Scientists reconstruct the face of St. John of Nepomuk

Saint John of Nepomuk, photo: ČTK/Miroslav Chaloupka

A team of Czech anthropologists has reconstructed the face of one of the country’s patron saints, John of Nepomuk, using recorded details of his skull. The resulting face is quite different from the image commonly used until now.

St. John of Nepomuk,  photo: ČTK/Miroslav Chaloupka
John of Nepomuk is the famous victim of King Wenceslas IV.’s rage following an argument with the Archbishop of Prague on March 20, 1393.

John, a vicar who sided with the archbishop, was arrested, tortured and then thrown into the river Vltava on Wenceslas’ orders.

Seen as a martyr by Catholics, he was later canonized on March 19, 1729.

On Tuesday, exactly 290 years later, anthropologists unveiled a bronze bust depicting what they believe to be his true likeness.

The head of the facial recreation project was Eva Vaníčková from the Moravian Regional Museum.

She and her team were unable to copy the original skull, but used a detailed description provided by Professor Emanuel Vlček, who studied the skull in 1972. Ondřej Bílek is a member of the team that reconstructed the saint’s face:

“On the basis of these details, Eva led me to choose things like the shape of the eyes, or what impact a particular shape of the bone has on the soft tissue. In between the process we worked on other projects as well. It is always good to take a break, to rest your eye. After a while, you start noticing and correcting the mistakes you may have made.”

Kateřina Dobrovolná,  photo: ČTK/Miroslav Chaloupka
A closely shaven face and tonsure were added in order to fit Saint John’s monastic background.

Kateřina Dobrovolná, is the former director of the St. John Museum in the West Bohemian town of Nepomuk, which initiated the project. She says a key role in enabling the restoration to go ahead was played by a Slovak reader of a history magazine, who found out about the project.

“Suddenly this man appeared from Slovakia who had read about our idea in the Slovak magazine Epocha and contributed CZK 70,000, so it was mainly thanks to him that it happened.”

The rest of the costs were shared by the Plzeň Region, the town and the local Roman-Catholic parish.

Until now, the 17th century statue of the saint on Prague’s Charles Bridge served as a guide to depicting his face, but the bust suggests rather different features.

Czech Radio’s Jan Markup asked the local town vicar if there will now be a need to change the images of St. John of Nepomuk on pictures and statues across the world.

“We do not worship the statue, the picture, or even the exact historical image, but rather him as a saint in heaven. What was good and holy about him and makes him worth following”, replied Nepomuk’s Vicar Jiří Špiřík.

St. John of Nepomuk,  photo: Kristýna Maková
The bust has now been added to the exhibits of the local St. John Museum in Nepomuk, which hopes it will help attract new visitors.

Pavel Motejzík, the manager of the municipal association Mikroregion Nepomucko, says he already has an idea how to bring in even more visitors.

“There is a big cult of St. Vojtěch in the region. His skull is well known and even exhibited in the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague. It would be very easy to do a contactless scan of the skull and get the real likeness of this saint, which we could then exhibit here in the Museum of St. John.”