Computer models reconstruct Bach's head

A modern reconstruction of Johann Sebastian Bach's head using state-of-the-art computer modeling techniques shows the composer as a strong-jawed man with a slight underbite, his large head topped with short, silver hair.

The bust, unveiled in Berlin on Monday, was created by anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson in her lab at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

Rather than use Bach's actual bones, which are buried at the St. John's Church in Leipzig, Wilkinson worked from a copper replica of Bach's skull made for a previous reconstruction in 1894 by physician Wilhelm His and sculptor Carl Ludwig Seffner.

Nonetheless, Wilkinson sees her work as the most realistic rendering of Bach's appearance to date.

"The science has improved over the last 100 years," she said. "We have a better understanding of the relation between hard and soft tissue."

The project was commissioned by the Bach House museum in the central German city of Eisenach, as the centerpiece of a new exhibition: "Bach Through the Mirror of Medicine."

Bach's appearance has long been surrounded by mystery. Images of the prolific composer are plentiful — the Bach House alone has 140 likenesses — but he is only known to have sat for one portrait, museum director Joerg Hansen said.

"Iconography is a major concern of our museum," Hansen said. "Of course, we have a large collection of his music, but people also want to know what he looked like."

Because of the lack of material to work with, even Wilkinson admits that some aspects of the final product involved guess work.

"There's no way to know on the basis of his skull what his skin tone would have been," she said. "But, that's also something that would have changed with the temperature or the state of his emotions."

She also cautions that her reconstruction is not meant to provide any insight into Bach's musical genius. "It only shows his facial appearance," she said. "I wish it could give us some sense of what was going on inside of his head, but it can't."

The bust will be on display at Berlin's Charite medical school for a short time before being moved to Eisenach for the exhibition opening March 21 to mark the composer's birthday.

Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685 and died in Leipzig in 1750. He is only known to have come once to Berlin, Hansen said.