The Journal puzzles out recurrence of hilarious art restoration fails

Mysterious botched art restorations shock, anger, and entertain the world

Image by: Tessa Warburton
Botched art restorations keep cropping up in Spain.

Eight years ago, in Spain, a well-meaning elderly lady made a disastrous decision to paint over a beloved painting of the son of God, transforming the work into what’s been dubbed Potato Jesus by some, Monkey Christ by others. 

The Monkey Christ fiasco drew international attention to Borja, the small town in Spain where it all went down, and Cecilia Giménez, the would-be restorer, faced ire, derision, and mockery from the global community. 

But the original 19th century work, Ecce Homo, which Giménez painted over, was never a priceless artefact as the media frenzy suggested. Rather, it held sentimental value to parishioners of the church it resided in. Ironically, Monkey Jesus has drawn more tourism to Borja than ever before, boosting the town’s fledgling economy, and making the botched version far more valuable than the original hidden beneath it. 

While all’s well that ends well in this case, the fable of Monkey Christ calls into question how Giménez’s blunder was allowed to happen in the first place. One might assume there’d be strict protocols when it comes to restoring centuries-old artworks—the kind of protocols that’d prevent a random local from taking their best crack at it. 

In Giménez’s case, she had permission from the priest and conducted her work in the open with witnesses. According to her, she wasn’t finished the restoration job yet when the media uproar began, but, looking at the two images side-by-side, it’s hard to imagine more time would’ve yielded a better result.

Besides, serious art conservators insist completely painting over an original work is never the goal of restoration, no matter what state of disrepair it’s in. Instead, they carefully clean grime off old works and meticulously fill in cracks if need be. When handled by a trained professional, art restorations are typically successful at preserving the work and bringing it close to its original appearance. 

Yet, botched art restorations are alarmingly common. In 2018, more misguided restorers at the San Miguel de Estella church in Navarra, Spain degraded a 16th century wooden carving of a knight into a wonky cartoon character. As with the Jesus Monkey, this restoration was undertaken by a local craftsperson with good intentions instead of an expert. 

More recently, in the Northern Spanish city of Palencia, a botched statue restoration has gone viral. In this case, an alleged professional was hired to retouch a smiling woman’s face on the side of a building which had suffered from erosion. The result took the realistic carving style of the original and turned it into what looks like a playdough face molded by a really talented toddler. 

While the trend would make it seem like some group of people is pulling an elaborate prank on the art community of Spain, these isolated events each happened as a result of poor planning and a lack of care. 

Perhaps it would be best to change our approach to art conservatism and add a lot more oversight and community decision-making to the process. In addition, we ought to put a greater emphasis on preserving old art and sculptures to prevent damage from occurring.

Alternatively, we could be a lot more restrictive when it comes to selecting ancient artworks for remastering. You may know that ancient marble statues crafted by Roman societies were originally painted over. But today, these sculptures are recognized the world over for their iconic pale marble appearance and lifeless eyes. 

While experts might see these statues as being ravaged by time, others regard their current state as more beautiful than the originals.  Would we ever dare to repaint these sculptures, rebuild the colosseum or realign the Leaning Tower of Pisa? After all, there is a haunting beauty to old and damaged things. 


art restoration, Cultural commentary

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