NOTICE: I am a practicing Catholic, active and in good-standing with my local parish, who professes faith and loyalty to the Church. This ministry - my "little work" - is strictly a personal expression of that faith and loyalty, and not an officially recognized ministry in the Diocese of Honolulu. ~ Peter

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Faces of Holiness: Forensic Reconstructions of Two Saints and a Blessed

Ever since a forensic team unveiled a portrait of St. Anthony of Padua, last year, that was forensically reconstructed using scanned images of his skull (see it here)... I've been fascinated with the idea of researching other holy personages whose remains may have been subjected to the same scientific study.  More often than not, when we see devotional images of our Saints, their respective artists tend to "doll them up" way too much; perfect, youthful features with rosy cheeks and pink lips, which I think are highly unrealistic and almost strips the Saint or Blessed of the human aspects of their lives and normal physical characteristics such as wrinkles, blemishes, or other unique facial features (e.g. a crooked nose).  Plus I think it's interesting, and somewhat amusing, to see what their actual faces looked like in comparison to popular depictions in print or statuary.

But to be fair, when dealing with Saints/Blesseds, especially those who lived before photography was invented, I understand that the artist probably did his/her best to interpret the holy person's appearance in the light of faith and traditional iconography... and perhaps even emphasized the "spiritual beauty" of the Saint in the absence of concrete physical references.

So going back to my research... I actually found three other examples of holy persons whose probable facial features have been reconstructed by scientific experts using their actual skulls as models.  One is a male Saint who was the inspiration for the popular legend of our beloved "Santa Claus"... and the others were obscure female mystics from Italy and Germany.  Now without any further ado, I present the following:

+ St. Nicholas of Myra/Bari (d. 343)

This Saint was born of a Greek family, but lived in Myra (now in present day Turkey) where he ministered to the Faithful.  Through the influence of an uncle, who was a Bishop, St. Nicholas became a priest and was himself consecrated a Bishop around the year 317.  During his lifetime, he was renowned for his exemplary charity towards the poor and was reported to have worked astounding miracles, including raising several dead people to life through his fervent prayer.

A computer-generated reconstruction of the features of St. Nicholas of Myra (left)
in comparison with a popular representation of the Saint. 

After his death, the Saint's bone relics were transferred from its original tomb in Myra to Bari (Italy) in 1087, where they have been the object of veneration ever since... as well as the focus of an ongoing miracle.  Throughout the centuries the bones of St. Nicholas reportedly drip "manna", a clear fluid with curative properties.  The phenomenon has been repeatedly investigated by Church officials but no reasonable explanation has been found, as to its origin and mysterious appearance.

The tomb of St. Nicholas, which enshrines his sacred relics that
exude miraculous manna in the form of a clear liquid.

Today, the priests of the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, where the Saint's tomb is located, annually collect the manna that accumulates around the bones of St. Nicholas, and ceremoniously mix it with holy water, which is then freely distributed to the faithful.  Cures continue to be reported through the devout use of this sacred manna.

+ St. Rose of Viterbo (d. 1251)

This particular Saint, unlike the other two featured in this posting, died very young; she was only 17-years-old.  But despite her youth, she lived a fruitful spiritual life, spent in courageous service to the Church.

A depiction of St. Rose of Viterbo (left), commisioned by the Poor Clares of Viterbo,
the custodians of her relics.  The image was made based on forensic studies conducted
on the incorrupt body of the youthful Saint. 

St. Rose allegedly performed her first miracle (there were many) when she was only 3-years-old by raising a dead aunt to life with her touch.  She practiced voluntary mortification even as a child, and at 10 received a vision of Our Lady, who commissioned her to preach penance to the people.  The holy teen clothed herself in the rough sackcloth habit of the Franciscans, and with a crucifix in hand, did as she was told by the Blessed Virgin.

She brought many souls to God through her preaching and sometimes even through stupendous miracles.  For example, Rose was reportedly raised in the air, along with a boulder she was standing on, during one of her preaching episodes when the crowds became too large and people could not see her.

The incorrupt body of St. Rose, as venerated in Viterbo, Italy.

After Rose died of a congenital heart defect, her body was found miraculously incorrupt and is today guarded by the Poor Clares of Viterbo, Italy. An enlightening sketch drawn using forensic studies conducted on the Saint's preserved body, showed St. Rose to have been a young woman with a long face, but with very fine features.

+ Bl. Christina Bruso of Stommeln (d. 1312)

This little-known German Mystic was a victim-soul for the conversion of sinners and experienced incredible spiritual phenomena during her lifetime.  She entered a Beguine community in Cologne at around 13-years-old to escape an arranged marriage, but was later dismissed when controversy arose over the mystical graces that began to physically manifest around her.  These external signs included prolonged ecstasies and the Stigmata, which marked Christina's hands, feet, and brow.  

A clay reconstruction of the features of Bl. Christina of Stommeln (left)
in comparison with a statue-representation of her in a German church. 

Christina was forced to return to Stommeln, where she was taken in by a kindly parish priest.  It was also at this time that she began experiencing a new and extremely painful trial in her life - physical assaults from demonic entities.  The pious maiden was not only beaten and wounded by invisible attackers, but she was sometimes targeted by flying objects and showered with foul-smelling matter.  The frightful episodes often extended to her family and friends, including distinguished priests when they tried to assist her... but despite of it all, Christina maintained an admirable peace and strength, offering her sufferings for the good of souls and the Church, in general.  She was consoled by ecstasies during which she was encouraged by Our Lord and other heavenly visitors (also see the life of St. Catalina Thomas).

The skull of Bl. Christina of Stommeln, which was used in the
forensic reconstruction of her facial features.  Note the discoloration around
the brow - it is said to be the effects of a mystical crown of thorns
that the Blessed wore around her head.

The diabolic phenomena ceased completely in Christina's later years and she was finally able to live a peaceful life as a consecrated laywomen.  She died at the age of 70 and her memory is still very much alive in Stommeln and Julich, where her relics are enshrined.

Upon reflecting on these faces, especially those of St. Nicholas and Bl. Christina, the thought that immediately came to mind was how oddly familiar they looked to me in comparison with their respective devotional images. Seriously, these faces could be of people I run into daily on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, in church, etc.  But it all just goes to remind us, once again, that the face of holiness comes in all shapes and sizes, and most importantly... that Saints were human beings, too.


  1. Peace and thanks be to God for your witness. In particular just learned about Blessed Christina's sufferings and appreciate seeing her relic and reconstruction as well. I didn't think I had many patron saints but a blessing per Laudate app's Saint of the Day.

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog! 'appreciate the comments you left here. God bless you!