Her beauty and mind were said to have been beyond compare. But when the remains of Judita of Thuringia were first unearthed sixty years ago in the Benedictine monastery of Teplice, there was no way to tell whether the royal chronicler hadn’t rather exaggerated the feminine charms of the Queen consort of Bohemia. After all, she’d been dead for more than eight centuries. But now, thanks to a team of Czech scientists, archaeologists, artists – and a Brazilian expert in digital facial reconstruction – you can judge for yourself.
Writing in the year 1167, the chronicler Vincentius described Queen Judita, by then in her early thirties, as a “lady of stature whose beauty exceeds the human form, almost as if she were divine offspring.” The venerable scribe goes on to praise her enterprising spirit, exemplary knowledge of the arts, science and literature, and fluency in Latin and the affairs of men – politics.
Judita was the second wife of the second ever King of Bohemia, Vladislav II, and mother of Otakar I of the Přemyslid dynasty. Yet despite her place in history, no visual representation of the German-born queen – at least not by a contemporary who could have actually seen her – survived the ages, though Judita’s achievements are well documented, some even literarly set in stone.
(Vladislav II had Prague’s first stone bridge built in the years 1160 to 1172 – but it was Judita who urged him to build it, and for whom it was named. More than 500 metres long, and seven metres wide at its broadest, Judith Bridge was all but destroyed by a flood in 1342, necessitating the building a replacement – Charles Bridge – but the foundations of some pillars still stand at the bottom of the Vltava River in silent testimony to her reign).
The remains of what were believed to have been Queen Judita were discovered half a century ago in the inner chapel of a Benedictine nunnery in Teplice that she founded. But it was not until 2003 that technology had advanced to the point where a definitive identification could be made, as the late Ivo Flasar, a researcher at the Regional Museum in Teplice, explained in an interview at the time with Radio Prague.
“Queen Judita of Thuringia, the second wife of Vladislav II, was found during excavations here in a small castle courtyard in the 1950s. Both her skull and lower jaw were well preserved. We asked Prof. Emanuel Vlček, a world-renowned expert on the remains of historical personages, to examine them. He was able to determine it was indeed her by comparing the remains with those of her son, Přemysl Otakar I. … Both her upper and lower teeth were in perfect condition – they are worn and one tooth was extracted, but otherwise they are perfect.”
Fifteen years on, methods have advanced to the point where experts not only know that Queen Judita was in good health when she died in her late seventies and stood about 5’ 3” (160 centimetres) but had an oval, slender face; a nose that was, if not petite, in harmony with her chin; her lips rather thin, as is typical of peoples of the region, and her eyes and hair – well, actually, this is where a touch of poetic licence comes in.
Scientists still cannot determine with any certainty whether an individual long dead had brown eyes or blue, straight dark hair or golden tresses. In a digital rendering unveiled earlier this month by the Brazilian forensic facial reconstruction expert Cícero André da Costa Moraes, building on the work of a Czech team, Queen Judith’s eyes are a greyish-blue, her hair light brown. This, however, is more than educated guesswork; decidedly more science than art, he says.
“The challenge of this reconstruction was to put the pieces of the skull in the right place because the skull was broken and the placement of these parts was not right. Fortunately, we have a good team that helped me put the pieces in the right place, and with this we could reconstruct the face of Queen Judita.”
“The important thing to say is that with this technique of photogrammetry, the specialist Jiří Šindelář only took photos, and these photos become a 3D model – a virtual 3D model – and we ‘broke’ the virtual 3D model. We didn’t work with the original skull, we worked with the virtual skull, broke that, and then put the pieces in the right place.”
How did the Czech archaeologists and other experts come to enlist your help?
“Well, I’ve been working with facial reconstruction since 2014 and I have a lot of material on the Internet, and they found me and we started to talk. I showed the team that I work with the scientific method – and this is very important: a lot of science and a few artists.”
