We call him Santa Claus mainly but sometimes we still refer to him as old St. Nick or St. Nicholas, who was actually a 4th century Greek who served as a bishop in Constantine’s church of that time. Called Nicholas the Wonderworker and sainted in the church, his fame spread throughout Europe through the ages and evolved in story and form into the jolly, bearded fellow that we call Santa Claus today.
His bones are buried in the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. During repairs made in the 1950’s, his bones were temporarily removed during which time they were measured and photographed with great precision.
In 2005, it was determined that a reconstruction of old St. Nick’s face might be made using today’s cutting edge forensic technology. An excerpt from an article from the St. Nicholas Center, which is a fascinating site on the history and legend of St. Nick evolution into Santa Claus, describes the process:
The current professor of forensic pathology at the University of Bari, Francesco Introna, knew advancements in diagnostic technique could yield much more from the data gathered in the 1950s. So he engaged an expert facial anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, at the University of Manchester in England, to construct a model of the saint’s head from the earlier measurements.
Using this data, the medical artist used state-of-the-art computer software to develop the model of St. Nicholas. The virtual clay was sculpted on screen using a special tool that allows one to “feel” the clay as it is molded. Dr. Wilkinson says, “In theory you could do the same thing with real clay, but it’s much easier, far less time-consuming and more reliable to do it on a computer.”
After inferring the size and shape of facial muscles—there are around twenty-six—from the skull data, the muscles are pinned onto the virtual skull, stretched into position, and covered with a layer of “skin.” “The muscles connect in the same place on everyone, but because skulls vary in shape, a different face develops,” Wilkinson comments. The tangents from different parts of the nasal cavity determine the length of a nose. This was difficult because St. Nicholas’ nose had been badly broken. “It must have been a very hefty blow because it’s the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken,” she continued.
“We used clay on the screen that you can feel but not physically touch. It was very exciting. We did not have the physical skull, so we had to recreate it from two-dimensional data. We are bound to have lost some of the level of detail you would get by working from photographs, but we believe this is the closest we are ever going to get to him,” Wilkinson concluded.
Next the three-dimensional image went to Image Foundry Studios where a digital artist added detail and color to the model. This gave it Greek Mediterranean olive-toned skin, brown eyes, and grey hair and beard, trimmed in 4th century fashion.
The result of the project is the image of a Greek man, living in Asia Minor (part of the Greek Byzantine Empire), about 60-years old, 5-feet 6-inches tall, who had a heavy jaw and a broken nose.
So, there we have the face of our Santa Claus. It doesn’t seem so really different from the evolved version although that broken nose makes me wonder who popped Santa. Disgruntled elf? Or maybe just a mishap with a reindeer. Even the best forensics won’t tell us that tale.