Their faces look back at us out of portraits, marble busts and old photographs. The people of the past are as human as we are, maybe more so, and yet their noses are longer, their faces thinner, the skin more sallow or dry or scarred. This is not just a product of different artistic styles, but a glimpse of a great divide in history.
A newly released 3D modelling of the face of Mary, Queen of Scots reveals how strange 16th-century portraits look if we see them as real faces: Mary, as in her paintings, has bags under her eyes and less-than-dewy skin. Her portrait is part of a recent vogue for revisiting portraiture in digital exercises of wildly varying scientific value, from medical reconstructions of faces to people who are descended from Napoleon and Cromwell being inserted into ancestral portraits to dressing classical statues in hipster outfits.
When the body of Richard III was discovered by archaeologists in a Leicester car park, one of the studies conducted on it was a facial reconstruction of the 15th-century king based on his skull. His living descendant Michael Ibsen posed beside the model: the picture was a snapshot of two worlds. The gaunt and severe face of Richard III contrasts with the plump and well-kept features of a 21st-century middle-aged man. It's as if we are more relaxed in our skins, yet also less striking and characterful, than our ancestors.
There was another remarkable thing about Richard III's scientifically modelled face: it looks just like his Renaissance portraits. Far from being invented by Tudor portraitists, the image of Richard III that has come down through history – long nose, hard features – is historically accurate. It is conventional to think of portraits before the age of photography as unreliable images, either idealising or occasionally demonising their subjects. But accuracy was highly prized.
It's not only Richard III's portraits that appear to be grimly truthful. When King Henry VII, who won the crown from the slaughtered Richard at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, came to the end of his own reign he had his portrait taken by the Italian artist Pietro Torrigiano: I say "taken" because Torrigiano's terracotta bust is an accurate replica of Henry's appearance, made by moulding a death mask on the real face. In fact, it looks very akin to a modern facial reconstruction.
Faces from the past are often depicted with this kind of scrupulous accuracy in portraits, either from death masks or by acute observation, and the results are unsettling. People look less healthy, less primped, less beautified than westerners tend to appear today. Hans Holbein's portrait A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling shows a 16th-century English woman with bad skin, fat under her chin and traces of blackheads on her nose. A bust of Michelangelo reveals the battered face of old age. Rembrandt's wife Saskia looks ill – and would die young.
In general, faces look less fleshed out and smaller, and more wizened. This is not just a quality of Renaissance and Baroque art but very visible in early photographs. The camera came along in time to capture the strange, dark-eyed face of Abraham Lincoln: are there any faces today like his? The brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as the venerated president – and that of his make-up artists – was to recreate this totally archaic-looking human being.
Does anyone today look like George Orwell? Orwell was ill, and the dividing line between the present and the past that faces reveal is a gulf defined by modern medicine, health systems and an abundance of food. It is a gulf that Europeans crossed in the 60s, although North Americans got there a bit sooner. Christine Keeler in 1963 still looks modern. Mick Jagger at Glastonbury in 2013 can still live on how he looked half a century ago. Faces from the past reveal that medicine plus the consumer society remade human beings in the 60s – and are still remaking us.
Jones, Jonathan. 2013. “The 3D model of Mary, Queen of Scots is the face of a historical divide”. The Guardian. Posted: June 28, 2013. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/28/3d-model-mary-queen-scots-face