Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots reveals striking monarch during reign

By Culture24 Reporter | 10 July 2013

A virtual sculpture of the face of Mary, Queen of Scots, made with craniofacial templates based on how she would have looked during her 16th century reign, will gaze at visitors to the National Museum of Scotland's new show about the tumultuous life of the monarch.

An image of a computer-generated portrait of a 16th century queen
A virtual sculpture at the National Museum of Scotland may be the most accurate portrait ever created of Mary, Queen of Scots© Wilkinson / Aitken, University of Dundee
Using existing portraits, an incomplete biography and 3D-modelling software for the head-and-neck model, Professor Caroline Wilkinson, from the University of Dundee’s Forensic and Medical Art Research Group, sculpted clothing and hair onto the depiction, which aims to resemble Mary after her reign between the ages of 19 and 26.

No portrait records of Mary exist from the period, but the researcher says the “striking face” – viewable from several angles – is a reflection of the “enormous challenges” the queen faced while in power.

“She is not what you would describe as a classic beauty,” adds Wilkinson.

“Mary had quite a big nose and a strong chin, so when you describe her verbally she doesn’t sound attractive.

“But the paleness of her skin, red hair, and strong features meant she had a very striking appearance.

“There were no portraits painted during Mary’s time in Scotland, but there were both before and after this period.

“Normally we would begin the process of craniofacial reconstruction by examining skeletal remains, but of course we didn’t have a skull to work from in this case, so we had to work from portraits earlier and later than the depiction we were asked to create.

“This meant it was a very different challenge for me. The model is more of an artistic representation rather than the scientific interpretation we would normally produce from skeletal remains.

“We had to get the facial proportions and size of her features from portraits which, luckily, were from slightly different angles, so we could look at her face from more than one viewpoint.”

One of Wilkinson’s colleagues, Janice Aitken, added textures to the model and coloured the skin, hair and eyes, creating a short film aiming for a realistic, multilateral impression of Mary.

The queen’s father, King James V, died days after her birth, leaving Scotland under the rule of regents for her early years, leaving for France at the age of five.

Her return, as a widow 14 years later, was to a country beset by religious furore. Despite later attempting to regain the throne, her swift abdication gave her infant son power.

“What we wanted to do was depict how she would have looked at the time she lived in Scotland,” says Wilkinson.

“This was a difficult time for her marked with illness, grief, miscarriage, and imprisonment, so we wanted to show the stresses and strains of life on her face because later portraits make her look significantly older than her years.”

  • Mary, Queen of Scots is at the National Museum of Scotland until November 17. Read our preview.
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