Mysterious Universe

She may be the second-most-famous woman in the New Testament, but biblical historians continue to find new evidence that Mary Magdalene (Mary of Magdala) was an important member of the inner circle of Jesus, a key figure in formation of Christianity and the subject of religious, political, historical and biblical infighting that continues through today. Now, a skull kept for centuries in a French church because it was believed to be hers has been subjected to computer facial reconstruction and believers now have a face to go with the name. Will this cause more Mary Magdalene mayhem? What will Dan Brown think?

There are too many versions of the life of Mary Magdalene to tell here. Not surprisingly, her skull and relics have multiple tales as well. According to Eastern Orthodox traditions, she died in Ephesus (Greek city on the coast of Ionia). The Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos claims to have the left hand of Mary Magdalene which is said to be incorruptible (will not decompose). The rest of her relics were taken to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 886 and were buried in the monastery Church of Lazarus. The Roman Catholic tradition (or at least the one most commonly held) is that she traveled to and died in the south of France and her relics, including a skull, were kept in various places before ending up in the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, where they are stored and occasionally displayed today.

The golden reliquary in the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume containing the alleged skull of Mary Magdalene.

That’s the skull that Philippe Charlier, a biological anthropologist from the University of Versailles, and Philippe Froesch, a visual forensic artist, used to create a computer image of the face of Mary Magdalene. Forensic facial reconstruction has become a valuable tool in crime solving but a controversial one in anthropology. Recreations have been made of Neanderthals, mummies, Otzi the Iceman and more, but there’s no way to confirm their accuracy without a time machine.

Philippe Froesch and Philippe Charlier hold a forensic facial reconstruction of Mary Magdalene.

According to the National Geographic, Charlier and Froesch were allowed to take over 500 photographs from different angles of the skull without removing it from its locked glass case in the basilica. That data generated a 3-D model of the face with indications that the woman was about 50 and of Mediterranean descent. Another relic – a hair sample – showed she had brown locks and a Mediterranean complexion. Froesch, the artist, gave the face an expression – one of the things critics of forensic anthropology don’t like because it’s so subjective. Froesch defends his technique, saying it’s the same one used by the FBI.

Would the FBI think their facial reconstruction proves the skull belonged to Mary Magdalene? Not hardly. Charlier isn’t sure either. He’s hoping Catholic Church policies and politics change to allow researchers to open the glass case, remove the skull for closer observation and eventually take a fragment that can be used for carbon dating and DNA testing.

At that point, will it be time to bring in Dan Brown for a sequel?

What do we do with all of these paintings?