The relic is one of the most precious in all Christendom.

It's a blackened skull. A scattering of bones. A bundle of human hair.

But these human remains have been kept as holy relics in a crypt beneath a basilica of a medieval town in the south of France for more than 1800 years, Reports new.com.au.

For centuries, the fame of their supposed owner has been attracting inquisitive pilgrims eager to seek a tangible link to the origins of their faith.

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Now, scientist have been able to put a face to the skull many believe belongs to one of the most controversial players of the New Testament.

"We are absolutely not sure that this is the true skull of Mary Magdalene," biological anthropologist from the University of Versailles Philippe Charlier told National Geograpic.

"But it was very important to get it out of anonymity."

TALES THE DEAD TELL

The legend of Mary Magdalene's skeleton being in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume emerged in the late 13th Century.

The story goes that renovations of the basilica at that time uncovered a series of 1st Century tombs. One of them contained a marble sarcophagus.

The then Count of Provence Charles II said he had been driven by a dream to conduct the excavation - a dream in which Saint Mary Magdalene appeared to him.

The sarcophagus' lid was lifted, and a "wonderful and very sweet smell" wafted out - accounts of the event insist. It was attributed to the scented perfume Magdelene used to annoit Jesus' feet.

Conveniently, there was also a note and a wax-covered tablet stating: "Hic requiescit corpus beatae Mariae Magdalenae". Here is the body of the blessed Mary Magdalene.

It's not the only set of remains attributed to the biblical figure. But it does dovetail nicely with a local Provence legend that Mary Magdalene (and her child) fled Israel to the south of France to avoid persecution by Jewish and Roman authorities.

She was said to have hidden in a secluded mountain cave, La Baume of Mary Magdalene, where she later died.

FACE TO THE NAME

The golden reliquary from the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, in the south of France, said to contain the skull of Mary Magdalene. Photo / Supplied
The golden reliquary from the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, in the south of France, said to contain the skull of Mary Magdalene. Photo / Supplied

The blackened skull of the Blessed Magdalene has been on display, mounted in a golden reliquary - complete with flowing locks of hair - for centuries.

It remains in the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume within a bulletproof glass case. Once every year, on July 22, it is paraded through the town's streets.

It hasn't been examined closely since 1974.

But Charlier and visual forensic artist Philippe Froesch built up a 3D computer model of its features using over 500 photos taken from every possible angle.

They've told National Geographic the skull's features reveal it to be of a woman some 50 years old - and of Mediterranean descent.

Then forensic techniques similar to those used by the US FBI were used to determine the shape of the nose and other key features. Hair found on the skull suggested it had originally been a dark brown colouration.

Eventually, a face emerged.

WOMAN OF MANY COLOURS

The image of Mary Magdalene has long suffered an identity crisis.

She doesn't get much of a mention in the New Testament. Mostly that she humbled herself by using her hair to wash Jesus' feet with scented oils. But she was often referred to as being among his closest followers.

But fragments of the earliest Christian writings are claimed to indicate she held a much more significant role among Jesus' disciples - that of the messiah's wife.

We will likely never know. The Gospel of Mary was among many early Christian books declared heretical, and destroyed. Only fragments of a 5th Century papyrus codex was found in 1896.

Some academics argue the Bible has been heavily edited to write-out Mary Magdalene's role.

But what is known for certain is that, from the fifth century, Magdelene began to be depicted in official church writings as a prostitute. She became the epitome of a "red woman".

It was an ignoble fate for a woman said to have been by Jesus's side as he was being crucified by the Romans.

It was not until 1969 when this medieval whitewash was admitted - and rejected - by the Catholic Church.