The true face of Saint Anthony

January 07 2003 | by

If you are in the habit of visiting churches, museums or picture-galleries whenever you are in a new place, then sooner or later, you are bound to come across a statue or a painting of Saint Anthony. Representations of the Paduan saint abound all around the world. But if it is true that many artists have painted or modelled Saint Anthony, it is also true that every single work of art represents him differently. Of course, every artist has got his or her own personal touch or style, but is it possible that no general characteristics of Saint Anthony emerge? Is there a statue which gives us an authentic representation of the features of the Saint? A painting which could be considered almost a photograph of the friar born in Lisbon, who lived in Padua between 1220 and 1232?

Many famous painters, such as Giotto or Simone Martini have, since the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries, left us their representations of the stature and face of Saint Anthony. But who is to say if these works of art are a true image of Saint Anthony, or just the authors’ idealised version of what the man himself could have looked like? The first biographies of the Saint, such as the Assidua and the Rigaldina, make some references to his physical stature. They suggest that he was ‘robust’ and that he had a ‘Mediterranean’ complexion. They give no hint, though, as to what he looked like. Thus, whereas, in the 1500s, Girolamo Romanino depicts Anthony as a tall, slightly balding man with a rounded face, Van Dyck shows him as a lean character with an important nose. The frescoes painted by Pietro Annigoni at the beginning of the 1980s in the basilica in Padua show a short man whose face is transfigured by the grace of God.

Usually, when scholars discuss Saint Anthony’s physical appearance, they confine themselves to saying that he was probably not very tall, being a Latin type, and that he was probably dark-skinned, being of South-European stock. They sometimes take a fresco painted by one of Giotto’s students at the beginning of the 14th century as their reference point. This fresco is commonly considered ‘the true image’ of Saint Anthony, and is located in the Basilica, on a pillar of the presbytery situated to the left of the altar. The Anthony depicted here is rather stocky, which seems based on the report that towards the end of his life Anthony was afflicted with dropsy, and was therefore somewhat physically ‘swollen’.

In 1981, the friars and the rector of the basilica at that time, Fr. Angelico Poppi, took advantage of the opening of the Saint’s tomb in order to try to ‘reconstruct’ the true face of the beloved saint. Today’s science and technology were a great help, and modern systems and research techniques were employed to ensure that the findings were as accurate as possible. On that unique occasion, it was finally possible to satisfy the still ardent desire to get a fair idea of what Anthony really looked like.

To begin with, a list was drawn up of experts in the fields of anthropology, anatomy, and the reconstruction of tissue, who would, using the data they found, be able to make a plasticine model of St. Anthony’s face. The friars eventually found four experts willing to help with this project: Prof. Cleto Corrain, an anthropologist; Prof. Virgilio Meneghelli, an anatomist; Prof. Vito Terribile Wiel Marin, who specialises in pathological anatomy; and the artist Roberto Cremesini, who specialises in reconstruction techniques in plastic.

After the recognition of the Saint’s tomb, the friars of the basilica and the rector, Fr. Poppi, invited the four experts to come and examine the remains. Their task was, through their research and studies, to produce as accurate a physiognomy as possible of the world’s most popular saint. This would no longer be based on rough guesses, it would be as close as possible to the ‘probable’ face of the 36-year old Anthony, since it was to be modelled on the skull of the saint, and the work would be carried out with modern techniques under the direct supervision of the four experts.

The experts requested some time to reflect, and several hours to conduct their research on the remains. Their unanimous conclusion was that the reconstruction was without doubt feasible, and that the results should certainly be accurate. The groundwork on this reconstruction was carried out in the friary room known as The Bishops’ Room in February 1981. The research team’s conviction that a true image of Anthony could be produced using the most reliable evidence available (the Saint’s remains and the most up-to-date techniques) did not diminish as the work progressed. The experts were asked to work as quickly as possible so that the Saint’s mortal remains could be recomposed and reburied under the altar which is dedicated to him. Although recognising that time was of the essence, the four ‘authorised workers’ asked for and obtained an extension in the time available.

Dealing with the skull was a very delicate operation, since it was extremely fragile and could have easily crumbled due to the long period it had spent in the tomb. An imprint was made of the skull, and this was used to create a mould made of chalk. A bronze mould was also prepared in order to facilitate a more accurate reproduction of the muscular structure and the skin. The most delicate part of the work, however, lay in the reconstruction of the soft parts of the face which had long since disintegrated, such as the lips, the nose, the eyes, the ears and the skin, in order to ascertain the most likely structure of his features. From these studies, they were able to work out the thickness and the texture of the Saint’s skin, the amount of cartilage in the ears, nose and other areas, and the muscular formation around his jaw and his forehead. Although the ‘reconstruction’ of Anthony’s features could not be considered foolproof, at least it gave an accurate idea of his physiognomy. As the work progressed, a distinct outline of the Paduan friar’s features began to emerge.

The most extraordinary stage in the operation was when plasticine was used to cover the skull, as a kind of substitute for the Saint’s flesh and his subcutaneous vein and nerve-structure. The reconstruction artist, Roberto Cremesini, worked painstakingly on this phase of the work, under the watchful eye, and with helpful suggestions and instructions from the other three members of the team. The finishing touches were made attempting to take account of Anthony’s bodily bone-structure and his most likely muscular composition.

After weeks of toil, the task was finally complete. Those friars who had followed the project closely were convinced that the reconstruction had produced an ‘almost photographic’ effigy of Saint Anthony. That face, with its strong, sharp features and yet gentle expression, could not but belong to the holy friar who had the courage to stand up to the tyrants of his age in order to defend the weakest of his brothers and sisters.

On the evening of Sunday March 1, 1981, Saint Anthony’s remains were reenclosed in the altar-tomb where they had been kept since the 14th century. The bust produced by the research team can today be seen in the Museum of Devotion to Saint Anthony, in one of the five cloisters of the Paduan Basilica.

Updated on October 06 2016