The skulls of, left to right, St. Martin of Porres, St. Rosa of Lima and St. John Macias were taken under high security and scanned as part of a 3-D project in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Foco News Agency

Scientists bring saints back to life with imaging technology

RIO DE JANEIRO (RNS) Brazilian scientists are using 3-D printing technology to reconstruct the faces of Roman Catholic saints and other holy people, producing life-size busts of what they actually looked like hundreds of years after they died.

This month the scientists will present their latest project: the faces of St. Rosa of Lima, the patron saint of Peru who died in 1617, and Sister Ana of Los Angeles Monteagudo, a Dominican nun from Peru, who died in 1686 and was beatified in 1985. Their reconstructed features will be unveiled in Lima and Arequipa on July 21 and 24, respectively.

Cicero Moraes, a computer graphics designer, and Paulo Miamoto, a forensic dentist and anthropologist, use tomography (or CT scans) as well as a process of photogrammetry, in which hundreds of photographs are taken, to digitally map the preserved skulls, taking spatially accurate images and data from all angles.

Brazilian 3D designer Cicero Moreas met Sister Rosa Elvira Cáceres at the Monasterio de Santa Catherine of Ciene and inspects Sister Ana skull. Photo courtesy of Foco News Agencys

Brazilian 3-D designer Cicero Moreas met Sister Rosa Elvira Caceres at the Monasterio de Santa Catalina de Siena and inspects skull of Sister Ana of Los Angeles Monteagudo. Photo courtesy of Foco News Agency

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Archaeologists use photogrammetry to give precision bird's-eye details to excavations; forensic criminologists -- think "CSI" -- use it to reconstruct skulls.

Along with a combination of dental and anthropological analysis and historical research, the information is uploaded onto 3-D software that uses algorithms to rebuild the face applying volume to muscles, tissue and skin tone.

"Our aim is to create an individual face from the skull that we believe to be the most compatible with the person when they were alive," said Miamoto who is based in Santos, a coastal city in southern Brazil. “Everything is designed to take into account the period during which the person lived and to give life to their features as accurately as possible.”

The real-size digital images are then printed in 3-D at the Renato Archer Center of Information Technology in Sao Paulo, using plastic-based fine plaster to produce the bust.

“The printing process in rebuilding a face can be slow, taking as long as a day or more to complete, because the impression has several layers,” explained Moraes who is based in Sinop, a city in west-central Brazil. “When the final printed object reaches our hands it is like a sculpture, completely white and blank. From there we have to add the anatomical details, the facial characteristics, the flesh color and tones, and build an appearance that does justice to the holy person.”

The real-life bust of St. Paulina produced by 3D printing by Brazilian scientists Cicero Moraes and Dr. Paulo Miamoto, painted by Mari Bueno. Photo courtesy of Foco News Agency

The real-life bust of St. Paulina produced by 3-D printing by Brazilian scientists Cicero Moraes and Paulo Miamoto, painted by Mari Bueno. Photo courtesy of Foco News Agency

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Other significant figures already restored by the Brazilians include the faces of St. Mary Magdalene, considered one of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, and St. Anthony of Padua, the Portuguese Franciscan friar who died in 1231.

The scientists were first commissioned to work on St. Anthony’s skull by the University of Padova in Italy in 2014. This work led to a request to reconstruct the face of Mary Magdalene from a preserved skull kept in a church in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in southern France. Catholics believe Mary Magdalene fled to France, from Palestine, to avoid persecution and died there.

The skull is displayed behind glass encased in a golden reliquary. Photographs, taken by the guardians of the relic, were used to recreate the face. 

The scientists, both members of the Brazilian Team of Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Odontology, have discovered that the religious images of saints are generally inaccurate.

“In the case of St. Anthony, we found his features were more robust than what had been shown for over 800 years,” said Moraes. “We discovered his nose was neither thin or small and his lips were large.

