Holy Mess! Spain's Disfigured Christ Mural Remains A Hit With Tourists
The clumsy restoration of a mural of Christ in a Spanish chapel 10 years ago shocked, then amused Spaniards and millions more abroad, and gave the local town a level of publicity, and tourist revenues, it never had nor could have hoped for. Here's how it looks 10 years later.
BORJA — Among the countless pictures and images of Christ around the world, it might not be outlandish to imagine that one of them might seek revenge — using humidity as the instrument of its vengeance.
One might say this of a by-now notorious mural of Christ inside a chapel in Borja in the province of Aragón, northern Spain.
Painted in 1930 by a painter and academic, the image was smothered in 2012 by Cecilia Giménez Zueca, a local resident and amateur painter. She wanted to help no doubt, but her "unfinished" restoration turned a venerable image of the suffering Christ — an Ecce Homo — into a bloated, indefinable cartoon.
And it made the news, big time, putting Borja on the tourist map. Travel agencies began organizing tours to Borja, and over 235,000 tourists have already visited the comical disaster.
A not-so notable history
The original painting may not have been much. It covered part of a side wall of the Sanctuary of Mercy or chapel of the Caserón de Borja, reputedly Spain's oldest travel inn. Pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela would stop here.
In 1937, the actress Imperio Argentina filmed scenes from her film Nobleza baturra ("Aragon's Nobility") in the inn.
Today the historic inn houses 36 rental flats, while the three euros it costs to see Cecilia's puffy Christ have helped finance the Holy Spirit Hospital of Borja, the nearby pensioners' home whose residents include Cecilia, now aged 91.
Her intervention has inspired an opera, earned itself a mention in an article on Madonna, the singer, and generates endless memes online. People have made cakes and pies covered with this Ecce Homo, as well as souvenirs like cups and keyrings. A machine at the chapel entrance invites visitors to mint a coin with this face.
Goodwill turned disaster
María José, or Pepa, is a Borja resident who charges the entry fee for the chapel. Like others, she will tell you Cecilia decided in 2012 to "fix" the portrait as, she said then, "it's looking awful."
The mural was painted a year before Cecilia was born, by Elías García Martínez, a teacher at the Zaragoza School of Art (he was copying an earlier Christ he painted in 1918).
Pepa says "you think this is the first time she touched it?" Cecilia, she adds, habitually came every summer to clean the chapel, walking five kilometers up a hill from Borja. Indeed, she had an "interventionist" reputation with the local heritage.
I started painting the face, and it came out all wrong.
In this case, use of water in the restoration combined with the wall's considerable humidity, wiped away and likely mixed certain colors to leave, well, a mess.
"I'll come back and finish it in a few days, it's not a big deal," she said, according to Pepa. She then went on holiday. Before her return, neighbors and the press, notably the local Heraldo de Aragón, had arrived, and her intervention went viral.
A couple from Málaga in southern Spain and three girls from Madrid listen as Pepa talks. The girls then pose beside the suffering Christ and she takes their picture with a cellphone.
She goes on: "They wouldn't let her touch it again. She's always said she hadn't finished. She left it like that as she intended to finish her work after her vacation." She was "attacked a lot," says Pepa, referring to the initial outrage the restoration caused across the country.
Before-and-after photos of the Borja Christ
A new tourist attraction
In 2012, another Clarín correspondent, Leonardo Torresi, visited Borja to see the picture when it was all the rage. Cecilia told him "something compelled" her to fix that Christ, a "kind of force inside me, but I still don't know what it was."
Some townsfolk claim she has privately admitted, "I started painting the face, and it came out all wrong."
Cecilia moves in a wheelchair today, but wants to get better so she can return to the chapel. She was married there, her two children were baptized and took their communion there, by the original painting.
Today, Pepa says "there were all kinds of reactions because there are people who don't like our town being known for this, and others who do." She doesn't mind, she says, "but there is so much more to Borja." She admits so many people used to pass through Borja without stopping. Now, she says, "they come to see this, and stay in the area."
The municipality has no intention of restoring the painting. "Would you have come to see the original," Pepa asks?
And yet, the painting will have its revenge. Cecilia's version is starting to peel, for the humidity. "This bit fell off yesterday," says Pepa, holding a piece from the edge.
Who'll be the one to restore this version, I ask her, to which she replies, "nobody."