Conservation experts in Spain have called for a tightening of the laws covering restoration work after a copy of a famous painting by the baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo became the latest in a long line of artworks to suffer a damaging and disfiguring repair.
A private art collector in Valencia was reportedly charged €1,200 by a furniture restorer to have the picture of the Immaculate Conception cleaned. However, the job did not go as planned and the face of the Virgin Mary was left unrecognisable despite two attempts to restore it to its original state.
The case has inevitably resulted in comparisons with the infamous “Monkey Christ” incident eight years ago, when a devout parishioner’s attempt to restore a painting of the scourged Christ on the wall of a church on the outskirts of the north-eastern Spanish town of Borja made headlines around the world.
Botched restoration of an Elias Garcia Martinez fresco on the walls of the Santuario de Misericordia de Borja
church in Zaragoza, Spain. Photograph: Centro de Estudios Borjanos/EPA
Parallels have also been drawn with the botched restoration of a 16th-century polychrome statue of Saint George and the dragon in northern Spain that left the warrior saint resembling Tintin or a Playmobil figure.
Fernando Carrera, a professor at the Galician School for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, said such cases highlighted the need for work to be carried out only by properly trained restorers.
“I don’t think this guy – or these people – should be referred to as restorers,” Carrera told the Guardian. “Let’s be honest: they’re bodgers who botch things up. They destroy things.”
Carrera, a former president of Spain’s Professional Association of Restorers and Conservators (Acre), said the law currently allowed people to engage in restoration projects even if they lacked the necessary skills. “Can you imagine just anyone being allowed to operate on other people? Or someone being allowed to sell medicine without a pharmacist’s licence? Or someone who’s not an architect being allowed to put up a building?”
While restorers were “far less important than doctors”, he added, the sector sill needed to be strictly regulated for the sake of Spain’s cultural history. “We see this kind of thing time and time again and yet it keeps on happening.
“Paradoxically, it shows just how important professional restorers are. We need to invest in our heritage, but even before we talk about money, we need to make sure that the people who undertake this kind of work have been trained in it.”
María Borja, one of Acre’s vice-presidents, also said incidents such as the Murillo mishap were “unfortunately far more common than you might think”. Speaking to Europa Press, which broke news of the Murillo repair, she added: “We only find out about them when people report them to the press or on social media, but there are numerous situation when works are undertaken by people who aren’t trained.”
Non-professional interventions, Borja added, “mean that artworks suffer and the damage can be irreversible”.
Carrera said Spain had a huge amount of cultural and historical heritage because of all the different groups that have passed through the country over the centuries, leaving behind their marks and monuments.
Another part of the problem, he added, was that “some politicians just don’t give a toss about heritage”, meaning that Spain did not have the financial resources to safeguard all the treasures of its past. “We need to focus society’s attention on this so that it chooses representatives who put heritage on the agenda,” he said.
“It doesn’t have to be at the very top because it’s obviously not like healthcare or employment – there are many more important things. But this is our history.”
Cecilia Giménez is proud of her amateur restoration.
The partially restored painting.
A painting in the museum-gallery shows Giménez at work. Photograph: Sam Jones/Guardian
Tangible and competitively priced proof of one of the Lord’s more mysterious recent manoeuvres can be found in a church nestled in the foothills of the Sierra de Moncayo in north-eastern Spain.
A familiar face, now known to the world as Monkey Christ, greets visitors to the Santuario de Misericordia, its blurred and startled features staring down from bottles, thimbles, bookmarks, teddy bears, pens, mugs, T-shirts, mousepads, badges, fridge magnets and keyrings.
For centuries, the nearby town of Borja was best known for its wines and splendid 16th-century town hall. All that changed six years ago when a simple act of devotion was transmogrified into an object of ridicule, a meme and, eventually, a tourist attraction.
In the summer of 2012, a devout parishioner, Cecilia Giménez, noticed that an already flaking and faded painting on the church’s wall was under threat from a leak.
Giménez, then 81, decided that if she did not act, the face of Christ that the artist Elías García Martínez had painted almost a century earlier would disappear forever.
Pained at the idea of its loss – and keen to conserve the interior of the church in which she had been married – Giménez began work, applying thick blocks of colour on which she planned to retrace the divine countenance.
A before and after shot of Ecce Homo, or Monkey Christ as it became known. Photograph: AP
Before long, García Martínez’s work had ceased to be known as Ecce Homo and, as Monkey Christ or Potato Jesus, has become an irresistible visual shorthand for anything tending towards the disastrous.
The townsfolk were up in arms, the media descended and Giménez lost 17kg through stress, worry and the thought that she had made a laughing stock out of Christ’s suffering face.
The partially restored painting.
Between August and December 2012, 45,824 people visited the sanctuary. The numbers may have dropped off since then, but Borja still receives 16,000 visitors a year.
The media phenomenon has not been limited to Borja. In June this year, the overenthusiastic restoration of a 500-year-old statue of St George in a church in Estella, Navarre, elicited comparisons with Tintin, while the treatment meted out to a group of 15th-century wooden statues in Asturias left a professional restorer torn between tears and laughter.
Estella’s mayor, Koldo Leoz, says the town has seen an increase in visitor numbers but adds that it predates the St George incident and is down to a concerted effort to restore the old Jewish quarter and attract pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.