The Ugly Duchess (Part 1)

An Old Woman (The Ugly Duchess), oil on wood; 
painted about 1513 – by Quinten Matsys (1465-1530)
Photo Credit: Big Reid’s iPhone @ National Gallery, London

What inspired the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci? 

At the end of the 14th-century, Quentin Matsys (also spelled as Massys) was a little-known Flemish artist who went on to be the founder of the Antwerp School. While wandering through the National Gallery in London, I stumbled on to his 1513 painting: An Old Woman (The Ugly Duchess).  This was easily the most captivating portrait I encountered during my visit (maybe because endocrinologists find Paget’s disease interesting, maybe because Matsys is so talented). At only 500 years old, it was in stark contrast to the flawless beauty depicted in the classical Greek sculptures of the British Museum, which I’d visited earlier that day.


Drawing of a Grotesque Woman; red chalk on paper
by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
Both Da Vinci and Matsys were very interested in ugliness. For years, art scholars assumed that The Ugly Duchess was based on one of  Da Vinci’s Grotesque sketches. Da Vinci was renowned for his intensely private studies that included detailed sketches of this style. In reality, the evidence now suggests that it was Da Vinci who was inspired. The two artists were known to have exchanged sketches. In this case, it is difficult to dispute that Leonardo was deeply influenced by Matsys’ work.

The Matsys painting is purported to be a portrait of Margaret Countess of Tyrol, who was also known as Margarete Maultasch (Margaret ‘Satchel-Mouth’). However, the Countess died almost 100 years before Matsys was even born. She was an Austrian princess in the 14th century. Legends (which are of dubious reliability) describe her as a ruthlessly violent nymphomaniac; she also was purported to be the embodiment of ugliness. Maybe that is why her name has been attached to the Matsys portrait. Other reports describe her as beautiful and kind. It is obvious that the former reputation holds sway.

Scholars seem to agree that the sitter for Matsys’ work had striking facial deformities from long-standing Pagets’s disease of bone (more on this another time). We can’t be certain about what message Matsys was trying to convey in this work.[i] Conceivably, it was an accurate portrait of a rich noble that depicts striking self-confidence in the face of a butt-ugly exterior. But for me, Matsys was making a much larger statement.  I see his work a mirror into which each observer has the opportunity to gaze and take a long hard look at themselves.

To look at the accoutrements of the Duchess, we see the trappings of one obsessed with youth and outer beauty.  She wears a heavily jeweled headdress of an aristocrat, but one that was then so outdated as to make it comical.  It’s horned shape and associated veil are meant to highlight her face. Her jewelry and clothes are of the highest quality and craftsmanship and betray her affluence and social stature.  The low-cut neckline and corseting of her bodice show off her breasts and figure.  In her right hand she holds a single red rosebud, symbolic of her quest for a suitor.

But there is a problem . . . SHE IS NOT BEAUTIFUL. Her breasts are wrinkled and flabby.  Her lips are thickened; her face is coarse and wrinkled; her ears are abnormally large.  Her bulbous and upturned nose looks more like a snout. Her cranial deformities masculinize her features with bossing of her forehead and brows, and enlargement of her chin and jaw. The extension of her upper lip give her a grotesque ape-like appearance. Rather than the image of a beautiful young woman, we have the impression of a balding old man. In the words of Isaiah, this is ‘burning instead of beauty.’ Indeed, she is a bud that will ‘likely never bloom’.

I must say I’ve never seen Paget’s disease of this severity in my whole career,[ii]but I’ve seen my share of ugly Duchesses. It is manifest in many ways: infatuation with all things superficial, unbridled lust for perpetual youth, cosmetic surgery taken to extremes,[iii] obsession with fitness and body building, out-of-control wardrobes, infatuation with having the right labels on everything from grocery bags to pencils, and inability to simply grow up and put off childish things (I could go on but will cut the diatribe short). Let me concede that I appreciate beauty, quality, ‘nice things’ and a youthful spirit.[iv] But for me this unforgetable painting was a useful illustration of the trappings of the flesh. I saw in this 500 year old painting the here and now. The realization that we need to somehow get beyond this suddenly crashed in to my comfortable existence. 

If The Ugly Duchess portrait is a mirror, then most of us will find it reflecting back some inner ugliness of which we are not so proud.  We use the principle of distraction to focus outside attention to our more favorable attributes: style, clothing, wit, adornments–anything but the ugliness we’re trying to hide. Like the Duchess, we spare no expense in trying to disguise and cover it. But, even heroic efforts to retain one’s youth and physical beauty are doomed to fail. Our blemishes will not be hidden forever. Even a life spent in the pursuit of remaining one of the beautiful people is likewise a losing endeavor that will not keep us happy or bring more than transitory inner peace.

The point of all this (finally!), is that figuratively speaking we are all ugly because of sin, and no amount of primping or adornments will succeed in covering it.  The atonement of Jesus Christ and his gospel have the ability to make the ugly beautiful.  In fact, it is the only way it can be done. David was fond of the notion that true beauty comes as we worship the Lord in holiness (Psalms 29:2; 96:9). Nephi, Isaiah and Jeremiah all use beauty as a surrogate for righteousness.  I think Moroni may have said it best:

O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day.


These are truly inspired words to remember the next time I start to ‘get my Duchess on’.





[i] It has been suggested that Matsys may have been expounding on an essay of Erasmus from 1511 in which he satires women who “still play the coquette”, “cannot tear themselves away form their mirrors”, and “do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive, withered breasts” [Grössinger, Christa (1997). Picturing women in late Medieval and Renaissance art. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 136.]
[ii] This degree of deformity is a relic of the past thanks to advances in medical treatment for Paget’s disease over the last 25 years.
[iii] I find great humor in the latest trend: silicone lip injections that create a look reminiscent of a carp’s mouth. I’m increasingly amazed by the number of men using anabolic steroids solely for the look.  Thursday I saw my first 64-year old man with pectoral implants when he came in looking for hCG, human growth hormone and testosterone . . . no joke!
[iv] There is currently a big family dispute on whether I’m on my 3rd or 4th midlife crisis . . . 

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