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How They Built Bach’s Face (Is the Bard Next?)


After a bold ascendancy, the recently dusted-off portrait purported to be of a ruddy-cheeked, lace-collared, and slightly wall-eyed Shakespeare now watches without a blink as its claims to authenticity came under increasing attack this past week on many fronts.

Chief among the gathering throng of doubters were Shakespeare biographer Katherine Duncan-Jones and Tarnya Cooper, curator of sixteenth-century paintings at London’s National Portrait Gallery. The ruckus proves two things:  how strangely important the face of an artist is to our understanding of his or her work, and how the desire to know that face is fired to still greater heat when the uncertainty about its true features increases. Even if one could accept the so-called Cobbe portrait’s provenance, there would still be the unsettling prerogatives of artistic license to contend with. Indeed, it is over the face of the artist that art and science have often waged war.

The rise of forensic reconstruction in the 19th-century promised the way around the problem. It is an obsession remains with us as forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson, working for the Bach Haus in Bach’s hometown of Eisenach, Germany, demonstrated with her tough-guy reconstruction of the composer’s face, unveiled little over a year ago.

After making a laser scan of the skull, Wilkinson “scientifically” built up the tissue to give us the real—and real scary—Bach. According to this method of reconstruction, the key to finding the real face is first to find the skull.

Here’s how they found Bach’s.

Bach’s bones would have remained in the ground around St. John’s church outside the Leipzig city walls, where they were put on July 31, 1750, had his beliefs about the dead body retained their currency. Spurred by an emerging sense of national pride, the nineteenth century saw the remains of great German historical figures, among them Kant, Schiller, and Beethoven, exhumed, examined and analyzed, and then placed in new, more prominent sites that allowed for easier access and worshipful pilgrimage, often in the shadow of a newly designed monument. No resting place is final.

By the nineteenth century Bach’s burial place was without a marker; prevailing scholarly opinion in the 1890s held that there had never been one. This made the task of finding his remains difficult. But Gustav Wustmann, director of the Leipzig city archives, discovered in St. John’s account books that Bach had been buried in an oak casket, one of only twelve oak caskets out of the 1400 Leipzigers who had died in 1750; this narrowed down the hunt for his remains considerably.

During the rebuilding of  St. John’s Church in 1894 the chairman of Vestry, a pastor by the name of Tranzschel, ordered excavations in the graveyard, directing some of the workers to dig down to about eight feet in the area where oral tradition held Bach’s grave to have been. On October 19 Tranzschel summoned Leipzig forensic expert and craniologist Wilhelm His to the excavation site.  Dr. His described the scene as an enormous hole filled with “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” All the coffins seemed to be of pine, however, and optimism flagged.

Then, at eleven in the morning on the 22nd of October the crew finally came upon an oak casket, but it had collapsed around the skeleton, bits of wood mashed around the bones. The experts began sifting through the remains, and quickly established that they belonged to a young woman of diminutive stature. Before disappointment could set in, another oak casket was found, the opening of which had to wait until after the workers had had their lunch.  In inclement weather perfect for the Gothic scene, a dark-clad pastor, an anatomist with his trusty anatomic assistant stood over a jumbled pit of bone, mud, and wood in which men dug with picks and shovels as the second casket was pulled from the ground. Dr. His and his assistant Dornfeld removed the skull from the casket and slowly, too, the bones. They could quickly see that skeleton belonged to an elderly man.

The skull was “sturdy and of strong features”—a protruding jaw, relatively low-set eye sockets, sharply angled base of the nose. The skull, Dr. His claimed, “presented an uncommonly powerful  Expression.” But what of a third oak casket also unearthed in the morning of the 22nd, the skull inside smashed beyond recognition and therefore unsuitable for scientific study? In his account for the Saxon Academy, Dr. His does not entertain the possibility that it could have been these that were Bach’s bones. Soon afterward the commission charged with finding Bach’s body, a group that included His, Tranzschel, Wustmann, and the sculptor Karl Seffner (called into make a bust of Bach based on the skull) reported to the Leipzig City Council in a signed statement, that the authenticity of Bach’s bones had been established “to the highest degree of probability.”

Dr. His now set to work on the bones, free, as he put it, of “all biases” and “false concerns for piety” in the discovery and examination of “scientifically significant relics.” Heeding the anatomist’s contempt for religious squeamishness, and answering instead to the higher calling of science, Dr. His carefully dissected Bach’s skull. Now the brain could be cast in plaster and its features analyzed. Bach’s temple bones, thought to be responsible for acoustical cognition, were seen to be particularly well developed. This area of the skull was carefully cross-sectioned with a small jig-saw so as to minimize the loss of irreplaceable bone mass. After painstakingly measuring the openings in the temple bone, Dr. His sent his data to the leading expert on the osteology of the temple and ear, his colleague Herr Prof. Dr. Politzer in Vienna. Politzer was impressed by “Bach’s” temple, in particular by the impressive size of the fenestra rotunda—the opening between the middle ear and the cochlea. Other peculiarities of construction led Politzer to pronounce its features to be “very rare” indeed, offering striking confirmation, it seemed, that they the temple had once belonged to Bach.  Further comparative research, suggested His, should be done on the temple bones of other (dead) composers, though His lamented the deplorable fact that on the exhumation of Beethoven’s remains for his removal to Vienna’s central cemetery, his temple bones had been sawed out of the skull and then preserved in alcohol.  Unfortunately, they had subsequently disappeared, apparently sold off to an English doctor—a great loss for science and culture.

