Ecce Homo

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

“So what’s the name of this place you’re dragging us to?”

“And please explain why we’re going there instead of sipping mojitos by the hotel pool on this absolutely gorgeous day.”

“Today you are going to see the most important work of Spanish art created thus far in the 21st century. You are going to be so moved by the experience that it is highly likely you will fall down on your knees and weep openly and joyously. After today you will be a changed person. You will see the world with new eyes! Food will taste better! Music will sound as if it had fallen directly from the heavens above! After today you will never be quite the same again.”

Lola turned to my parents in the back seat of the rental car [1] and tried to let them down gently.

“Your son is a complete idiot.”

We headed northwest out of Zaragoza shortly after breakfast and within an hour we were winding our way through the narrow medieval lanes of the sleepy town of Borja, population 5,000. We had come to see Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), a small fresco dating back to the 1930s which depicts Christ with a crown of thorns. In the summer of 2012 a local, elderly, church-going lady/amateur artist named Cecilia Giménez became (in)famous around the world when her failed attempt at restoring the fresco went viral.

My first instinct upon entering any small Spanish town by car is to always park immediately and walk into the center. At some point, usually sooner than later, the inevitable narrowing of maze-like one-way streets into a claustrophobic nightmare is going to happen. I pulled over at the edge of town and Lola showed me the GPS on her phone. It was a one hour walk straight up the side of a mountain to the Santuario de Misericordia, where the fresco is located, from our current location.

Copia de Ecce_Homo_(Elías_Martínez,_Cecilia_Giménez)

Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez circa 1930

“I’m not doing another Mangerton!” My mother was getting a bit nervous in the back seat. [2]

I drove a bit closer to the center of town and then it happened, just like it always does. We saw a sign for the Santuario and I turned off the main street. Now we were wedged into a narrow one-way lane in a rental car that was nearly as wide as the street itself. We rolled down the windows and pulled in the rear view mirrors. There was no turning back. We worked our way through the streets in slow motion (5 km/h) trying not to knock down a bowlegged old woman, her arms loaded with the daily shopping, a group of children kicking a soccer ball, and then an oblivious old fella with a cane who wasn’t moving out of the way for anybody. He walked right up the middle of the street for a good long while with us crawling behind him at a snail’s pace until he turned down another narrow lane.

Then I nearly soiled my pants when I noticed a car coming towards us.

“Isn’t this a one-way street?”

The guy kept coming at us so I stopped. When we were front bumper to front bumper he stopped, too. I put my arms up in the air, making the universal symbol for what the fuck are you doing?!  

He rolled his window down and explained that his garage was just up ahead and if we could back up about 30 meters so he could get in, well, that would be great.

Hijo de puta.”

“Settle down. You can do this.”

As I started backing up the car the local driving expert arrived on the scene: an annoying (and without a doubt completely friendless) old man who most certainly had never driven anything other than a donkey cart in his entire miserable existence. He was slapping the roof and banging his knuckles on the hood while circling the car and yelling in a completely incomprehensible accent. I did my best to ignore him.

We saw another sign for the Santuario and miraculously made it out of town and up into the hills without putting a single scratch on the car. For all the news coverage the botched restoration has received over the past three years I was expecting more tourists. We stepped inside the little chapel to discover that we were the only visitors on a Saturday morning.

When we walked in the first thing I noticed was the look on the old man’s face as we handed him the money (1€ each) for our tickets. His expression said it all: I can’t believe people keep coming here to see this nonsense. It must have been an off-day because he claimed they had received nearly 130,000 visitors from all over the world since the summer of 2012. I thought surely he must be exaggerating, but then he handed each of us a pin with a little sticker attached and asked us to write our names and hometown on them. He pointed to the wall behind us where several large maps showing different parts of the world were hanging. The maps were absolutely covered in pins. My parents stuck their pins on the map of North America, in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, not one bit surprised that they were the first residents of Sellersville to make the absurd pilgrimage to Borja.

As Lola and I stuck our pins in the northeastern corner of Extremadura she whispered, “Now for the moment of truth… How long can we go without laughing?”

We entered the chapel and there it was right in front of us. I only lasted about three seconds before I had to turn and walk away. I didn’t think it was possible that the original could be any funnier than the images I had seen online. Well, let me assure you, it’s even funnier in person. My mother had to turn and look away, too. But before she had a chance to avert her gaze elsewhere, she let out a loud cackle and immediately slapped her hand over her mouth.

