Giorgio de Chirico, The Nostalgia of the Infinite, 1913–14, 53 x 23½ inches.
Catherine de Montchensi was a young Occitanian wife in the age of l’amour courtois and the jeweled sunburst on the Virgin’s breast. The age of hell’s bedlam—janua diaboli—the earthly woman awakened to her nature. She had been betrothed in childhood to an older man—a marriage arranged by her father in the interests of land. And at the age of 13 she left her home in Pau to enter her husband’s castle in Toulouse. Animated by a high spirit, Catherine quickly mastered the courtly conventions: hawking, playing chess, learning letters, singing, and playing musical instruments. But in spite of these amusements, her time passed melancholically. For although her husband provided her with every luxury, she resented her conjugal subjection, and longed for a love that was freely sought and freely given.
One day as she was training her goshawk by the river, Catherine encountered Arnaut Vidal, engaged in the composition of a chanson. So strong was her attraction for the troubadour, that she released her hawk, letting it fly from her wrist. And the jongleur, feeling the same magnetic pull, dropped his rebec in mid-song. That afternoon they began an idyl, fearlessly following their heart’s urges, making love in a grotto beyond the castle’s walls. Three months of clandestine meetings elapsed before the romance was interrupted by Catherine’s husband, who, having grown suspicious of his young wife, followed her into the fields. Enraged by his cuckolding, he reacted violently. Catherine was brought back to the castle, where an iron girdle of chastity was fitted to her pelvic basin. And the lord’s hired men chased Arnaut to the edge of the fiefdom, where he was brutally castrated. The tragedy led Catherine to take up a veil of sorrow in a convent; and Arnaut found a refuge in monasticism.
Five hundred years after the forceful separation, the remains of Catherine de Montchensi were discovered beneath the abbey in St. Guillem-Le Déserte, along with a box containing chansons by Arnaut Vidal. The exquisite lyrics praised the young wife for her beauty and refinement. They spoke of the enobling quality of love, and described woman as the ladder on which to climb to heaven. As soon as the bones were found they were brought to the square in Pau, where a monument, which still stands today as white as a Pyrenean snowdrift, was erected: a beautiful female figure, enveloped in loose drapery, reclining on a sarcophagus; with a face wearing a melancholic expression, and the body’s posture suggesting a convalescent, eternally recovering from a sickness of the heart. Throughout the centuries the statue was perceived by its beholders as a saint of love. People brought flowers and placed them at its base, where they knelt and prayed for an intercession in their love lives.
Two hundred years after Catherine de Montchensi’s remains were discovered, the bones of Arnaut Vidal were unearthed beneath the monastery in Limoges, along with a box containing letters from Catherine. The letters reminded the troubadour of how much like an altar was the bed of consummation with his lady; and they compared the nourishment received from the spiritual fire of erotic love to that the lover of God received from the bread and wine of the eucharist. As soon as Arnaut’s remains were found, they were brought to Pau and laid beside Catherine in a marble sarcophagus, beneath the effigy of a magnificent, reclining, naked youth, with a face that wore an archaic smile. On the day of its unveiling a great ceremony was held in the square. Dignitaries attended from as faraway as Paris. An orchestra played the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; and as the music reached its rapturous peak, the canvas cloth covering the statue was removed, revealing the lovers side by side, with the inscription conjugium in aeternum chiselled into the stone of their common plinth.
On the day following the ceremony the strange events began. The first thing noticed was the altered expression on Catherine’s face. Gone was her melancholic look. It had been replaced with an archaic smile; and the folds of drapery covering her body had disappeared. Even more startling was the powerful pull one felt on approaching the statues. It was as though they were imbued with magnetism. Many were frightened by the changes. But many realized a miracle had occurred. And within days of the coming together in stone of the young wife and the troubadour a cult of love was initiated. People in love, and people seeking love, came to the square with flowers. They stood at the base of the monuments, where the aura was so intense, one became endowed with the virtues of the lovers on the sarcophagi. Worshippers held candlelight vigils, and slept at the feet of the statues, hoping that as they slept the spirits of Catherine and Arnaut would enter their bodies. Soon word of the miracles spread throughout the country. Visitors arrived by train from all over the continent. The existing hotels filled to capacity, and new ones were built to accommodate the continuous stream of pilgrims. Additional priests were needed in Pau to meet the demand for marriages, and the town swelled with intoxicated wedding guests, reluctant to go home. Couples wishing to conceive a child started making love at night at the base of the statues. Then they were joined by couples wishing to insure their union. Strangers sought each other out during the day, waiting until nightfall to make love. But eventually the cultists grew too impatient to wait for nightfall. They started making love during the day. In broad daylight the square was strewn with naked bodies, orgies, and drunkenness. Until one day, at the height of the fever, someone castrated the statue of Arnaut Vidal. The same person broke open the sarcophagus, making away with the bones. The mutilation had an immediately sobering effect. The magnetic aura surrounding the statues ceased. The naked revelers filed out of the square. It was only after the pilgrims were gone, and things were quiet, that one noticed the statue of Catherine de Montchensi. Gone was her smile. It had been replaced with a melancholic gaze. And the posture of her body, beneath the folds of drapery, suggested the languor of a convalescent.