Image: © VISUALFORENSIC PHILIPPE FROESCH

In our world of social media and selfie sticks, it’s easy to forget that photography is a relatively new phenomenon in the course of human history. Before that, people depicted one another through artworks such as paintings and sculptures – though not always accurately. Many important figures from the past were captured in this way, but can we ever know what they looked like in reality? Well, with the help of digital imaging technology, we might finally have the answer to that.

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1. Bishop Jacques de Vitry

Born in the latter end of the 12th century, Jacques de Vitry was among the most celebrated Catholic preachers of his time. The French theologian was a talented storyteller and composed hundreds of sermons throughout his life. And his means of expressing religious thought were so effective that other clerics took inspiration from him.

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De Vitry became a cardinal in the year 1229 – some 11 years before his death. But even all these centuries later, he has endured as a figure worthy of attention. And to show what he might have looked like, the company Visualforensic has created a CGI facial reconstruction using CT scans to produce a realistic image of the Catholic preacher.

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2. Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene is a significant figure within the Christian faith. According to the Bible, she was a Jewish companion of Jesus who’d been present during some crucial events. It’s said that she’d witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, and her name crops up in the Bible at numerous points.

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Throughout the centuries, the figure of Mary Magdalene has endured as a great source of interest. Many believe that her skull lies in a church in the French town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. And it’s this skull which served as the model for Visualforensic’s digital formulation of her likeness.

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3. Dante

The Divine Comedy is widely thought to be the most important literary work ever composed in the Italian language. And its author Dante is consequently celebrated as a central figure within Italian literature as a whole. The work of Dante, in fact, has served to inspire countless other artistic endeavors.

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Renaissance artists often depicted Dante with a large nose and serious character. However, with the help of computer technology, drawings and measurements of his skull, we now have a more realistic-looking interpretation of this literary giant

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4. King Henry IV of France

France’s King Henry IV has been labeled with some grandiose nicknames – such as Henry the Great and Good King Henry. Plus, not only did rule France for some 21 years beginning in 1589, he also served as king of Navarre in modern-day Spain.

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Henry was murdered at the age of 57 in the 1610, though some of his remains have seemingly survived to the present day. The king’s head, it seems, had been stolen from his grave at some point – before ending up in private hands in 1919. And this very head provided the basis for Visualforensic’s rendering of his appearance.

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5. Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Stuart became the Scottish queen in her infancy following the death of her father James V. She held her title until 1567 – when she was forced to surrender her throne. Mary subsequently turned to Queen Elizabeth I of England for help. But the latter instead condemned her to captivity and eventual death.

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Specialists from Scotland’s University of Dundee attempted to piece together what Mary, Queen of Scots might have looked like. And to do so, they utilized 3D modeling programs and so-called “craniofacial templates.” Their finished work was then exhibited in Edinburgh in 2013.

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6. Robespierre

History buffs will recognize Maximilien de Robespierre as one of the prominent leaders of the French Revolution. Towards the end of 1793, he rise through the ranks of the Revolutionary government seemed unstoppable. The following year, however, opposition forces got the better of him and his head was chopped off.

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A so-called death mask of Robespierre’s face was made following his death. And this later formed the basis for a recreation by the acclaimed wax artist Madame Tussaud. It was also used as a reference point for a digital reconstruction conducted by facial reconstruction specialist Philippe Froesch and forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier in 2013. And the latter work lays bear the potential illnesses he was rumored to have carried towards the end of his life.

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7. Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony was a Christian from Egypt who’s said to have been among the first ever monks. In fact, he’s widely credited with being the architect of Christian monasticism. The man was a solitary figure, and his life has represented something of a blueprint for monks ever since.

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In 2014 the University of St. Anthony of Padua’s Anthropology Museum joined up with an international team of forensic researchers to create a realistic digital reconstruction of Saint Anthony. Using a digital copy his skull, the team created an image which presented him with a much fuller face – which differed to existing artworks depicting the man.

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8. Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is today widely regarded as one of America’s greatest ever writers. However, the author never received the acclaim that she deserved in her own lifetime. Recognition of her talents only really emerged after she’d died – when her sister stumbled across her catalog of work.

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Dickinson died of kidney disease in 1886 at the age of 55. However, one digital rendering of her reported by the website Science Sensei has shown us how she may have looked in the 21st century. And based on this image, we can imagine the reclusive writer typing away on her MacBook in some hip coffee shop.

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9. Mirabeau

Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau was a prominent French politician of the 18th century. He was at the heart of the governing National Assembly of France which was in place at the beginning of the revolution there. However, he passed away before events entered into a more extreme phase.

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After Mirabeau’s death in 1791, he was given a rather grandiose send off. In fact, the famed Parisian monument known as the Panthéon was actually built as a resting place for him, and it became a burial ground for numerous other important French figures. The company Visualforensic later did a laser scan of a death mask created for Mirabeau, and this formed the basis for its digital reconstruction of his face.

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10. The Sechelt people

The Sechelts – also known as the Shíshálh people – are native Americans from the Pacific Northwest Coast. And at the time of European contact, the Sechelt population amounted to around 26,000 people.

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The Sechelts unfortunately suffered greatly after the arrival of European settlers on their land. New diseases which they had never contended with such as smallpox spread widely and significantly decreased their population. Yet thanks to a rendition by Visualforensics created by laser scans of their skulls, we can approximate what members of this group would’ve looked like several millennia ago.

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11. Agnes Sorel

Agnes Sorel was only 20 years old when she first met the monarch of France: King Charles VII. A supposedly attractive and clever individual, Sorel swept Charles off his feet and the pair became lovers. She is said to have held great sway over the king, and various people took a dislike to her as a result.

