Arts, Culture & Media

'Monkey Boy' Jesus Fresco Draws Global Attention and Tourists

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Tourists pose for a photo with the Sanctuary's star, Ecce Homo. The fresco was accidentally destroyed by elderly parishioner Cecilia Jimenez, who says she was only trying to restore it. Humidity had caused much of the original paint to flake off. Professional restorers now wonder if removing Jimenez's paint is possible.

About the only thing the original fresco shares with Cecilia Jimenez's touch-up is the wall it is painted on. The work, called Ecce Homo, or Behold the Man in English, is now referred to as the Monkey Boy of Borja. At first church officials and townsfolks were horrified.

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Not anymore.

In the Sanctuary of Mercy Church on a recent weekday morning, the place was packed with tourists. They glanced around at the baroque alter, some of the statues. All out of politeness. But soon enough they drifted over to the real draw.

Behold, the Monkey.

After a quick peek, visiting tourists Miguel Angel and Charo Martin headed back outside to reflect.

"We just came up here because of the stories that have been on all the TV shows," Angel said. "We were curious."

"It's what tourists do," Martin said. "We go to see the silliest things on offer, and this is one of them!"

Silly. Silly, perhaps. But now, also, and to everyone's surprise, a money maker.

In the entrance to the sanctuary, custodian Jose Maria Aznar, tended the till, charging one euro to get in, and 12 euros for a lottery ticket bearing the image of the defaced fresco. Entry used to be free. Aznar said he is not used to handling so much cash, and messes up people's change all the time.

"Usually in mid October we get about 20 visitors a day during the week," Aznar said. "Now, its 150. And on the weekends, we're getting up to 1500 visitors. Everyone is really happy with what's going on."

The money, Aznar said, is being used to maintain the sanctuary, and to support an old folks home. But the money flow doesn't end here. Borja's hotels have all been booked solid this fall. That's a first.

And so are the bars.

"If it weren't for the fresco, you yourself wouldn't be here with your microphone," said Antonio Romano, who owns an eatery just in front of the sanctuary. "Draw your own conclusions."

The knock-on actually reaches far beyond Spain. In the UK, the low-cost airline RyanAir has jumped on the buzz, offering dirt cheap flights to nearby Saragossa. In the US someone has come up with a Monkey Boy Halloween costume, complete with the sideways mouth and ring of hair around the head.

There are also online art contests, where you can try your own hand at the restoration. Some are serious, but most are tongue and cheek. There is a Chewbacca fresco, a Kermit the Frog version, you name it.

And in a nearby village, they are now making a Monkey Boy wine.

But amidst the rush to cash in on the image, a battle may be looming over who controls it. The church has claims, since the fresco is on its wall, but the elderly artist Jimenez has lawyered up. If it wasn't for her well-meaning mistake, her argument goes, Borja would never have gotten on the map.

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