Two marble hands reaching for each other, immortalised for all time; these are the 12th-century lovers Diego and Isabel, whose tomb to this day attracts romantics from all over the world.
Here is the legend of Los amantes de Teruel:
In the city of Teruel in northern Spain (the region of Aragon), childhood sweethearts Diego and Isabel grew up and fell deeply in love with each other. They wished to marry, but Isabel’s rich and powerful father did not find Diego a suitable suitor, for he was a second son and not sufficiently wealthy. Diego came up with a solution: he would go out into the world and make his fortune, returning in five years to marry Isabel.
Isabel waited the long years for her love’s return, never once straying from her commitment to him. But Isabel’s father was impatient, and when they heard nothing from Diego, he assumed him gone for good. On the day after the five-year period had elapsed, he made his daughter marry another, Don Pedro – only to find Diego riding into the village right after the ceremony, now a wealthy man and ready to marry his Isabel (Diego had begun the five-year count the day after he agreed it with the father, hence he thought he was right on time).
The poor, thwarted lovers! That evening, as Isabel lay in bed with her new husband, Diego crept into the room.
‘Kiss me,’ he said, ‘for I am dying.’
‘I cannot,’ she told him, ‘for to do so would be to betray my husband, and to displease God.’
Isabel’s faith stood between them, an indomitable force. Diego was heartbroken. After imploring her again to kiss him – to save him – he collapsed to the floor, dead.
The next day, a funeral was held for Diego in the local church. A devastated Isabel decided she must grant Diego his dying wish. She walked down the church to his body, lifted her veil and kissed her love. In an instant, she too had fallen to the floor, dead.
Moved by the story of these two tragic lovers, their families buried them side by side, that they may be together at last, in the eternal life.
So ends the legend of Spain’s very own star-crossed lovers. It is a legend, though it has been taken seriously by many ever since, in 1578, two mummies were exhumed in the Church of San Pedro in Teruel which, it was claimed, were those of Diego and Isabel. The mummies were laid to rest in a new, beautifully sculpted tomb, atop which their effigies reach for each other but do not quite touch, to represent the purity of their love.
In fact, the mummies are not the true Diego and Isabel of history (recent DNA testing has discovered the remains are not quite old enough, and both are male), but that does not diminish the romance of the legend, which has put Teruel on the ‘Europe in Love’ map, along with places like Verona.
The story has captured many creative imaginations. Here are the lovers depicted by painter Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1840–1924):
Recently, the lovers’ story inspired an opera, produced by the Amantes Foundation and performed at the Church of San Pedro in Teruel, where the lovers – and their legend – rest.