Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Real St. Nicholas!


for reconstructed representation, go to:


Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus -- and Here's What He Looks Like

Is this the real Santa Claus? By tradition, no one is supposed to see the actual Saint Nick. Come Christmas night, as the song has it -- and even the Boss sings it -- he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake. So you'd better be snoozing as well as pretty darned good, or else.

Besides, we all know what he looks like. Since the advent of Clement Clark Moore's "Night Before Christmas" in 1823 and his invention of that "jolly old elf," we have become so conditioned by the kid-friendly version of the roly-poly guy with dimples and cheeks like roses that we stopped wondering who the real Santa Claus was, much less what he looked like. From movies like "Miracle on 34th Street" to all those Santa stand-ins at the mall -- and his visage on every piece of Christmas kitsch you could ever sell -- the myth is so widespread and so good there seemed little reason to question it.

Until, that is, the invention of powerful computers and some fancy new software that uses "virtual clay." The technology makes possible the reconstruction of a face from a skull, even one as old as that of Nicholas of Myra -- also known as Saint Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus -- who lived and died in the fourth century in what is now Turkey.

So holy was Nicholas that after his death his relics were carefully preserved, and through the vagaries of history -- basically a Muslim-Christian war a thousand years ago -- the saint's skull and other bones were relocated (stolen or rescued, depending on your point of view) to Bari, a city on what would be the Achilles' tendon of the Italian boot.

In the 1950s, the bones were removed while the crypt was spruced up. While they were out, the Vatican asked an anatomy professor at the University of Bari to take thousands of minutely detailed measurements and x-rays of the relics. Flash forward to the present day, and another University of Bari expert, forensic pathologist Francesco Introna, decided to commission an expert facial anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Manchester in England, to reconstruct the saint's face and head using the new technology and the earlier measurements.

The wizards at Image Foundry in England then took the data, and presto!

Delighted? Disappointed? Arguments for the veracity of the face are strong. Every face has the same 26 muscles but each skull is different, and that underlying bone structure gives a unique form to each person's face. Which is what happened when Wilkinson began laying the virtual muscles onto the 1,600-year-old skull of Saint Nicholas of Myra.

Moreover, this Nicholas is in many respects not so far removed from the Santa Claus or at least the Saint Nick who was long venerated in icons like the lineup the folks at the St. Nicholas Center have helpfully put together.

To be sure, he's more olive-skinned than rosy-cheeked, and his eyes are more piercing than twinkly. But the white hair and beard, while a bit of artistic license, make sense: the beard is in the style of the time, and the white hair would fit a man who died in his 70s after a life a sanctity that prefigured the Santa Claus of our time.

Nicholas of Myra (270-346 AD) was born into a patrician family of some wealth, but as a devoted Christian he used what he had to help others (and to intervene on behalf of the falsely accused). The most famous story to come down to us is how Nicholas, hearing of the plight of a father who could not afford dowries for his three daughters, secretly left bags of gold coins at their home to provide a dowry and preserve the ladies from a likely fate as prostitutes. In one version of the story, the father lay in wait the third time the donor was to visit and thus discovered the identity of history's first secret Santa.

But Nicholas was much more than a kindly, anonymous gift-giver. As a bishop in the fourth century, he was also deeply involved in the raging disputes of the day over core issues of church doctrine that we now take for granted, or ought to.

Back then, even three centuries after the death of Jesus, many beliefs remained unsettled. Chief among these was the true nature of Christ, and hence the nature of the Trinity. Was Jesus both God and man? Or was he just a man, a creation of God, albeit a special one? That was the line taken by followers of Arius, known as the Arians. So fierce was the divide over Christ's nature that Constantine, the Roman Emperor who had only recently legalized Christianity and ended the persecution of the church, called all leading bishops together for a council at Nicaea in the year 325 to settle the matter.

The Council of Nicaea, which produced the Nicene Creed that believers still recite as the foundational expression of Christian belief, was hardly the somnolent discussion that one might expect of such angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin topics. Instead, there were nasty arguments and periodic fisticuffs, and at one point Bishop Nicolas of Myra -- who already had a reputation as a staunch defender of orthodox belief against the heresy of the Arians -- popped Arias himself in the face.

The new facial reconstruction certainly gives credence to Nick's reputation as a battling bishop who gave as good as he got -- just look at that strong jaw and his broken boxer's nose. "It must have been a very hefty blow because it's the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken," Wilkinson, who did the reconstruction, told The Guardian.

In the end, Nicholas and the other orthodox bishops carried the day, vanquishing the Arians and confirming the belief that Jesus was true God and true man -- the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation that is observed on December 25. (Ironically, Christmas was not widely observed in Saint Nicholas' day, nor was there an agreement on a date to mark Jesus' birth. Easter was the oldest and most important celebration, and its date was one of the other debates settled at Nicaea.)

There is some speculation that Nicholas may actually have had his nose broken during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian, who reigned from 284-305 AD.

Yet whatever the source of the broken nose, the reconstructed face of Nicholas of Myra reminds us that the real Santa Claus came from a time before Christmas, and from an era when the meaning of Christ was something worth fighting about.

David Gibson


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