Eighty-three year old amateur artist Cecilia Giménez had nothing but good intentions when she turned her attention towards a deteriorating fresco of Jesus Christ painted on the walls of the Sanctuary of Mercy church, in the small Spanish town of Borja. The fresco titled Ecce Homo (meaning “Behold the Man”) was made by the Spanish artist Elías García Martínez in 1930, and although the work was of “little artistic importance”, according to the general opinion amongst the press, because “Martínez is not a great artist and his painting Ecce Homo is not a ‘masterpiece,’” the fresco nevertheless held some sentimental value within the local community. So when the original paint on the fresco started flaking, Cecilia Giménez, who had no formal training, took it upon herself to restore the ageing artwork.
The damaged fresco of Ecce Homo on the left, and the ‘restored’ version on the right.
Giménez began touching up the portrait, one brushstroke at a time over several years, with the knowledge of the parish priest and the church caretakers, until one day, in the summer of 2012, when she decided that the work needed a major overhaul. Halfway through her ‘restoration’, Giménez went on an holiday, because the job was taking longer than she expected. She intended to complete it when she came back, but for good or bad, she never got the chance.
By the time she returned, her disastrous efforts had been discovered and Giménez became a global laughingstock. The botched effort became the talk of the internet, inspiring a slew of memes and jokes. Journalists likened the restoration to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean defacing Whistler’s Mother. Some compared the painting to a blurry potato and a monkey. Others dubbed it Beast Jesus and Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey).
Giménez felt so humiliated that she cried for days and refused to eat, her relatives said. Eventually, she went to a psychiatrist and took medication. At one point, García Martínez’s heirs threatened to sue Giménez for destroying the painting, but fortunately for her, they didn’t follow through.
The original, undamaged painting (left), the damaged painting (middle) and Giménez’s restoration (right).
Now, by a strange twist of fate, the small obscure town of Borja have suddenly found itself on the international tourist trail. Every year, tens of thousands of curious visitors with a grotesque sense of humor come from the far corners of the world to see with their own eyes the tragic fiasco, and leave with souvenirs such as mugs and t-shirt printed with the ‘new and improved’ Ecce Homo.
Cecilia Giménez, who’s restoration attempt was once ridiculed and mocked, is now a local celebrity. She hands out prizes for a competition of young artists, who paint their own “Ecce Homo” portraits. People recognize her on the streets and cry, 'It's Cecilia! It's Cecilia!' She’s even entitled to forty-nine percent of the proceeds that results from souvenir sales. The rest goes to the Martinez family.
Cecilia Giménez might have failed to restore the painting, but she did manage to restore the fortunes of the town. The influx of tourist has helped stabilized the economy of Borja, which was reeling under the devastating recession that the rest of Spain has been suffering over the past several years.“For me, it’s a story of faith,” said Andrew Flack, an opera’s librettist who’s making a comic opera about how a woman ruined a fresco and saved a town. “It’s a miracle how it has boosted tourism.”
“Why are people coming to see it if it is such a terrible work of art?” he asked. “It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, driven by the media into a phenomenon. God works in mysterious ways. Your disaster could be my miracle.”
Mr Bean’s restoration of James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Whistler’s Mother), from the movie Bean, 1997.
An assortment of “Ecce Homo” souvenirs. Photo credit: NYPost
A collection of “Ecce Homo” memes on the internet.
Tourists line up to see “Ecce Homo” at the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain. Photo credit: NYPost
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