The Real Face of St. Nicholas

Have you ever wondered what St. Nicholas really looked like?
If so, you aren't the only one!

How does this modern forensic reconstruction of Saint Nicholas' face compare with traditional images developed and handed down by iconographers through the centuries? It is possible that the original iconographers knew Nicholas and their icons were reasonable representations. However, soon the icon image became its own tradition, making it easy to recognize icons of St. Nicholas.

What do you think?

Images of six St Nicholas faces
Top row: 1) Russian icon, ca 1900; 2) Forensic Reconstruction 2014, Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University, used by permission; 3) Russian icon, 2001
Bottom row: 1) 19th century Russian icon; 2) Russian painting, ca 1990; 3) USA icon, 2000 (Jack Pachuta)
Icons from the St Nicholas Center Collection

Modern forensic anthropology has developed tools to help discover what people looked like. These techniques are primarily used to assist in identifying unknown crime victims. However, they can be used also for historic personages when there is access to the right information. Normally, this would be skeletal remains, including the skull.

St. Nicholas' remains are buried in the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. These bones were temporarily removed when the crypt was repaired during the 1950s. At the Vatican's request, anatomy professor Luigi Martino from the University of Bari, took thousands of minutely-detailed measurements and x-ray photographs (roentgenography) of the skull and other bones.

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 in 2004 he engaged expert facial anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, then 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."

Caroline Wilkinson updated her original 2004 work ten years later, in 2014. This new image incorporates the latest 3D interactive technology and facial reconstruction system as she had further developed it at the University of Dundee and Liverpool John Moores University. Working in the new Face Lab at the School of Art and Design, she and Mark Roughley have produced a more advanced image using the most up-to-date anatomical standards, tissue depth data from the region, and computer graphic imagery techniques. The result is a middle-aged man with a long beard, round head, and square jaw. St. Nicholas also had a severely broken nose that healed asymmetrically.

Real face of Saint Nicholas
2014 Reconstruction
Image: Face Lab, Liverpool John Moores University, used by permission

Mark Roughley and Caroline Wilkinson explain development of the new image at St. Nicholas Catholic Primary School in Liverpool
Photo: Liverpool John Moores University

"This is the most realistic appearance of St Nicholas based on all the skeletal and historical material. It is thrilling for us to be able to see the face of this famous 4th century Bishop," said Professor Wilkinson. The new image was unveiled at St. Nicholas Catholic Primary School. The school is adjacent to the LJMU's School of Art and Design. Wilkinson continued, "It was important to us to involve the local children in the reveal of the latest depiction of the face of St Nicholas and I hope that they will think of his face every year on St Nicholas's feast day."

The story received local, national and international coverage, including the BBC, Liverpool Echo, Daily Mirror, Washington Post, and more.

Here is more detail on the development of the earlier 2004 image. 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.

Reconstructed face
2004 Image: Image Foundry Studios /
Anand Kapoor
Used by permission
Reconstructed face
Reconstructed face
2020 Updated Image: Image Foundry Studios /
Anand Kapoor
Used by permission

The Real Face of St. Nicholas - 3D Visualisation from Image Foundry Studios on Vimeo.

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.

Press reaction to the facsimile tended to imply that good Saint Nicholas had had a brawling past, hence the broken nose. It is more likely, however, that his nose was broken when imprisoned and tortured during the persecution of Christians under Roman Emperor Diocletian.

The image and the process to create it were featured on a one-hour television documentary, The Real Face of Santa, produced by Atlantic Productions for BBC 2 and also shown on the Discovery Channel (see below).

Anatomical Examination of the Bari Relics
The only thorough identification and cataloging of the relics
Is St. Nicholas in Venice, too?
Examination of relics in the Lido of Venice
St. Nicholas in the Antalya Museum
Examination of the museum's bones
How Saint Nicholas May Have Looked
Several interpretations based on data and digital techniques
St. Nicholas: The Great Adventure (The Story of a Man and His Remains)
A history of the anatomical investigations of the skeletal remains of St. Nicholas of Myra
by lead investigator Luigi Martino


Relics of St. Nicholas—Where are They?
Many places claim St. Nicholas

The Real Face of Santa
Part 1 to 4 below
If watching on YouTube, when finished, click for the next section
from AtlanticLondon: 49:02 minutes

Part 1 - 14.06 minutes
Part 2 - 14:05 minutes
Part 3 - 14:05 minutes
Part 4 - 7:04 minutes


Putting a Face to the Past, BBC interview with Dr Caroline Wilkinson


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