EXTRACT from Portrait of an Unknown Woman
The Independent – September 30, 2006
Hans Holbein hadn’t thought of Magdalena for more than an instant in months. So he was irritated to have his senses invaded again by the cloying memory of her as he looked at this English girl who was so unlike her. This long-nosed girl, Meg Giggs, whose dark blue eyes were snapping with intelligence in her pale face; who was leaning forward in her chair, ready to engage him in sprightly conversation, visibly trying to think of simple ways to talk to this foreigner whose grasp of her language was slow and whose grasp of Latin was almost non-existent.
‘Do you think,’ Meg was saying now, speaking slowly and carefully for his benefit, pushing back the messy wisps of black hair that were escaping from her headdress without really noticing them, and looking earnest (she didn’t make much of herself, though he could see she’d be pretty if she only tried a bit harder), ‘that it’s – vain – to have your portrait painted?’
Practically the first thing Nicholas Kratzer, the astronomer here, had told him in German, in a whisper of warning during dinner, was ‘They’ll all try and get you to talk philosophy with them. But don’t, for God’s sake, talk about anything serious until the two of us have had a proper talk and I’ve explained how things here are – because nothing is quite the way it seems. And loose talk could get you into trouble.’ Which sounded worrying. But Hans Holbein was so disarmed by the gravity in Meg Giggs’s face and voice as she asked her un-girlish question that he stopped worrying. He just burst out laughing.
‘I meant it seriously,’ she said, looking nettled, though with a flush coming into her cheeks that she probably didn’t realise softened her face into prettiness. ‘It wasn’t a silly question.’ She was talking faster, going pinker, and getting cleverer by the second. ‘It’s what Thomas à Kempis wrote, isn’t it – that you should renounce the world and not be proud of your beauty or accomplishments?’ And then she began quoting: “Let this be thy whole endeavour, this thy prayer, this thy desire: that thou mayest be stripped of all selfishness, and with entire simplicity follow Jesus only; mayest die to thyself, and live eternally to me. Then shalt thou be rid of all vain fancies, causeless perturbations and superfluous cares.” … That’s what I mean. If you think that way, then you’d think a portrait was a vanity bordering on blasphemy, wouldn’t you?’
She stopped, a bit breathless, and looked provocatively at him. Hans Holbein had never seen a woman looking provocative in this completely unflirtatious way, any more than he’d ever come across a woman who had read the Imitation of Christ. She was challenging his mind instead of his body. But Erasmus had told him about More’s family school. This must be what happened to women when you taught them Latin and Greek and the skills of argument. He’d stopped laughing a while back; now he put down his silverpoint pencil, and nodded more respectfully. But there was still a smile on his lips. ‘You look like an elegant young gentlewoman,’ he said, liking the challenge, feeling as though he was home again and about to get caught up in one of the involved conversations at Froben’s print house that he now missed so much; ‘but I see you have the mind of a theologian.’
She tossed her head, more impatiently than in acknowledgement of his compliment. ‘But what do you think?’ she insisted.
Surprised by himself, Hans Holbein paused to think. He was remembering the hundreds of sketches of faces and bodies he and Prosy had done in their father’s studio; not a money-making venture, just a technical exercise, back in the days when capturing a likeness was still considered not as an art form in itself but just a lowly artisan’s trick. And he was remembering glamorous Uncle Hans, coming back from his years in Venice full of the new humanist learning and new ideas about painting faces so realistically that you saw the inner truth in them – God in every human feature. Uncle Hans brought the southern ways home and made his fortune making portraits of the great and good from the Pope to Jakob Fugger, Ausburg’s richest merchant. He’d been the young Hans Holbein’s biggest hero. But the younger artist was also remembering the new reasons for denouncing painting. He was remembering how Prosy had stopped painting altogether a few years back, because – as he liked to say, in his irritatingly dogmatic way, thumping his fist on the tavern table – he wouldn’t provide any more ‘idolatrous’ images of the saints’ faces for the churches. What tipped Prosy over the edge was being jailed after he’d publicly abused the clergy for mass superstition, and being forced to apologise to them. Prosy wasn’t the only one to react so violently and self-destructively; artists everywhere were giving up their paintbrushes to purify the Church. That was what they kept telling people, anyway. But Hans had no time for this sort of thinking. Prosy shouldn’t have gone out on the rampage after too many hours in the tavern. He certainly shouldn’t have gone yelling at priests with his red face and his uncouth voice and his unemployed layabout friends. Prosy, who didn’t quite have the talent to get the commissions, who’d always struggled with money, and who’d always resented their father for pushing him, as the smarter younger brother, was just the type to fall back on the ‘art is idolatry’ argument now. In Hans’s opinion, all those ex-artists now denouncing art in the name of religious purity were just losers who couldn’t get commissions any more and needed excuses to explain their failure.
‘I think,’ he said slowly, searching for words, becoming fully serious as he engaged with the odd English girl’s question. ‘I think that Erasmus was right to start having his portraits painted, and engraved, and sold. I felt honoured to make likenesses of him. I don’t believe it is right to renounce the world when God has put us in it and our presence here is part of His holy design. You can see God in a human face. And, if God delights in His creation, and in the beauty and talents of the people He put on this earth, why shouldn’t we?’
