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'They didn't let me finish': 'Monkey Jesus' artist

Alex Dunham · 14 Aug 2013, 09:17

Published: 13 Aug 2013 18:17 GMT+02:00
Updated: 14 Aug 2013 09:17 GMT+02:00

In August 2012, residents of the small village of Borja in north-eastern Spain were shocked to find out that a "vandal" had destroyed a prized fresco in their local Sanctuary of Mercy Church.

The 19th century 'Ecce Homo' ('Behold the Man') depiction of Jesus with his crown of thorns had been disfigured and made into a monkey-like creature bearing no resemblance to the Christian saviour.

Before the village authorities had the chance to send out a nationwide appeal, up popped an 81-year-old woman who claimed responsibility for the artistic atrocity.

"They didn’t let me finish," Gimenez later told Spanish daily El País.

Before and after: is this the world's worst restoration job?  Photo Centro de Estudios Borjanos/AFP

What started off as a little touch-up job of the pensioner’s favourite representation of Jesus soon “got out of hand”, as Gimenez puts it.

A longstanding parishioner at the Sanctuary of Mercy Church, Giménez was concerned that parts of Elías García Martínez’s fresco were flaking off due to damp on the church walls.

"The priest knew all about it!" Giménez told national broadcaster Televisión Española.

"Everybody who went into the parish saw me painting it. I never did it behind closed doors."

News of the pensioner’s improvised restoration started spreading like wildfire across Spain and as soon as the international press and social media platforms got hold of the story, Gimenez’s "monkey Jesus" became a global phenomenon.

France’s Le Monde newspaper ran the story with the title 'HOLY SHIT – the restoration of a painting of Christ turns into a massacre' and The Daily Telegraph with 'Elderly woman destroys 19th-century fresco with DIY restoration'.

Less than a month after Gimenez’s botched restoration, an international art exhibition by collaborative art group Wallpeople was held in Barcelona in honour of her "masterpiece" .

EcceHomo fans prepared a montage of Gimenez’s "monkey face" on a number of renowned artworks, including Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.

Even US comedy shows Saturday Night Live and The Conan O’Brien Show featured sketches in which they mocked the so-called Potato Jesus.

Faced with a barrage of international media attention, Spanish newspapers reported that Cecilia Gimenez suffered an anxiety attack.

"I couldn't understand why everyone was talking about me," she later told Spanish daily ABC.

"All I wanted to do was save the fresco."

Borja’s authorities had even considered taking legal action against her for what they initially deemed to be the ransacking of the village’s patrimony.

"Cecilia, come home! They want to put you in prison!" Giménez’s sister told her over the phone as soon as she heard the news.

But initial plans to restore the botched fresco were put on hold by the local parish and Borja’s authorities as soon as they realized the positive effect it was having on the village’s economy.

Tourists from all around the world have flocked to the once-sleepy Aragonese village to catch a glimpse and have a giggle at what has been popularly referred to as the worst art restoration project in history.

Entrance to the church costs €1 ($1.30) and all the money goes to the renovation of the building.

Story continues below…

Sweets of the 'Ecce Mono' — or 'Behold the Monkey' as the revised artwork has been jokingly dubbed — have gone on sale in Japan.

A mask of the gruesome face was also one of the most popular costume masks at Halloween in the US.

More importantly, Gimenez has fully recovered from her panic attacks with the help and support of Borja's townspeople.

She’s been the honorary guest on a local TV station’s New Year’s programme; she’s designed the labels for local wine bottles and has sold some of her artwork on Ebay.

Her proudest moment yet came on Tuesday, when the 82-year-old showed off 28 of her paintings at an art exhibition in the village.

Gimenez claims she hasn't taken a single cent from her parish's "new" 'Ecce Homo' revenue.

"I've not wanted to profit from anything that's happened," she told Spanish daily ABC.

But the octogenarian artist is now fighting for her copyright privileges to be recognized  by the Sanctuary of Mercy Church so she can set up a foundation to help people with the degenerative illness that her son suffers from.

Alex Dunham (alex.dunham@thelocal.com)

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