Scholars involved in the digital reconstruction of the face of a medieval Benedictine abbot admit there is something “faintly familiar” about the results.
The image was extrapolated by experts from CT scans of a well-preserved skull of Abbot John of Wheathampstead, whose skeleton was discovered during excavations for a new visitor centre at St Albans Cathedral in December 2017.
They also drew on biographical details about the abbot, who was a powerful figure in the 15th-century church and was known for his ruddy complexion.
But they say any resemblance to an aged Wayne Rooney, Mikhail Gorbachev, or the former Labour home secretary John Reid are entirely coincidental.
The image is part of a new exhibition at the cathedral timed to coincide with this year’s heritage open days, beginning on Friday. Visitors are invited to “look into the eyes of this medieval monk”.
The dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, said: “He has an impish look, but also looks like a man who was not to be trifled with, as befits one of the most powerful ecclesiastical fixers of his day.
“I hope that seeing him in his human reality will raise interest in his life, and in the central role St Albans Abbey has played in this country.”
The project to reconstruct the face was led by Prof Caroline Wilkinson, the director of Face Lab based at Liverpool John Moores University. She has worked on a number of high-profile reconstructions of faces from history, including Robert the Bruce, Johann Sebastian Bach, Saint Nicholas, Richard III, and Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe.
Wilkinson said: “The more information we have, the better a reconstruction is going to be. We’re going for the most likely appearance, and that means working with all the information we have so it’s as accurate an estimation as possible. It’s not an exact science.
“Everything we do from an anatomical perspective and a shape perspective is directly from skeletal analysis, so the shape of the face is 100% based on the skull. What we call textural information comes from additional sources, so that would include skin, eye and hair colour, hairstyle, scars, moles, wrinkles, clothing. Those are all the things that you can’t possibly know from the skull.”
Wilkinson said she did not see a resemblance to Rooney, apart from his ears, but conceded the abbot did look a bit like Reid or Gorbachev.
She said: “I don’t think it looks like anyone in particular. He’s got a very characteristic face. He looks like he’s lived a good life. I would never have said that he looks like Rooney. He’s got big ears so I can see there’s a link there. He looks more like Gorbachev, there are similar proportions to the face.”
Prof James Clark, a medieval historian at the University of Exeter, provided biographical details about the abbot’s lifestyle and underlying health conditions. Describing the image in a blogpost for the cathedral, he said: “It is a genial face, suggesting a gentle, even warm and engaging character, and faintly familiar: this could be the friend or neighbour of many years standing, perhaps the stalwart member of the parish council.”
He said the face was a “valuable reminder that those that created and cared for these remarkable buildings are remote from us only in time. In spirit, and surely by sight, they are very much like ourselves.”