The Ecce Homo Dilemma: Spain Puzzles over an Art Disaster Gone Viral

After a failed restoration job made international front pages, conservationists, art critics and tourism officials all have their opinion on what to do with the fresco

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It was the botch job heard around the world. So laughably executed was Cecilia Giménez’s supposed restoration of a fresco titled Ecce Homo that it appeared on the cover of newspapers from New York to Sydney, launched a Twitter contest with over 2,000 entries to date and made its way onto an extended sketch on the Conan O’Brien show. A foodstall in Madrid is even selling crepes burnished with the image. But all the media attention directed at what Spanish wits have dubbed Ecce Mono (the original title translates as “Behold the Man”; the revised version as “Behold the Monkey”), has left the city of Borja, located roughly 60 km northwest of Zaragoza with a dilemma: What the heck do they do with the thing now?

The story of the restoration-gone-awry is by now familiar. Noticing that humidity in Borja’s Misericordia church was damaging the image, octogenarian Giménez took it upon herself to make some improvements. In fact, with the parish priest’s approval, she had touched up the painting on previous occasions, but always confined her brushstrokes to Christ’s robes. This time, however, she started in on Jesus’ face. “She says it looks that way because she hadn’t finished yet,” says art conservator Encarna Ripollés whose company, Albarium, was commissioned to produce a report on the updated fresco. “Of course, if she had, that would have been even worse.”

(MORE: Now You Too Can Restore Your Own Ecce Homo Fresco)

Earlier this week, Ripollés and her partner turned in a draft version of their findings (they are still awaiting the results of chemical analyses) to the foundation that oversees the sanctuary and will decide what measures to take. In the report, they laid out three possibilities for the work: get rid of Giménez’s “restoration” and repair the original; leave the painting as is, or attempt a riskier operation called strappo. “As an art conservator, I have to say that in any other case, the preferred option would clearly be to remove the new painting and restore the work to its previous condition,” Ripollés says. “But this isn’t an ordinary case.”

No, it’s not. The media attention that the touch-up has received has prompted an online petition urging that the new painting be preserved, many of whose signatories (22,000 and climbing), insist that Giménez’s version is every bit as artistic as the original, painted by 19th century artist Elías García Martínez. “In his wildest dreams, Damien Hirst couldn’t have imagined such an impact,” wrote Alegría Lacoma on the petition website. “This work brings together, in one shot, all the trends in avant-garde art.” The new version has also brought hundreds of visitors to Borja. “It’s been very surprising,” says Leandro Galindo, Borja city councilman for social services. “Last week we had all these tourists who were on vacation, and now we’ve got school groups lining up to come see it.”

(MORE: Worst. Restoration. Ever. Elderly Woman Botches Touch-Up Job on 19th Century Church Fresco)

Galindo believes the foundation will eventually opt for the strappo technique, which involves gluing a piece of canvas to the painted image, then peeling it off along with a thin layer of pigmented plaster — Giménez’s version, in this case — and leaving the original intact. The image on the canvas could then be transferred to another place on the wall. “It’s a little unusual, but theoretically at least, it would allow you to keep both paintings,” says Ripollés. Although the technique is frequently used with damaged frescoes, in this case — because of the wall’s dampness and the deteriorated state of the original (especially after Giménez brushed away its flaking paint) — it carries a marked risk of destroying one or both works.

Which is why, councilman Galindo says with the air of a man who knows a stroke of luck when he sees it, he expects that no action will be taken for at least the next couple of months. “There are a lot of people who want to visit it,” he says. “We don’t want to ruin that.”

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