Restorationist Botches 16th-Century Spanish Statue of Saint

Reports indicate a local priest hired an art teacher to restore the polychromatic wooden statue, with cartoonish results

St. George
The sculpture of St. George before and after ArtUs Restauración Patrimonio

These days, art restoration is a highly scientific affair with advanced non-invasive techniques available to bring a work back to its former glory. But that high-tech process was not in the cards for a recent restoration of a wooden statue of San Jorge, aka St. George, in the Church of St. Michael in Estella, a town in the Navarre region of northern Spain.

Instead, obliterating any of the detail and subtlety of the original composition, the wide-eyed St. George was given a fleshy peach face and wide brown eyes, one of which seems to have wandered a bit too far to the right. His armor, horse and saddle were slathered in thick monochromatic swathes of grey and red. As Natasha Frost at Atlas Obscura puts it, the 16th-century carving of St. George charging a dragon now better resembles a Pixar character.

The botched restoration has already drawn comparisons to the infamous 2012 “Monkey Jesus” incident, in which an elderly painter in the town of Borja decided to restore a flaking fresco of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns with very simian results.

Sam Jones at The Guardian reports that the statue of St. George was not in good shape before it was painted over. The wood had darkened with age and the paint was flaking off. In need of preservation or restoration, it’s believed that a local parish priest decided to take matters into his own hands, hiring a teacher at a local handicrafts school to spruce up the work of art.

Carmen Usua, a restorer in the Navarre region, was one of the first people to bring the incident to the public’s attention. “I saw photographs of the atrocity they were committing,” she tells Mark A. Walsh at The New York Times. “As a professional, I feel disconcerted and very offended. It takes years to acquire the skills necessary to carry out these kind of restorations, so imagine the frustration when something like this happens.”

Even more frustrating? The work was a rare example of polychrome sculpture in which the statue is carved then painted using special techniques.

Koldo Leoz, mayor of Estella is livid about the amateur restoration. “The parish decided on its own to take action to restore the statue and gave the job to a local handicrafts teacher. The council wasn’t told and neither was the regional government of Navarre,” he tells Jones. “It’s not been the kind of restoration that it should have been for this 16th-century statue. They’ve used plaster and the wrong kind of paint and it’s possible that the original layers of paint have been lost…This is an expert job it should have been done by experts.”

Gianluca Mezzofiore at CNN reports that Leoz acknowledged in a tweet that the aim of restoration was not malicious. “I do not doubt the good intentions of both the pastor and the person in charge of desecrating this work of art through inappropriate techniques,” he writes, but then adds “the negligence of both is very serious and can not be excused by good intentions alone.”

There’s no word on how the statue will be fixed or if that is even possible. Patrick Lucas Austin at Gizmodo reports that the Association of Conservators and Restauradores of Spain says it will bring a case against the church to the Navarra prosecutor’s office seeking a fine.

However, if “Monkey Jesus” is any guide, there’s a chance that Pixar George may turn out to be a boon instead of an embarrassment for Estella. In recent years, the tiny town of Borja has seen a tourism boom after the fresco monkey business gained worldwide attention.

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