For centuries, people have tried to crack the code of the Shepherd's Gate Monument...and FAILED.
It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do.
Everything ends in death.
That seems to be the message of the relief carving on the Shepherd’s Gate Monument in the grounds of Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire.
The monument has stood in the grounds of the stately home since the 1740s.
Carved into its grey stone are four figures – a woman and three shepherds.
All around them are the rolling green hills and sunshine that you might expect to see in Paradise.
But the shepherds are looking at a tomb. Two are even pointing at it.
And just beneath the relief, there are ten letters etched into the stone – ten letters that form a code.
In the last 250 years, many have tried to crack the code, including Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin.
Both failed. Along with all who ever tried.
Some believe the code is an acrostic, with each letter standing for an entire word.
The man who commissioned the monument was Admiral George Anson, who had a career in the navy and is the ancestor of the Earls of Lichfield.
His wife died young. And the theory goes that he had a Latin phrase carved into the monument as a memorial to her.
Optimae Uxoris Optimae Sororis Viduus Amantissimus Vovit Virtutibus – which means Best of wives, best of sisters, a most devoted widower dedicates this to your virtues.
The D and M at the beginning and end of the code are letters often found on Ancient Roman graves, and are loosely translated as ‘in memory of’.
Others think the code represents a number and that the letters might represent Roman numerals.
And if you were to add up the numbers in the sequence, you’d get 1594.
The year in which artist Nicolas Poussin was born.
Poussin was famous across Europe in the 17th century for his paintings based on Bible stories and scenes from mythology.
One work, Et In Arcadia Ego, was completed 100 years before the monument was put up at Shugborough Hall.
It shows a woman and three shepherds in Paradise, all looking towards a tomb.
The relief, carved into the stone of the Shepherd’s Monument, is a mirror image of Poussin’s painting.
Everything is present. But in reverse.
Art historians and philosophers have suggested that Poussin’s four figures represent constellations.
The woman in the foreground, for example, is the constellation Virgo – the Virgin – which has led many to believe the image, and the letters, are some sort of guide, coordinates, map, or navigational tool.
But if so, where does the map lead?
For years, historians have believed Nicolas Poussin was a member of the Priory of Sion, a secret organization.
Leonardo DaVinci is also believed to have been a member, along with Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo, who wrote Les Miserables.
And so was George Anson, who commissioned the monument…
Nobody knows much about the Priory. Except that its members are said to guard an ancient secret – the Holy Grail.
For some, the Holy Grail is the cup used by Jesus at the last supper.
For others, the Holy Grail is a living descendant of Jesus.
If Jesus had a relationship with a woman – perhaps his follower Mary Magdalen – could he have become a father? And if he was a father, what happened to his children?
Is the secret guarded by Nicolas Poussin, George Anson and the other members of the Priory of Sion the identity of Jesus’s children, grandchildren, great-great-great grandchildren?
And is that secret locked in the Shepherd’s Monument code?
If Poussin’s painting shows the nearness of death even in Paradise, does the mirror image show the nearness of paradise, even in death?
Or could the Holy Grail be something else altogether?
The knowledge, perhaps, that death is not to be feared? That only in death, or after death, can we reach the true happiness of everlasting Paradise?
The proof of Heaven, perhaps, and an afterlife?
Nobody will know until the code is cracked…and the Holy Grail will remain out of reach.
Whatever it might be…
A possible clue?
In 1885, more than a hundred years after the Shepherd’s Monument was carved, a priest in France called Abbot Saunieres made a mysterious discovery during the renovation of his church in Rennes-le-Chateau. Buried beneath a pillar were parchments that looked hundreds of years old. And on the parchments, a message written in code. Luckily, this code was cracked. The message reads Shepherdess, thou shalt have no temptation, may Poussin keep the key through the cross and this horse of God, I finish off this demon keeper at noon blue apples. What does the message mean? Who wrote it? Could the shepherdess be the woman in Poussin’s painting, and carved in reverse on the Shepherd’s Monument?