BORJA — Among the innumerable images and images of Christ throughout the world, it is perhaps not strange to imagine that one of them might seek revenge — using humidity as an instrument of his revenge .
This could be said of a now notorious mural of Christ inside a chapel in Borja in the province of Aragon in northern Spain.
Painted in 1930 by a painter and academic, the image was suppressed in 2012 by Cecilia Giménez Zueca, a local resident and amateur painter. She no doubt wanted to help, but her “unfinished” restoration has transformed a venerable image of the suffering Christ – a Ecce Homo — in a bloated, nondescript cartoon.
And it made headlines, putting Borja on the tourist map. Travel agencies have started organizing tours to Borja, and more than 235,000 tourists have already visited the comic disaster.
A not-so-remarkable story
The original painting may not have been much. It covered part of a side wall of the Sanctuary of Mercy or Chapel of the Caserón de Borja, reputedly the oldest travel inn in Spain. Pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela would stop there.
In 1937, the actress Imperio Argentina shot scenes for her film nobleza batura (“Nobility of Aragon”) in the inn.
Today the historic inn is home to 36 rental apartments, while the three euros it costs to see Cecilia’s swollen Christ has helped fund the Holy Spirit Hospital in Borja, the nearby retirement home which has among its residents Cecilia, now 91 years old.
Her speech inspired an opera, earned a mention in an article about Madonna, the singer, and spawned endless memes online. People have made cakes and pies covered in this Ecce Homo, as well as keepsakes like mugs and keychains. A machine at the entrance to the chapel invites visitors to mint a coin with this face.
Goodwill turned to disaster
María José, or Pepa, is a resident of Borja who charges the entrance fee to the chapel. Like others, she will tell you that Cecilia decided in 2012 to “fix” the portrait because, she said then, “it looks awful”.
The mural was painted a year before Cecilia was born, by Elías García Martínez, a professor at the Zaragoza School of Art (he was copying an earlier Christ he had painted in 1918).
Pepa says “do you think this is the first time she’s touched him?” Cecilia, she adds, usually came every summer to clean the chapel, walking five kilometers up a hill from Borja. Indeed, it had an “interventionist” reputation with local heritage.
I started painting the face, and it didn’t go well.
In this case, the use of water in the restoration combined with the considerable moisture in the wall, wiped off and probably mixed some colors to leave, well, a mess.
“I’ll come back and finish it in a few days, it’s okay,” she said, according to Pepa. She then went on vacation. Before his return, the neighbors and the press, in particular the Heraldry of Aragonhappened, and his speech went viral.
A couple from Malaga in southern Spain and three girls from Madrid listen to Pepa speak. The girls then pose next to the suffering Christ and she takes a photo of them with a cell phone.
She continues, “They didn’t let her touch it again. She always said she wasn’t done. She left it like that because she was planning to finish her work after her vacation.” She was “attacked a lot,” Pepa says, referring to the initial outrage the restoration caused across the country.
Before and after photos of the Borja Christ
A new tourist attraction
In 2012, another Clarin the correspondent, Leonardo Torresi, visited Borja to see the picture as it was all the rage. Cecilia told him that “something compelled her” to fix this Christ, a “kind of force within me, but I still don’t know what it was”.
Some townspeople claim she privately admitted, “I started painting the face, and it went badly.”
Cecilia is in a wheelchair today, but wants to get better so she can go back to the chapel. She got married there, her two children were baptized there and took communion there, by the original painting.
Today, says Pepa, “there have been all kinds of reactions because there are people who don’t like that our city is known for this, and others who do”. She doesn’t mind, she says, “but there’s so much more to Borja.” She admits that so many people passed by Borja without stopping. Now, she says, “they come to see this and stick around.”
The municipality has no intention of restoring the painting. “Would you have come to see the original”, asks Pepa?
And yet, painting will have its revenge. Cecilia’s version is starting to peel, due to the humidity. “That piece fell off yesterday,” Pepa said, holding a piece from the edge.
Who will be the one to restore this version, I ask her, to which she replies, “no one”.
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