While living in the remote village of Conques in southwestern France, writer Hannah Green fell in love with the town's patron saint, Sainte Foy (St. Faith). The saint was a 13-year-old girl who, according to legend, was martyred in the year 303. Sainte Foy is credited with many miracles over the centuries. One of her most recent was the cure of the broken heart of Green's artist-friend Jean Ségalat, a Conques resident who had fallen into a deep depression after his love, Emanuelle, committed suicide.
My husband and I stop, arrested by the empty window looking out from the apartment just above us, where Jean Ségalat lived with his beloved Emanuelle that summertime, those autumn weeks, when they were together here in Conques.
It is almost unconsciously that we are compelled to stop here beneath their window, to look up and think of our friend and to feel the cold and dusty emptiness of the room within, for no one has come to live here since Emanuelle's suicide.
"She was folle," said the wife of an old friend of Jean's. She repeated that Emanuelle was mad; "She was not the woman for him."
And yet she was the woman for him--the last, the only, the one he would die for.
She had been rash, others said. She had burned her bridges. She had run off to be with Jean, but still her husband would not give her a divorce. Perhaps it was that.she was distraught.. There was a certain amount of scandal, of course, so perhaps it was that.unhappiness.anger.confusion..
Should she have? Despair was eating at her heart when there should have been the pure summer bliss of love. He loved her well, she knew, but she felt empty, detached; she began to think that living with Jean Ségalat, loving him, wasn't what she wanted after all.
She was impulsive.impetuous. She had been drinking, so perhaps she hadn't intended.like a child playing with fire.perhaps..
She stood before the mirror in the bathroom stuffing the pills into her pretty mouth and swallowing them, drunk and sad and all alone, hating God the Father.
The summer after Emanuelle's death, Jean came back to Conques, and he opened the gallery that was going to be for her. He gave the gallery her name, and day after day, as he does still, he sat there in the Galerie Emanuelle, working at his ink drawings, and minding the gallery as well.
Always Jean came up the cobblestone street; he advanced a few steps and then stood there under the branches of the magnolia tree looking up at the window of the apartment where he and Emanuelle had lived the summer before.
One night after he had stood there a spell in silence, he went suddenly up the stairs to the door of their apartment and he knocked at the door.
He knocked at the door again.
For an instant, I imagined, it had seemed to him he had seen the light of her face inside beyond the window. Then she seemed to be moving away deeper into the room in the direction of the door. He went up. He knocked at the door. He tried the handle. He knocked again. He would have gone like Orpheus into the other world, the underworld, to reach her if he could have, to bring her back or stay with her there. But the earth was closed, the door was locked. He knocked wildly one last time and turned and rushed blindly down to the parvis before the church.
As Jean looked up through his tears into the face of Jesus Christ, all the manifold beauties of the tympanum, its myriad details and persons under the one arc of heaven and earth and hell, swirled blurring around the Christ enthroned, who seemed to have moved forward closer, looking deep into his eyes.
"Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted."
I had assumed it was simply Sainte Foy in Jean's ink drawings and lithographs until the first time we went to his house in Decazeville and I saw the photograph of Emanuelle on his desk there--Emanuelle standing by the rose trellis just outside their gallery, three roses blooming beside her. With a shock of recognition I saw that her face was the face of the statuette of Sainte Foy in silver and gilded silver made by the brothers Huc and Lanfranc at Villefranche de Rouerge in 1495.
She had the same high, wide forehead, the same long nose, lips, and full cheeks. She had inherited the features of that young girl who had stood as a model for the statuette in 1495 with her long fragrant hair and her eyes downcast, holding the grill, the instrument of Sainte Foy's torture, the sword with which Sainte Foy was beheaded, and the palm of her victorious martyrdom; she stood in rich robes, that young girl, to be modeled, and she lent her loveliness as well to the figure of Sainte Foy on the reverse side of the great processional cross made at Villefranche de Rouergue in those same years. In time she would have grown to womanhood and married and had children; and those genes that came to form her face and character were passed on down through the centuries to emerge on the face of our Jean Ségalat's Emanuelle.
How wonderful to live in a place where the artists of past centuries shaped and preserved in their art the faces we see still engaged in the tasks and pleasures of everyday life, passing into the church for Mass on Sunday, for a funeral or a wedding or a baptism, under the eyes of the Christ, who looked down from his mandorla in heaven on their ancestors in the twelfth century, and from then through the generations.
So Jéan Segalat, in putting the dear, remembered face of his beloved, which was as well the face of the Sainte Foy of the late fifteenth century, into his work, is only, in his distinctive way, carrying on the artistic tradition of this country. Even if he blended in his mind the virgin martyr and the lady who with her dying broke his heart, is that not a natural part of the mystery of creation--with a gallant sort of troubadour twist?