Today, 6 December, is Saint Nicholas' Day, and in honor of that occasion, I shall pass on a bit of research regarding Old Saint Nick himself.
As my readership may know, Nicholas was born about 270 AD in Myra, Anatolia (now Turkey), and died on 6 December in 343, in Myra. He was known to be a bishop of the province, and came to be known for charity, intervention for the falsely-accused, and staunch defender of the orthodox (little-o) faith. Born into a relatively well-to-do patrician household, he likely had access to the funds which fuel much of his charitable exploits.
Perhaps his most famous act was to secretly give gold coins to a man whose three daughters did not have a proper dowry. This, along with other stories of anonymous gift-giving to the poor of Myra, led to the associations between Nicholas and the giving of presents.
Also, he is said to have discovered a butcher that had abducted three children, killed them, and pickled them for later sale as ham. Foiling the plot, he exposed the crime, and also resurrected the children. A thousand years hence, this story having traveled to England may have been the basis for none other than Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
In time, Nicholas' patronage was claimed by sailors, travelers, children, the poor, the falsely-accused, and any number of cities, from Myra to New Amsterdam, and countries, most familiarly, Russia. His gift-giving was probably responsible, at least in part, for the modern celebration of Christmas, though some cultures separate the two. (For completeness, I should also mention the parallel gift-giving theme from the Magi.)
Enough history; on with the science.
In May 1087 (21 years after the Norman Conquest of England, and 33 years after the schism between Constantinople and Rome), Italian mercenaries and sailors entered Myra on the South coast of Turkey to retrieve the relics of Saint Nicholas. The stolen remains were then taken to the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy, where they remain to this day. (N.b.: please see the references below for the resting places of other parts of Nicholas. Also please note that the Royal Society does not have any portion of Old St Nick in its attic.)
A certain Professor Francesco Introna (coincidentally from Bari, Italy) has studied the relics in the modern day, and comissioned Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Manchester University to reconstruct the face of the bishop, using tools now familiar through forensic police work, which have also shed light on the faces of Tutankhamun and Copernicus through similar reconstruction.
Essentially, the skull was subjected to a number of measurements based on both photographic and Roentgenographic images. With these data, Dr Wilkinson was able to infer the size, shape, and thickness of some 26 facial muscles. With the musculature laid over the skull, a layer of (digital) skin may be applied over the muscles, thus completing the facial features. Hair, skin, and eye colour would be chosen based on ethnologic traits of the population in IV century Myra, producing perhaps the closest facsimile possible of a person dead some 1600-odd years.
Interestingly, analysis of the skull pointed towards a broken nose, which would have likely caused a visible (though perhaps not distracting) deformity, one that the modern world may associate more with a rugby player, or boxer.
From the Guardian (UK):
Certain features of the skull can say a lot about a face. Long teeth suggest full lips, while small protrusions called mastoid processes on each side of the head point one way if the person has earlobes, and the other if not.A possible source for the broken nose may have been the altercation between him and Arius at the First Council of Nicaea, over what later was deemed the heresy of Arianism.
Taking tangents from different parts of the nasal cavity reveals how long the nose was. In Santa's case, this was particularly tough because his nose was badly broken. "It must have been a very hefty blow because it's the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken," says Wilkinson.
Quite how St Nicholas got his injury is a mystery, but Wilkinson says tales abound of Santa being something of a rebel. "I heard he once punched a bishop," she says.
The reconstructed St Nicholas is olive-skinned and white-haired, with a beard shaped in a style popular in the fourth century. "It's only really the broken nose people are surprised about, but the more I hear about his character, the more it all fits."
Fair enough. Can I see St Nick now?
Here is the reconstructed face of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.
And for comparison, I present an eerily-similar icon of St Nicholas from ca. 1000 AD, from the Byzantine empire, perhaps Constantinople.