Scientists reconstruct the face of a 15th century abbot

Hyperaxion Sep 10, 2020

The reconstruction helps improve knowledge about medieval England, when John of Wheathampstead was influential in St. Albans Abbey.

A team of British scientists in partnership with the Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab was able to reconstruct the face of John of Wheathampstead from his skeleton.

Scientists reconstruct the face of a 15th century abbot
(Credit: Professor Caroline Wilkinson – LJM University).

He was a popular and influential abbot at St. Albans Abbey in the United Kingdom in the 15th century.

“The reconstruction of Abbot John of Wheathampstead’s face brings him startlingly to life, and immediately invites us to read his character from his features. 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,” said Reverend Dr. Jeffrey John, Dean of St. Albans.

“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’s history.”

John was chosen to be abbot in 1420 and, in 1440, resigned. But 12 years later, with the death of his successor, John Stoke, he held the position for the second time. He died in 1465.

Compared to more than 650 medieval monasteries in England, St. Albans is well documented and preserved. Some of the remaining manuscripts of the medieval abbey contain original illustrations, drawn and painted according to the principles of the time to represent general virtues and vices.

Wheathampstead’s skeleton was well preserved because it was buried outside the church in a chapel he built in his later years. Although the structure was brought down in 1539, the underground remains were not moved and, in 2017, were rediscovered.

After analyzing the remains, researchers found that after the age of 50, the abbot suffered from chronic diseases in the spleen, kidneys, liver, and stomach. He also needed the support of a walking stick.

(Credit: LJM University).

Scientific art

Facial reconstruction is defined as a “scientific art”, as it combines forensic research and anatomical knowledge with the creative ability to visualize a subject in a given context.

This is the second face from the 15th century to be reconstructed, almost ten years after King Richard III. Abbot Wheathampstead is also the second clergyman in medieval England to be the subject of such research.

The face of Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1381, was modeled in 3D in 2011. Sudbury also served as an object of forensic investigation because of his tragic death: his beheaded skull was kept as a relic in his local church.


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