“I feel terrible… laughing out loud in this very somber place of worship…”

Ecce_Homo_(Elías_Martínez,_Cecilia_Giménez)

Ecce Homo after being “restored” by Giménez, 2012

The chapel is a bit run down. The place is damp, the paint is peeling off the walls, the artwork and furniture is all in need of repair. Yet, the only object behind a piece of protective plastic is Ecce Homo. At first I thought this was a bit excessive. Then it dawned on me that the plastic isn’t there because it’s a priceless work of art, but because of the fear that a religious fanatic may find it offensive and attempt to damage it in some way.

Journalists have had a field day making jokes about Giménez’s restoration. Christian Fraser of the BBC referred to her efforts as a “crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic”. A CNN article about Ecce Homo is titled Church masterpiece ‘restored’ as Mr. Bean would do it. (CNN claims the original fresco is 120 years old. It was painted in 1930. Do the math. CNN is the worst.) Alexander Forbes at blouinartinfo.com wrote, “what was a minor work of traditional iconography has become a masterpiece of contemporary surrealism.”. The restoration has been dubbed Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey) by some and Beast Jesus by others. Jonathon Keats of Forbes.com referred to the work as “one woman’s vision of her savior, uncompromised by schooling.”.

All of this negative attention, as well as allegations that the family of the original artist was thinking about filing a lawsuit against Giménez, led to her suffering anxiety attacks and depression and taking to her bed at the end of the summer of 2012. She has repeatedly claimed that it was not her intention to damage the fresco in any way. The local priest, Father Florencio Garces, had even given her the thumbs up on the project which she was working on in plain view, in broad daylight, right there inside the chapel.

vivaeccehomo

Giménez was upset that the original, which she claims is her favorite local representation of Jesus, was deteriorating due to the dampness in the chapel. And, to her credit, Giménez did seek the advice of city cultural authority Juan Maria de Ojeda when she realized she was in over her head and that the restoration had, in her own words, “gotten a bit out of hand”.

Jonathon Keats of Forbes.com, in his article Why Every Church Should Be Blessed With a Muralist as Uncouth as Cecilia Giménez, seems to be the only journalist who understands what she was trying to do. And I quote: “Her painting documents a live relationship. For some, that will be alluring, inviting them likewise to pursue their connection with their god or messiah. To any of us willing to set aside our sneering irony, it provides rare raw access to human faith at work.”

Of course, I’m sympathetic to the heirs of the original artist, Elías García Martínez. However, threatening legal action against Giménez seems a bit much. Jonathon Keats has a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) solution to this dilemma: “They should instead hire her to restore the remainder of his pictures.” Ouch.

Borja is definitely lucky to have somebody like Cecilia Giménez for a resident. She has singlehandedly (albeit accidentally) brought some much needed tourist cash to the area. Ryanair was offering flights from 12€ to Zaragoza from any of the airports in which the company operates due to the increase in tourism caused by her DIY restoration.

On the way out of the chapel Lola asked if there was any merchandise for sale. The ticket seller told us there were t-shirts and coffee mugs on the way. The only thing they had for sale at the moment were tickets for the Lotería de Navidad (the Spanish Christmas Lottery) with “before” and “after” images of Ecce Homo on them. We coughed up 6€ and bought one as a souvenir.

Despite all the haters, Giménez seems to have had the last laugh. A deal has been made with the local council which states that she will receive 49% of the profits from the sale of merchandise. The rest will go to the council which seems to be quite pleased that the media circus is now turning a profit. Giménez claims that her part of the money will be donated to a charity for muscular dystrophy, as her son suffers from the condition.

And, there is currently an American comic opera entitled (what else?) Behold the Man about the incident in the works. Andrew Flack, who wrote the libretto for the opera, described the theme as being, “That a miracle can come from a disaster: that you can make lemons from lemonade.” It was originally to premiere in Colorado, but now the organizers are kicking around the idea of launching the opera in Borja. See you opening night!

cecilia-borja--644x362

Cecilia Giménez posing with her handiwork in the Santuario de Misericordia, Borja

[1] The rental car was an Audi A4 which was an absolute pleasure to drive. I crossed Spain from Xábia on the Mediterranean coast all the way back to Plasencia in just under 6 hours. The speeding tickets, along with the incriminating photos that were snapped by the poorly hidden radar cameras, should be arriving by post any day now.

[2] Years ago in Ireland I tricked my parents into climbing Mangerton Mountain by telling them we were just going for a little stroll in the countryside.

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