He was a little embarrassed by his own unexpected eloquence. But he was strangely pleased, too, to see it rewarded when she nodded, slowly and approvingly, and thought over what he said. So he told her about getting to know Erasmus while painting his portrait. Three times in the last ten years. ‘If I look that good perhaps I should take a wife,’ Erasmus said mockingly when he saw the sycophantic first picture; but he went on commissioning more. Then she grinned and threw back her head, and he liked the spark in her eye. It made Hans Holbein think she might even understand something of how becoming so engrossed in form and colour that he didn’t notice time passing or hunger in his belly was his passion, his act of worship.
All she said, in a gentler voice, was, ‘I’d love to see more of your work one day.’
That was enough to send him rushing awkwardly to the side of the room, where his sketchbooks and copies of the printed books illustrated by his engravings were piled up, to bring her the drawings and copies he kept of the work he was most proud of. He was surprised to find his hands shaking slightly as he reached for them.
Somehow his copies of the three pictures of Magdalena came to the top of the pile. Not just the Madonna that Jakob Mayer had ordered, but also the very first picture, from the early days, when she was Venus, soft-eyed, smiling gently and gesturing alluringly out of the page; and even his revenge portrait, painted in the evenings of those bitter days when he was working on the Madonna painting. Also smiling – but with a flintier tinge to her expression – and holding out her hand again, but this time as if for money. It was the first time he’d looked at this work without being catapulted back into all the emotions of the past. Now he just felt exposed, and anxious about how Meg Giggs would react. But if she noticed any of the feelings he’d filled the three pictures with, she had the restraint not to comment. It was the Virgin of Mercy picture that she stopped at.
‘How beautifully you’ve painted her,’ she said neutrally; but it was Hans Holbein’s daring innovation in design – the humanist conceit that the Baby Jesus, rather than the Virgin, was blessing and protecting the family with his pudgy, outstretched arm – that caught her attention. ‘I like that composition,’ she added, with assurance. She admired the rich scarlets and crimsons of sashes and legs. And she praised the background which Uncle Hans had taught his nephew to paint in the Italian style, glowing with earthly life: a luminous sky-blue colour, broken by sunlit branches and oak leaves.
It was only when she reached for the next picture – his tiny copy of the mural of Christ in his tomb – that he began to feel uneasy for more down-to-earth reasons. As she looked with a mixture of fascination and horror at his depiction of a putrefying corpse in a claustrophobic box of a coffin, with its face and the spear wound in its side going blue and its dead eyes staring open, Hans Holbein suddenly remembered Kratzer’s warning about not letting himself be drawn into philosophical conversations with these people or revealing his less conventional beliefs. If anything spoke of the reformist belief that religion must be stripped back to nothing but the private relationship between Christ and man – forgetting the whole edifice of the Church which had come between them for so long – this picture, which had shocked even some of the free-thinking humanists, was it. It was so clearly that of a man, not a manifestation of God. Hastily, he put a hand on the portfolio cover, ready to shut it. But her hand was already there, holding it open. Lost in contemplation, she didn’t even notice his hand appearing next to hers. But he did, and was so startled by his own effrontery at having so nearly touched her that he pulled his own hand back as if he’d been burned.
She turned her gaze back up at him, unaware of his confusion.
‘You are a wonderful painter, Master Hans,’ she said warmly. ‘I didn’t expect you to be such a master.’
If she noticed his dampness and quickness of breath now, she would probably think it just a reaction to her compliment. He smiled awkwardly, and, noticing that her hand had moved, reached for the portfolio cover. He was almost sweating with worry, with more and more memories of what he kept in this folder stabbing back into his mind. The next work down was one of the Dance of Death engravings. And somewhere in the pile was his engraving of the front page of Luther’s New Testament. It would most definitely be dangerous for the Mores to have any inkling that he’d had anything to do with that book. Reaching over her arm – and noticing, even in the middle of his panic attack, how long her slim fingers were, and finding that only made his heart beat faster still – he finally snapped the cover shut.
‘Oh – but can’t I see the rest?’ she asked, and dimpled up at him.
‘Another time,’ he said, forcing a genial smile back on his face and gesturing as firmly as he could towards his easel. ‘But first we must work.’
He was surprised when they were called for the midday meal. The morning had flashed by, and he’d hardly put more than a few lines of a sketch together. Hans Holbein was ushering Meg Giggs out of the door and towards the great hall when he saw Nicholas Kratzer standing in the shadows, watching him, with a sardonic grin on his bony face.
As Meg took off up the stairs with long, tomboyish strides, Kratzer caught up with him.
‘You’re smitten,’ Kratzer challenged.
Hans Holbein shook his head and looked down at his feet. He liked Kratzer, and thought they would almost certainly become friends while they were both living in this house. But there were things he wasn’t willing to share. There was something absurd about an artisan who’d painted house fronts having his heart turned over by a young lady so impossibly out of his reach. He didn’t want to look a fool. He didn’t want to feel a fool.
‘No,’ he said stolidly, not meeting Kratzer’s eye. ‘Just doing my job.’