Arts, Culture & Media

Amateur restoration botches Jesus painting in Spain

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While trying to restore a 19th-century painting (left), an elderly woman in Spain says she unintentionally defaced it (right). (Photos via BBC.)

Catholic parishioners in the Spanish town of Borja had hoped for a restored century-old painting of Jesus Christ. Instead, the painting was returned to their church defaced.

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The culprit was an elderly woman who tried to touch up the weathered "ecce homo" fresco herself. She claims to have had the best intentions and even permission from the parish priest. 

The painting is by Elias Garcia Martinez, a 19th-century painter. It has hung in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, near the city of Zaragoza, for more than 100 years.

Ecce homo translates to "behold the man." It's an artistic motif that shows Jesus, usually bound and with a crown of thorns, right before his crucifixion, according to the New York Times.

Art historians are expected to meet at the church soon to discuss how to repair the painting. But Joyce Hill Stoner, a paintings conservator at the University of Delaware, says the damage may be irreversible. The news shocked her and her students. 

"They know it wasn't done in any malicious way," she said. "But it's such a heartbreaker."

Stoner says photos of the painting make it look like the woman, Cecilia Gimenez, tried to clean the fresco before painting over the entire canvas. She says professional conservators limit their touch ups to missing or damanged spots.

"Here we have none of the original painting showing," she said.

This isn't the first case of do-it-yourself restoration Stoner has come across. But she says Americans, not Europeans, are the ones who typically take on such projects.

"Benign neglect would have been so much better," she said of amateuar resorations she had seen before. "But oh, no. They get the Windex. They get the Fantastik. And just like this, they clean away part of it."

Stoner says undoing the damage is possible, but worries that the woman used oil-based paints that are difficult to remove.

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