had Titian acquired the same knowledge that Poussin was said to possess, and will his paintings contain evidence of what this knowledge is?

Is the landscape, that is intentionally placed in at least six different paintings by two (possibly three) different artists, the ‘key’ described in the message from Saunière’s parchment?

Are the further references in Saunière’s parchment clues to different Titian paintings to look for?

If the mountain exists near Rennes-le-Château, then is it possible that the artists were creating a visual map that points to a specific location in the area?

Although it would appear that these connections simply raise more questions than answers, it is safe to say that there is a mystery surrounding the mountains portrayed in the paintings, and that those who depicted the landscape placed it with the deliberate intent of passing on a message to those with the means to find it.

- Josh Kroeker




1.  Professor Christopher Cornford of the Royal College of Arts studied the geometric structure of Arcadia.  Despite the fact that the majority of paintings he had studied before this used ‘arithmetic subdivisions of the rectangle”, Arcadia used an older, ‘masonic geometric’ structure that used pentagonal geometry.

Lincoln, Henry. "Chapter 6 Shepherds of Arcadia." The Holy Place. New York: Arcade Pub., 1991. 62-63. Print.

2.  Henry Lincoln compares the far right mountain range that can be seen in Arcadia and Sacrament of Baptism to Cardou, Blanchefort and Rennes-le-Château when seen from the same angle.

Lincoln, Henry. "Chapter 6 Shepherds of Arcadia." The Holy Place. New York: Arcade Pub., 1991. 57. Print.

3. "The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art | Collection Database, The Triumph of Bacchus." The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art | Kansas City, Missouri. Web. 08 July 2010. http://www.nelson-atkins.org/art/CollectionDatabase.cfm?id=3200&theme=euro.

4. Web Gallery of Art, Image Collection, Virtual Museum, Searchable Database of European Fine Arts (1000-1850). Web. 08 July 2010. http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/t/tiziano/09/16shephe.html.


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