While I read the news from Spain every morning, I often cannot share the stories I read with a wider audience, since not all of my readers are fluent in Spanish. Fortunately however, a story about an attempt at art restoration gone horribly, horribly wrong in Spain has attracted enough international attention to warrant reporting in English. According to news reports, a 19th century fresco painting of Christ at the moment when Pontius Pilate declared, “Ecce Homo,” located in the historic 16th century church of Our Lady of Mercy in the Aragonese town of Borja, was horribly “restored” by an elderly parishioner acting without permission. She began by scraping off huge sections of loose paint, and then re-painting what can only be described as a rather blobby substitute over the bits she had ruined.
The fresco had begun to flake due to some moisture problems in the building, and was in need of preservation and restoration. Ironically, the local center for cultural studies had recently received a donation from the granddaughter of the artist, Elías García Martínez, to undertake restoration of the painting. Experts will now have to assess whether anything can be done to bring it back: though from the look of things, I suspect they cannot.
The woman responsible, who is in her 80’s and lives in the neighborhood, has come forward and admitted what she did. It was not intended maliciously, but rather she appears to have been unaware that efforts to raise funds to restore the painting were underway. It is telling that the effort to undertake this restoration began in 2010, and yet no one noticed what this woman was doing until August 2012. The church is apparently left open all day long, but there must not be many people visiting it if this ongoing work of hers passed unnoticed for such a long time.
Much of the reporting describes this painting as a “masterpiece”, when it fact it is not. More to the point this alleged “masterpiece” is really just a fresco version of the highly sentimental, colorful, holy card designs still sold everywhere. The fresco is – or was – a pious work of art, but it is not a great painting by any means. In this respect the continued inability of the secular media to understand the Church, let alone art, comes shining through in this story.
That being said, once we get past the images of the destruction of this work of art and calm down a bit, we come to look more clearly at the woman at the heart of this story. It seems to me that most of us do a pretty good job of making a mess of our own lives, without having to look to this woman’s actions in horror and say to ourselves that we would never have done something so stupid. In fact, we do stupid, self-destructive things all the time. Sometimes we do so with the best intentions, but more often than not we are simply selfish.
We have all sat down to eat something like pizza, knowing it was too hot and had to cool off a bit, but decided our appetite was more important than being prudent. The end result is that we scalded the roof of our mouth, suffering pain for days. What’s more, we don’t limit ourselves to self-inflicted harm as a result of own stupidity. No, we go out and spread it around to others, acting recklessly or foolishly in what have become accepted parts of our everyday life.
Take driving, for example. Do you speed, scream at other drivers, or sail along through heavy commuter traffic or intersections while talking on the phone, thinking you can perfectly control a gigantic pile of metal traveling at speed because everyone else is operating under the same delusion? How many more times will you be lucky, and avoid injuring or even killing someone?
Being human means we are going to do stupid things. We are going to eat pizza that is too hot, drive 90 mph in a 65 mph zone, and yes, even some rare percentage of us will wipe out a work of art. We will say and do things in our personal or public lives, that we will all regret.
The point is, when that happens – and it will – we need to stand up, admit what we have done, and ask forgiveness, and accept the consequences. We also need to make amends, if possible, by putting ourselves last, and those we have injured, first. To do otherwise than admit to one’s shortcomings and mistakes, is to have an over-inflated sense of ego, not worthy of any of us. And while in this case there is not much that can be done by this woman, on a practical level, to save this work of art, perhaps in the example of her failure we will all learn something.