This is not the first local personage that the Brazilian 3D designer has worked on. In May this year, he and the same Czech team that reconstructed the face of Queen Judita revealed the face of Saint Zdislava of Lemberk, the patron saint of families, champion of the poor and healer of the sick. Born in 1220, she was declared “blessed” by the Catholic Church in 1907 and canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1995.
Cícero André da Costa Moraes has also helped bring back to life, so to speak, the undead. He did so in the central Bohemian town of Čelákovice, which boasts the largest “vampire graveyard” in the world, dating back to the 11th Century. In the 1960s, the remains of a dozen people were unearthed there, some with their heads severed, their limbs bound, and rocks placed on their bodies or a nail driven through their temple – tell-tale signs, so the theory goes, of an attempt to keep them rising from the dead.
“The ‘vampire’ of Čelákovice is an interesting history. People like legends but don’t like very much to hear the truth. I think the exhibition in Čelákovice is an important chapter in archaeology because it shows us the truth. It shows us the past. Vampires are interesting for the tourists, but in science, the truth is more important.”
Forensic anthropological analysis confirmed that the skull Mr Moraes reconstructed was that of a man in his mid-thirties with Slavic features. He likely died a violent death and, like the other “vampires” buried nearby, was also likely a social outcast – perhaps a convict or a heretic, and so not given a proper church burial – but not a vampire.
Geophysicist Jiří Šindelář, an expert on non-destructive archaeology in the survey of tombs, who has worked with Moraes on all the Czech projects, notes that whatever the fate of the subject being reconstructed in life, in death all are treated with great respect. And each such project is a costly affair, with gaining permission to undertake the work – on revered figures such as Queen Judita and Saint Zdislava – often a grand undertaking in and of itself.
“It is quite difficult to get to work on such remains. A great advantage for us is that Cícero Moraes had already dozens, maybe more, similar projects behind him, which he carried out directly for the Vatican. And that experience, of course, opens doors.”
“For many years, we and our colleagues have been working with state-of-the-art technologies in archaeology and history. And in order to create a realistic, accurate and detailed model of the skeletal remains, we make use of non-destructive methods. We don't use invasive rays or lasers on the remains. From hundreds of individual photos, we can create the model.”
It was team member Dr. Augustine Andrle of the Anthropological Department of the Czech National Museum who scanned the skull of Queen Judita in 2017 to create a precise and detailed digital copy of it, which became the cornerstone for the reconstruction of her face. Scientist and photographer Martin Frouz then took a series of 150 photographs, taken according to guidelines set out by the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. Cícero Moraes then employed a combination of 3D facial reconstruction methods. In every case, only after he had finished was he told, in fact, who the skull belonged to.
Have you ever worked on a skull where how that person really looked is known, and so you can compare your portrayal of them?
“Yes. Before I started to do these types of [historical] reconstructions, I studied with a team from USP [Universidade de São Paulo] in Brazil, and we started comparing reconstructions with the real people. So, we know that the reconstruction is compatible with the real people. Because in science, it’s important to test before you publish. And we do it.”
“And we use the most modern methods to do the reconstruction. I use three main schools. The Russian school of Dr. [Mikhail] Gerasimov; the American school of Dr. [Wilton] Krogman, and the Manchester school of Dr. [Richard] Neave.”
And did you have any help, in terms of physical or historical descriptions, paintings or sculptures, or anything of their decedents, which might also influence the final look?
“Well, when I do the reconstruction, I don’t have any information about the skull. I do the reconstruction without knowing who the person was. And after I finish, I receive references for the clothing, for example. But in anthropology, we have to do the things in blindness – without any information about who we are reconstructing. It’s very important.”
And that’s important so that it doesn’t influence the objective results, is that it?
“Yes. Because, for example, if you like a historical figure, maybe – maybe – in the deepest part of your mind, you might try to create an interesting face. So, it’s important not to know who you are reconstructing.”