Measurements of skull recorded at Abbey in Prague
St. Norbert bust from skull
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
Hundreds of paintings and statues of St. Norbert of Xanten have been created since his death in 1134 AD, but there has not been an authentic representation of his features until now.
Fr. Donald Claude Noel, O.Praem., a priest at St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere, and a professional sculptor, recently completed a facial reconstruction based on the skull of St. Norbert. The bust is on display at Fr. Noel's "Open Sea Sculpture Studio" at the Abbey.
"I chose to create him at age 34, the time when he was thrown from his horse," said Fr. Noel. "I'm still experimenting with different hairdos."
In 1114 AD, St. Norbert, at the time a wealthy nobleman, was thrown from his horse when a lightning bolt struck the ground before him. The incident caused him to rethink the direction of his life. In 1120 AD, he founded a religious order at Premontre' Valley, France (the Order of Canons Regular of Premontre, also known as Premonstratensians or Norbertines).
Fr. Noel began the process of reconstructing St. Norbert in May of 1999 when he visited his tomb at Strahov Abbey in Prague, Czech Republic. St. Norbert's skull was placed on the main altar of the Abbey for two hours so Fr. Noel could measure it and reconstruct a copy in clay.
"There were some language problems," said Fr. Noel. "The skull had a veil on it. I wanted them to take the veil off. It would have been much easier. I really wanted to make a mold. I took the measurements with the veil on."
He used Japanese calipers to record 55 measurements of the skull.
"Some scientists had done some measurements of the skull in 1917, but I can't figure out what they were measuring," he said.
Fr. Noel, who holds a master of fine arts from Villa Schianoia in Florence, Italy, made a white plastic cast of St. Norbert's skull. He then attached tissue depth markings before applying clay to create the face of St. Norbert. He completed the work at the University of Oklahoma-Norman, under the guidance of his teacher, nationally known forensic sculptor Betty Pat Galiff.
"Norbert was 5'6," which I suspect was fairly tall for that time period," said Fr. Noel. "I would guess that he had blonde hair and blue eyes. We can be certain of the accuracy of the facial features through the process of using the skull."
The journey to discover the look of St. Norbert actually stemmed from a different pursuit, said Fr. Noel, who has studied art in Mexico, Canada, Italy, Yugoslavia and France.
"The only reason I got into it was because I wanted to find out what Fr. (Claude) Allouez looked like," he said. "That led me to Norbert. Fr. Allouez is buried in Niles, Mich. I go to his grave once in awhile. I have permission to dig him up and do his skull."
Fr. Noel will begin the forensic sculpture process for Fr. Allouez, who founded St. Francis Xavier mission in De Pere in 1671, when funding becomes available for the exhumation of his remains.
Forensic sculpting appeals to Fr. Noel's artistic and historic interests.
"I was a librarian for 20 years," he said. "I try to find out about the people who lived in that time period and as much information as possible. I went to his (Fr. Allouez) hometown of St. Didier-en-Velay in Southern France. Unfortunately, the last member of the family died in 1960."
Fr. Noel continues to work on multiple sculptures. Many of his works including mosaics are on display at the studio and in the St. Norbert Abbey Library. He traces his interest in art to his childhood, and fondly recalls a humorous experience from the eighth grade.
"My teacher sent me to St. Ignatius High School in Chicago for a 'drawing scholarship,'" he said. "I took my pencils and paper and was prepared to draw something. It turned out to be a 'scholarship drawing.' I didn't win. I did get to study as a boy at the Art Institute of Chicago, so it worked out."