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While pregnant with her and Charles’ fourth baby, Sorel fell ill and died under suspicious circumstances. In 2005 the European Synchrotron Facility discovered that she’d had a high amount of mercury in her system, but whether or not this means she was purposely poisoned is still unclear. In any case, using a CT scan of her skull, Visualforensic was able to create a digital reconstruction of Sorel’s face.

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12. Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 and is widely considered to be one of the finest musical composers in history. Some examples of his work include instrumental pieces like the “Goldberg Variations” and the “Brandenburg Concertos.” Acclaimed vocal pieces, meanwhile, include the “Mass in B minor” and the “St. Matthew Passion.”

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In 2008 the Bachhaus Eisenach museum commissioned a reconstruction of the 18th-century composer. And it depicts a man with something of an uneven face – with features not quite symmetrical. His cheeks are rather full, and his eyes are notably quite dark. But whether this image is an accurate interpretation or not, it still makes for an interesting snapshot of such an important figure.

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13. Civil War soldiers

On New Year’s Eve 1862, America was in the midst of the Civil War. And that day, the USS Monitor was sailing off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina with some 63 souls onboard. Eventually, the ship went down after a storm and 16 individuals disappeared along with it. However, thanks to technology, we now have an idea of what some of these sailors looked like.

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In 2002 the gun turret of the USS Monitor was brought to the surface, and the remains of two crewmen were found inside. In 2012 The LSU Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory teamed up with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And the team were then able to make digital reconstructions of the fallen soldiers.

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14. The Tollund man

In May 1950 a pair of peat cutters happened upon a dead body in a Danish bog. The remains appeared to be fresh, so the duo believed that they’d discovered a murder victim. Yet in reality, this body had been in the bog for a considerable amount of time.

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This naturally preserved body is said to date back some 2,400 years. And experts have suggested that this individual – known as Tollund Man – may actually have been purposely sacrificed as part of some ritual. In any case, the bog helped to keep his remains in-tact. And, thanks to Visualforensic’s work using CT scans, we now have a digital depiction of what he may have looked like at the time of his death.

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15. William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is, of course, largely considered to be the finest English-language writer of all time. And with works like Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet attributed to him, it’s not difficult to see why. He produced countless masterpieces throughout his lifetime – before passing away in 1616 at the age of 52.

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A death mask of Shakespeare was apparently found in the German city of Darmstadt in the 1840s. Fast-forward to 2010, and Dundee University’s Dr. Caroline Wilkinson conducted a so-called authentication analysis of the artifact. She subsequently had 3D images created of the playwright – resulting in this impressively detailed rendition.

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16. George Washington

At one time, George Washington had been the head of a Virginian plantation. After that, as many of us know, he became the commander-in-chief of the colonial forces during the American Revolution. And with that rising completed, he became the United States’ first-ever president.

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Given his central role in the establishment of the United States, Washington’s image is something we all know. Whether through paintings, $1 bank notes or on Mount Rushmore, his likeness is something we all would surely recognize. Now, though, we have a potentially more realistic picture – after researchers from New Jersey Medical School in Newark created a CGI image of the former president.

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17. Diseased Cro-Magnon individual

The term “Cro-Magnon” is a little out of date nowadays, and experts prefer to use the term “Early Modern Humans.” Whatever the terminology, though, we’re talking about Homo sapiens who lived from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. These people were even roaming around at the same time as another species of human: the Neanderthals.

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Based on a skull dating back some 30,000 years, Visualforensic used CT scans to create a digital rendering of what a Cro-Magnon individual would have looked like. And this particular person had a condition known as neurofibromatosis disease – a genetic ailment which leads to the growth of tumors on nerve tissue.

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18. Nefertiti

As an Egyptian queen and spouse to Pharaoh Akhenaten, Nefertiti was a significant figure of ancient times. During her life, she’s said to have supported innovative and cutting-edge art. And even in the contemporary period, a sculpture of her head has served as an important icon of ancient Egypt.

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Nefertiti’s bust is now in the Neus Museum in Berlin, Germany. This has been reproduced by many different artists, but the original was apparently created by a sculptor called Thutmose. How accurate this bust actually is will never likely be known. However, in 2018 a team which included Bristol University Egyptologist Dr. Aiden Dobdon used 3D imaging to create a replica of her head. And the result of this work was then turned into a sculpture by the paleoartist Elisabeth Daynès.

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19. Celtic man

The Celts were a group of people living in the British Isles and parts of the European continent. Their society began evolving in around 1200 B.C. and was split into various different tribes – all of which broadly spoke in comparable tongues and conducted similar religious practises. Furthermore, parts of their culture and language continue in Ireland and parts of Britain to this day.

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Archeologists are still finding evidence of Celtic culture to this day: including elaborate tombs and designs made of precious metals. But there’s no real indication of what the ancient Celts would have looked like. However, after using CT scans to analyze Celtic skulls, the company Visualforensic has created a digital rendering to give us an idea.

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20. Jesus Christ

The image of the Son of God has been central to countless artworks over the centuries. And much of what we know about the man comes from the New Testament. Yet given that he was said to have been born in Bethlehem in modern-day Palestine, we might posit that the image of a European-looking man which often appears in art isn’t particularly accurate.

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In 2001 British forensic anthropologist Richard Neave made of model of a Galilean man as part of a BBC documentary called Son of God. It was made on the basis of a real skull found in the region – though the expert never claimed that it was the face of Jesus. Rather, he said that he created the model to give a rough approximation of the Son of God’s features. The BBC wrote, “It was simply meant to prompt people to consider Jesus as being a man of his time and place – since we are never told he looked distinctive.”

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