Last month National Geographic reported that biological anthropologist Philippe Charlier, from the University of Versailles, and forensic artist Philippe Froesch collaborated on a project to create a 3D computer reconstruction of a face that might have belonged to Mary Magdalene. However, the identification of the skull used for this project as one of Jesus’ most devoted followers is based on tradition, and not conclusive historical or forensic evidence.
The alleged Mary Magdalene skull is displayed at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, a medieval French church, in a guilded reliquary. Officials at the basilica only allowed Charlier and Froesch to photograph the skull, they were not permitted to take it out of its locked reliquary. The researchers took hundreds of pics from different angles that were used to generate a computer model.
Charlier conducted a visual examination of the relic based on what could be seen in its case in order to provide necessary information for the reconstruction. Forensic artists need estimation of ancestry, sex, and age in order to calculate things like tissue depth and shape of the nose. He approximated that this skull belonged to a female of Mediterranean ancestry who was about fifty years old when she died.
Froesch rendered an image of a woman with almond-shaped eyes, a pointed nose with a bump on the bridge, and high cheekbones. He approximated things like skin and eye color based on shades seen modern Mediterranean populations.
But is this really the face of Mary Magdalene?
The tradition around this relic states that the skull was discovered when Charles II, King of Naples, funded excavations in the southeastern region of France. He heard the legends about how Mary traveled to France after Jesus’ execution and lived there until her death. A sarcophagus with human remains attributed to Mary was found in December of 1279. The king established a basilica Ste. Marie-Madeleine in 1295 and the priory at Sainte Baume, which was eventually placed under the order of the Dominican monks.
Charlier will be the first to admit that the ID of this skull is suspect. He told National Geographic, “We are absolutely not sure that this is the true skull of Mary Magdalene. But it was very important to get it out of anonymity.”
The only way to give some support to the traditional identification of this skull is to extract samples for radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis. But these two tests have limitation because radiocarbon dating can only approximate a window of time the woman lived, and DNA analysis could prove sex and geographic origins of the female’s ancestors.
Below is a video from National Geographic about how Philippe Charlier and Philippe Froesch developed the 3D image.