Reconstructing the Face of Mary Magdalene

Fagjun | Published 2017-09-16 10:45

Scientists have been able to reconstruct the face of Mary Magdalene using a skull that may or may not belong to the infamous biblical woman.


The reputed skull of Magdalene, on display at the Basilica of Saint Maximin [Photo via Magdalene Publishing]



The figure of Magdalene is shrouded both in mystery and controversy. She was indisputably a follower of Jesus Christ and had purportedly witnessed his death and resurrection. According to the Gospel of Luke, Magdalene had been possessed by seven demons, all of which had been cast out. Though Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and East Orthodox traditions consider Magdalene to be a saint, at some point in time, Western Christianity began to regard her as a prostitute or a promiscuous woman. However, none of the gospels offer evidence that she was indeed such.



There are also unproven theories that claim that she was the wife of Jesus—a claim that is unsurprisingly controversial. To make Magdalene even more mysterious, there have been numerous claims that her remains have been found.



The Remains of a Saint and Sinner


The interior of the Basilica of Saint Maximin [CC BY-SA 3.0]



One such claim points to a skull contained in a crypt beneath the Basilica of Saint Maximin in the south of France. There have been persistent rumors that the remains in that crypt did indeed belong to Mary Magdalene. These rumors gained traction in 1279 and have persisted since. It's important to note that Magdalene's remains have also been “found” in five other locations.


Researchers are aware that there's little evidence proving that these are indeed Magdalene's remains. Still, Philippe Charlier, a biological anthropologist, and Philippe Froesch, a visual forensic artist, have teamed up to reconstruct the woman's face.


We are absolutely not sure that this is the true skull of Mary Magdalene,” Charlier clarifies. “But it was very important to get it out of anonymity.”


The skull was last studied in 1974, and since then, the glass case holding the skull has been locked. Charlier and Froesch resorted to taking over 500 photographs of the skull from various angles. They used these photographs to create a 3D reconstruction that shows us what the woman the skull belonged to looked like in life. Their reconstruction techniques were based on those used by the American Federal Bureau of Investigation for crime scene investigations.



Face to Face With Mary Magdalene


Is this the face of Magdalene? [Photo by AP]



Magdalene or not, the researchers determined the woman to have died at the age of 50, and she was indeed of Mediterranean descent. The hair on the skull was dark brown, and the researchers based her skin color on the typical skin color of Mediterranean women. Interestingly, the hair showed traces of a type of clay used in ancient times to prevent lice.


Charlier and Froesch determined facial features such as the shape of the nose by using trigonometric ratios based on the woman's age, sex, and ethnicity. Thus, the computer-generated 3D model depicted a woman with high cheekbones, a pointed nose, and a round face. If this is indeed Magdalene, we're looking at the face of one of the most prominent women in Christian tradition.


Scientists can perform carbon dating on the skull to determine its age, but this would entail taking parts of the skull, which the Catholic Church does not allow. Still, Charlier hopes that someday, he can conduct more studies to determine if the face he helped reconstruct did indeed belong to Mary Magdalene.

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