Hideous Old Woman

ca. 1480

Boxwood, partially painted
Height 16 cm



This masterfully carved figure of an old woman is naked apart from her veil. Having only just become aware of her nakedness, she is desperately trying to cover her breasts and genitals, lamenting her pitiable situation. In strange contrast to her sagging breasts, her old face, her toothless mouth and her wrinkled neck, the skin on her limbs is smooth and the contours of her body relatively taut. These parts seem to belong to a younger woman.

Particularly when seen from behind, the figure hardly recalls an old woman at all. This contradiction expresses an admonition concerning the transience of earthly life; the fact that the old woman’s pose reflects the schema of an antique sculpture—the Venus pudica, or Modest Venus—lends the message all the more urgency. That statue was considered the epitome of female beauty and virtue but also of the immoral art of seduction. Naturally, this allusion, with its almost ironic quality, would only have been understood by those with an appropriate humanistic education. This leads us to believe that the work may have been intended for one of the so-called cabinets of curiosities. Collections of art and natural objects that were increasingly popular among the nobility and wealthy bourgeoisie from the sixteenth century onwards, those cabinets represent the origins of the modern museum. Our figure is older, however.

The best comparisons are found in sculpture executed in Ulm around 1480 to 1485, a date corresponding to that of the very earliest cabinets of curiosities. Emperor Frederick III, for example, is known to have had a collection of gems prior to 1484. The figure would appear to have been made for such a setting. The special quality of the sculpture of the “Hideous Old Woman” lies in the fact that it is one of the first nudes of its kind.