Just as important as the analysis of the formation of Bach’s brain was the project to establish the literal expression of his genius as well as his character: to reconstruct Bach’s face. For this the thickness of the flesh in all the regions of the face had to be established scientifically—just as the Scottish forensic anthropologists would do a century later.  Over the winter of 1894-5, Dr. His began his own tissue researches with a grim eagerness, probing the faces of thirty-seven corpses with a sewing needle and measuring the depth of the flesh, from the surface of the skin to the bone. All but four of the corpses were male: nine bodies “consumed by disease” came from the penitentiary, the remaining twenty-eight were “corpses of healthy suicides.”  The inmates were for the most part emaciated; the suicides by contrast were generally “well-nourished” and “robust” as Dr. His wrote in his scientific paper for the Academy.

With the data meaningfully compiled. Dr. His perceived clear trends establishing the median thickness of the tissue. Dr. His now believed that a bust of Bach based on objective scientific data could now be created, a likeness which would surpass the accuracy of any of the historical portraits.

The relevant averages of tissue thickness were given to the sculptor Seffner, who would follow the measurements precisely in his three-dimensional reconstruction of Bach’s head.  The discoverers of Bach’s bones were awe-struck by the result.

Dr. His, his colleagues, and the city fathers others believed that a previously undreamt of, historically elusive, exact reproduction of Bach’s face had been achieved. It is this face that sits a top the statue of Bach rising next to his old church of St. Thomas in Leipzig. Few of the millions who come to pay it homage know that this is a statue within many skeletons in the closet.

In nearby Halle, birthplace of Handel, Hermann Welcker, a retired professor of physiology and one of the founder’s of forensic science, had followed the work on the famous musical bones with great interest.  Beginning in the 1860s Welcker had been called in to verify historical portraits of Raphael, Dante, Schiller, and Kant by comparing these images against scientific measurements he had made on their exhumed skulls.  Like Dr. His, Welcker had used cadavers for his research.

But in November of 1895, little more than a year after Bach’s casket had been pulled from the mud, a scientific breakthrough was made that promised much for the field of facial reconstruction: Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the X-ray.  Within a few months of that discovery, Welcker eagerly had himself strapped in front of an X-ray gun and subjected his head to thirty 30-second doses of the particles; in between each dose he waited, motionless, for the apparatus to cool down. After this grueling hour, the 74-year-old scientist now had an image of his own skull, which not only verified his forensic methods but allowed him to endorse the His/Seffner reconstruction of Bach’s face, save for a small caveat having to do with the bridge of the nose. Thus one of the first human applications of the X-ray was valiantly made in the service of reconstructing Bach’s face. Welcker was dead within the year.

Wilhelm His, was now the foremost expert on Bach’s countenance, the man with the unparalleled knowledge of the specifics of his bone structure and the scientifically calibrated flesh thickness.  Various collectors sent portraits of Bach to Dr. His for his inspection hoping that he would authenticate them. In His’s assessment of one portrait he received from a certain Herr Boormann, phrenology, physigonomy, and aesthetics flow together in frothy confluence: “the bloated distended, insipid and smug face of Boormann’s picture with its flat eyes is …not that of a man of Bach’s immense power and depth”—a less than flattering assessment of an heirloom that had apparently been in the Boorman family’s possession for nearly a hundred years. Such a pronouncement could cost Alec Cobbe, owner of the would-be Shakespeare portrait, millions in today’s art market.

The old, perhaps apocryphal, story about Shakespeare skull is that it was stolen by a “Resurrection Man” from Holy Trinity Church in Stratford in the 1790s, in spite of the grave’s inscription: “Good Friend for Jesus Sake Forbear, To Digg the Dust Encloased Heare;  Bleste Be the Man that Spares These Stones, And Curst Be the Man that Moves My Bones.”  Just at the time that Bach’s posthumous devotees were digging  and dissecting and x-raying, an intense debate was similarly animated about exhuming Shakespeare. One of the main arguments in favor of it was the value the skull for verifying the authenticity of historic portraits of the Bard.

As yet  the Stratford grave has not been penetrated anew, so we don’t know if indeed the skull is gone, or if  the skull it encloses belonged to someone else, as the exhumation of Petrarch’s grave recently showed: the skull found there turned out to be that of a woman. My advice to Cobbe is this: endow a chair in forensic anthropology at the University of Dublin, nearby the country house where the portrait had so long resided. Get the right person appointed to the position, and then steal into that Stratford grave with a 3-D laser scanner. Concoct the requisite data and fashion definitive face. And then watch as the eyes of the Cobbe Shakespeare portrait begin to twinkle with delight as science imagines once again that it is has gotten the upper hand on art.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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