Inspired by An Old Woman (“The Ugly Duchess”) by Quentin Massys, on show at the National Gallery, room 5
Read by Claire Lacey
Thirty years after he first painted me, I’m sitting for Quentin Massys again. But this time I know what’s behind every brushstroke; he barely looks at me, he’s so focused on his mockery. I could get up and wander round to check the canvas, but I’m stiff and tired, and besides I can picture it only too well.
Tits on a shelf, last century’s fashion jauntily wrapped round wrinkled neck, and the piece de resistance, a fresh rosebud nestled between withered dugs.
Margerete Maultasch the drinkers shout after me, before they melt into the darkness of the bierkeller doorway.
I’ve heard it all before. Not so much in Durnstein, my home town, no they were used to my - how shall I say, jolie-laide features, my ‘unconventional’ looks. In rural Carpathia, we lived in a world of wounded, and those wounds festered. Club-footed children, pock-marked matrons, people twisted by arthritis or accidents of birth. Herr Kirsch had a nub of a hand where the lathe had slipped. Karolus’ right arm hung uselessly since a cart crushed him against a wall. Tuberculosis, tetanus, a rusty nail, an infection - if these things didn’t kill you they left their mark, leaving you with a harsher life and a new nickname.
We knew that nature could delight in the disfiguring oakapple as much as tender blossom. And we accepted that. But in Vienna people were less forgiving – there was an edge to their comments. What does she think she looks like? Don’t mind if I don’t. Hammel Kleider als Lamm: mutton dressed as lamb. Put them away dear. No, don’t think you’re the first to say that.