Amateur Restoration Botches Jesus Fresco in Spain

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Marco Werman: This next story is proof again that if you want a job done right, hire a professional. Residents of a town in Spain are reeling after a beloved painting of Jesus was found defaced. The culprit? An elderly woman who tried to touch up the weathered fresco herself. She claims to have had the best intentions and permission from the priest at the church housing the fresco. Art historians are expected to meet at the church soon to discuss how to repair the damage. You can see the painting for yourself at The It's worth taking a look at the before and after images. Joyce Hill Stoner is Paintings Conservator in the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware. This was not a valuable painting, I understand, but it held a lot of sentimental value to the people in this community in Spain. Can the damage be undone, Dr. Stoner?

Joyce Hill Stoner: Well, it seems to be a 19th century painting and it looks like she tried to clean it first and then started repainting it. And what happens when a, as you say, call a professional. When a professional conservator does a treatment, he or she limits the treatment to just the lost parts. Here we have none of the original painting showing. Can it be treated? Well, if what she put on it is removable it's possible that it could be removed and then a professional conservator could come in, consolidate what's left and inpaint just, we call it inpainting because we paint only in the losses, just what is missing.

Werman: Have you ever seen or heard anything like this before? I'm wondering how common amateur restorations are.

Stoner: My impression is that in Europe it's a little less likely to have this do-it-yourself, but it's a absolute passion in America. It's something about our pioneer spirit. We have here at Winterthur University of Delaware a once a month free of charge clinic, and things come in all the time that people, benign neglect would have been so much better. But oh no, they get the Windex, they get the Fantastik, and they try these things, and just like this, they clean away part of it. They're so embarrassed, and then they repaint the entire thing. And if they did it in a paint material we can remove, there's hope. But if they did it in an oil paint that's stronger, which I'm so sorry to say might be the case here, trying to separate the repaint from the underlying paint becomes extremely tricky.

Werman: Dr. Stoner, University of Delaware, where you are, is one of three art conservation schools in the U.S. and I gather your students are just flabbergasted by this.

Stoner: Oh yes, I mean it's hit like a virus on Facebook because everybody's hearts are breaking, because they know it wasn't done in any malicious way but it's such a heartbreaker. I mean when you look at the painting it looked like it was flaking a little in Christ's red robe, and then it looks like someone rubbed it and it's completely missing in the bottom and all over the right side of his head. And then there's nothing left of the original at all.

Werman: If the church, if the community, called you, I imagine this would be a challenge, but is it the type of project you'd enjoy taking on, to fix the now unfixed fresco, or would you go running and screaming in the other direction?

Stoner: Well, that's a complicated question. First, of all I know they called quite fabulous Spanish restorers. But we just had here a Norman Rockwell with almost the exact same, not a single original brush stroke of Norman Rockwell was showing. So no, we don't run screaming. We talk to the owner and say, now this is how many hours it's going to take, this is the likelihood of success. So the very first thing to do is ask the woman, oh please Senora, show me the materials that you used, and then we can start trying to take them off. And they'd be very fresh, so fresh is good too. If it's not too much more overcleaned than it looks like in one of these pictures, there could be real hope.

Werman: Joyce Hill Stoner teaches at the Winterthur University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Her book, Conservation of Easel Paintings, will be out in November and will be the international textbook of painting conservation. Joyce, thank you very much.

Stoner: My pleasure, and much good luck to the Spanish authorities who are going to be dealing with this.