Image of the 3D reconstruction of the face of St. Rosa de Lima by Brazilian scientists. Photo courtesy of Foco News Agency

Image of the 3-D reconstruction of the face of St. Rosa de Lima by Brazilian scientists. Photo courtesy of Foco News Agency

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“In the case of St. Rosa, the remaking of her face revealed a pretty woman with soft features and big eyes, different from the classical paintings showing her.”

Most recently, Brazilian sacred art expert Mari Bueno has had the job of filling in the gaps. She worked on the face of St. Paulina, the first Brazilian female to be canonized in 2002.

Members of the Little Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who commissioned the project and who knew St. Paulina, were concerned her image looked a bit severe and asked for a "slight smile" to be added.

“I studied details of St Paulina’s skin tones from historical records, which influenced what I did,” said Bueno. “I used more than five layers of ink, applied over a period of 40 days, to produce the finished piece.”

Sister Celia Bastiana Cadorin, who helped push for Paulina’s canonization years after her death in 1942, said she was overjoyed by “the perfection of the work.

“The smile on St. Paulina’s face showed her human side, that she was a happy person even in times of difficulty,” she said.

The cutting-edge technology is bridging the divide between religion and science, as Catholics hail the 3-D reconstructions as an important breakthrough that satisfies a long-held curiosity about the physical characteristics of the saints.

Prior to this scientific initiative, the Catholic community could only guess what saints and other holy people looked like.

Neither of the Brazilian scientists holds deeply religious convictions.

"We are motivated by the scientific aspects of these studies and interested in the human beings, which is what all saints were, before being canonized,” said Miamoto.

Moraes said he has never been challenged about his faith or lack of it in the convents and churches he’s visited.

“For me there is no greater proof that science and religion can walk together in harmony, without colliding,” he said.

The scientists’ work in Peru concludes a yearlong project, in collaboration with researchers from the University of St. Martin de Porres in Lima.

Along with St. Rosa and Sister Ana, their work included the facial reconstruction of two others, St. Martin de Porres and St. John Macias -- both dead for centuries.

The scientists’ work was first revealed in Peru before half a million Catholics at the end of last year. Since then the traditional pictures of the saints have been replaced with more trendy up-to-date posters and calendar images.

Friar Luis Enrique Ramirez, Prior of Santo Domingo Church, in Lima, worked closely with the Brazilian scientists, supervising the temporary removal of the skulls, under high security, to a clinic in Lima where they were CT scanned.

“The venture has been an amazing revelation and a huge success," he said. "It has given us great joy to see the real life faces of some of our most precious relics.”

(Janet Tappin Coelho is a RNS correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro)


  1. Interesting, amusing, but hardly useful in a spiritual sense. I don’t think God concerns Himself with the outward images of people. We know from our own human tendencies, no good can come from it. We have judged by color, appearance (physical beauty vs. plainness or disfigurement), facial characteristics (Asiatic vs. Indo European). None of it to our credit.

  2. Not all Catholics believe Mary Magdalene went to France and it’s certainly not a ‘teaching’ of the Roman Catholic Church. It may or may not be true or it may be just a pious legend.

  3. Seriously, the article mentions that there is a restoration of Mary Magdalene AND THEY DON’T SHOW A PICTURE??? Instead opting to show pictures of saints that no one outside of Catholicism can realistically be expected to have heard about, EVER? SMH.

  4. It’s fantastically interesting to see what people from long ago may have looked like, and even more intriguing that they are using the bone structure of the actual people to do it.
    If it’s going to completely ruin your spiritual life–DON’T LOOK!!!

  5. And the face of Mary Magdalene was reproduced using what evidence? Sorry, but it’s not like there are remains, assuming she even existed. Why undermine a story with something so patently silly?

  6. Hardly what you suppose, but it is merely eye candy, there are deep spiritual issues abroad in the world today, I fail to see how this forwards faith. But if others wish to be entertained by it, I would agree there are worse forms of illumination/entertainment. It just doesn’t resonate with me.

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