First, a thank you to Michael Gillen of Masons Island, whose email query several weeks ago sent me on this journey, such as it was, of discovery.
He’d read a recent story of mine about Eva Palmer Sikelianos, the New York-born descendant of a family of prominent Palmers in Stonington, who’d dedicated her adult life and much of her wealth to Greece and the revival of ancient Greek dance and art forms there, notably the Delphic Festivals.
Gillen sent along an evocative black and white landscape photo, taken by John Papp, of Noah’s Restaurant renown in Stonington Borough, and asked whether I knew anything about what he called “the monument in the courtyard” across from Calvary Episcopal Church? He wondered whether it might be somehow related to the Eva Palmer story. The photo, taken at a distance along a narrow path between rows of hornbeam trees, shows what appears to be a lone funerary monument under a majestic and properly brooding sky. I knew nothing of the monument or the courtyard or the curious inscription on the monument: “Et in Arcadia Ego.”
This Latin phrase translates as “And in Arcadia, there am I.” The common interpretation is that even in paradise, in utopian lands, there is death.
With guidance from Wick York, of Stonington, whose late aunt, Mimi Lincoln, lived on the particular Church Street property in what had been a barn fashioned into a residence by her husband, the late architect John Ware Lincoln, and from John Papp, who strikingly framed and captured the setting, I found the fellow who created it, Ted Danforth.
Danforth, a letterpress printer and author who served on the board of the American Academy of Poets for 10 years, and his wife, Nan, a freelance designer and production manager, primarily with museums in Boston and New York, bought the borough property in 2005, and two years later, created what they called the Allée of Hornbeam Trees.
However, the monument was first erected around 2000 or 2001 on the Masons Island property where Nan lived before moving across from Calvary Church. From a distance, it looks like classic cemetery funerary, a marble column on a base of granite blocks with an urn, for ashes, on top. In fact, it is wood — fashioned by Ted Danforth out of a 2-foot by 8-foot sheet of plywood and then painted.
Danforth’s inspiration was a painting by the French baroque artist Nicolas Poussin completed in 1637-38 and titled “Les bergers d’Arcadie” or “The Arcadian Shepherds.”
The painting portrays several shepherds from classical antiquity gathered around a tomb partially in shadow. Arcadia, in ancient Greece, symbolized the pure, pastoral shepherd life, and in Poussin’s depiction, even there loomed the shadow of death.
Danforth, a student of classical antiquity who lectures on history and typography, envisioned what became this setting for an empty stretch of lawn on the property.
He had more than an academic interest in the painting and its theme. His recovery, in 1996, from a serious illness, one he called life-threatening, added rather personal texture to his ruminations about death.
John Papp, whose photographs long have graced the walls of Noah’s, the restaurant on Water Street he opened with a partner some four decades ago, understood. “My photograph tried to embody the somber irony that we find death even in utopia,” he wrote in an email, “and perhaps the wider connection to our little borough ‘Arcadia’ where the church bells toll too often across the street at Calvary Church for our aging residents.”
This is private property, remember, but the owners are not averse to visitors walking between the stone pillars, and, after a few steps up the entranceway, looking left to behold this monument to symmetry, solemnity and serenity.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.