A Restoration Gone Awry

Sometimes actions taken with best of intentions, can result in complete disaster. Such was the case in the tiny Spanish village of Borja, after an elderly woman claimed responsibility for attempting to restore a century-old fresco painted by Elias Garcia Martinez. The painting is a depiction of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and is named Ecce Homo or “Behold the Man” translated from Latin. The new version unintentionally gives Jesus’s beard a drastic shave and removes the crown of thorns. Some have even said that the painting gives its subject a monkey-like appearance.

The Ecce Homo before and after "restoration."

Cecilia Gimenez told Spanish television that she wanted to help fix the painting after seeing it deteriorate from moisture and flaking caused by humidity over the years. She also told reporters that her “restoration” was done with the permission of the church’s priest. “The priest knew it,” Gimenez explained to local television. “I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.” Initially, officials believed that the painting fell victim to vandalism instead of the good intentions of one of the church’s parishioners. “I’ve seen many well intentioned do-it-yourself restorations; objects have great meaning to people, and they want to keep them looking good,” said Beth Edelstein, an associate conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “It’s at least heartening that she did it out of love and care for the painting, rather than with an intent to do harm,” she added.

Fixes for the Fresco

Gimenez’s alterations to the painting render it largely unrecognizable compared to the original that had been hanging in her beloved church for years. Gone are the painting’s original proportions, perspective, shading, and depth. Edelstein believes that it is quite possible that Gimenez’s changes to the painting are in fact reversible. The elderly woman’s recollection of the materials she used and her methods will be a great help for conservators as plans for conservation move forward. “It is actually quite helpful that she can tell the conservators exactly what she did and what she used — we rarely have that information and often spend a lot of time trying to determine the answers to those questions,” she said to the Houston Chronicle.

The American Institute of Conservators strongly advises against do-it-yourself conservation projects undertaken by amateurs. On the organization’s website, there is a function to find a conservator in your area to perform the work needed on your piece. Additionally, AIC offers a comprehensive guide on how to choose the right conservator for your project, in addition to an exhaustive article regarding the care of paintings.

Despite AIC’s strong recommendations, amateur art restorers around the world now have a strictly internet-based chance to make their own changes to the Ecce Homo as part of the Cecilia Prize contest. Entry is simple: restore the painting using a virtual palette and then tweet  your submission using the #CeciliaPrize hashtag on Twitter. Your prize? A poster of the new Cecilia Gimenez version of the Ecce Homo.

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2 Responses to A Restoration Gone Awry

  1. Thanks for linking my piece. Please note it’s Beth Edelstein.