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Botched Art Restoration Renders Virgin Mary Unrecognizable

The failed makeover—one of several to surface in Spain in recent years—has prompted calls for stricter regulation of the field

The "restored" painting may be a copy of this 17th-century work by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (Photo by Art Media / Print Collector / Getty Images)
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In the past decade, tales of art “restorations” gone wrong have alternatively delighted and horrified social media users. Many of these fiascos have happened in Spain: Take, for instance, a disfigured fresco of Jesus, now known as the Monkey Christ, that went viral in 2012, or a 16th-century sculpture of St. George that underwent “unrestoration” after a failed attempt left its subject looking more like Tintin than a legendary dragon slayer.

Now, another ill-fated artistic endeavor has surfaced in Spain. As Spanish news agency Europa Press reports, a private collector in Valéncia paid €1,200 (around $1,350 USD) to have a painting of the Virgin Mary cleaned and restored. But when the canvas was returned, Mary’s previously delicate features had been rendered unrecognizable. A second attempt to rectify the damage only made matters worse, writes Sam Jones for the Guardian.

The original painting may be a copy of one of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s depictions of the Immaculate Conception, but experts from ACRE, Spain’s association for professional art restorers, have yet to confirm the details surrounding the incident, according to a statement.

“Should the facts be confirmed, we would have to regret, once again, the loss of a Cultural Asset and, under these circumstances, we request not to take this instance as a social ... media source of fun, as happened already formerly,” the statement notes in a likely reference to the memes that took social media by storm when the botched fresco of Jesus debuted in 2012. “Moreover, we all must be alarmed to think that our Heritage [is] disappearing because [of] these disastrous actions.”

Conservation experts argue that the failed repair highlights the need for stricter regulation of the restoration industry.

“I don’t think this guy—or these people—should be referred to as restorers,” Fernando Carrera, a professor at the Galician School for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage and former president of ACRE, tells the Guardian. “Let’s be honest: They’re bodgers who botch things up. They destroy things.”

As Carrera explains, Spanish law allows people without professional training in conservation to try their hand at mending old artworks.

“Can you imagine just anyone being allowed to operate on other people? Or someone being allowed to sell medicine without a pharmacist’s license? Or someone who’s not an architect being allowed to put up a building?” he continues . “ … We need to invest in our heritage, but even before we talk about money, we need to make sure that the people who undertake this kind of work have been trained in it.”

This latest failed attempt is reminiscent of Ecce Homo, a fresco in Borja’s Sanctuary of Mercy Church that went viral after well-intentioned parishioner Cecilia Giménez tried to give the deteriorating artwork a makeover.

Painted by Elías García Martínez in the 1930s, the fresco depicts Jesus wearing a crown of thorns in the moments before his crucifixion. The work had been flaking off the walls of the church due to moisture and was desperately in need of repair. But the elderly Giménez, who lacked any formal training in conservation, altered the image so much that its subject looked more like a potato or a monkey, as some commentators observed.

More recently, the Navarra regional government spent $34,000 on an “unrestoration” project aimed at reversing a local teacher’s attempt to spruce up a sculpture of St. George with thick layers of plaster and paint, reported Meilan Solly for Smithsonian magazine in June 2019.

Many failed attempts to fix old paintings result in irreparable damage. But in Borja, at least, the story took a happy turn: Public interest in Jesus’ disfigured likeness was so high that thousands of tourists traveled to the site just to see the artwork up close. The spike in tourism proved to be a windfall for the small town.

“It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, driven by the media into a phenomenon,” Andrew Flack, who co-wrote a comic opera about the failed fresco, told Doreen Carvajal of the New York Times in 2014. “God works in mysterious ways. Your disaster could be my miracle.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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