Wipe Out II: When New Media Attacks

Today I have a brief follow-up to the piece I wrote yesterday – which you can read here – about the botched restoration of a fresco of Christ at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy, in the town of Borja, Spain.  News reports indicate that the 81-year-old woman at the center of this story is now suffering from anxiety attacks, and has taken to her bed.  Friends and neighbors say they have been having difficulty persuading her to eat, because she feels so overwhelmed at the flood of media reporting on her and what she did.  In fact the Culture Minister has stated that media coverage of this incident has been completely “disproportionate.”

This level of coverage would have been impossible without new media.  It seems everyone in the commentariat has weighed in on the terrible job this woman did in “restoring” the fresco, which she claims she was doing with full permission of her parish priest, and they are able to do so because the images were shared around the world in an instant.  The hipster-atheist crowd took advantage of the opportunity to take pot-shots at God – as if they could somehow hurt Him – while others simply recoiled in horror at how the painting had been ruined.  I myself am perhaps more likely to recoil in horror at the fact that one or two of my readers said they actually preferred the new version (for if that is the case, this blog has been for naught.)

Even as late as this morning, friends who had not seen my blog post yesterday were sending me links to the original story from various new media sites in case I had missed it, not realizing that I had already weighed in on the matter.  Therefore to repeat and sum up what I wrote yesterday: the destruction of this fresco is unfortunate, but it was not a “masterpiece”, as many new media outlets have claimed.  It was a perfectly average image of Jesus, of the sort that used to be quite commonly found in churches around the world, before we started building churches that look like high school gymnasiums and drive-through banks.

I will freely admit, when I first read the story yesterday I thought, “Good gravy what a disaster.”  Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was simply the case of a well-intended human being making a mistake, and this is what I tried to put across in my piece.  This woman should never have undertaken her task, since she clearly had no proper skills or training for art conservation and restoration, but does that give us free license to pile on and laugh at her for doing so?

The work done here was not completed by a professional restoration service, which holds itself out as being fit to provide this type of work.  This is not the huge academic and popular debate that went on over the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel by experts, which some hold ruined the frescoes and others hold brought them back to their original state.  Rather here we simply have a case of an elderly parishioner, who wanted to do something good for her community.

Her age and good intentions do not excuse the bad job that she did, of course.  However the reaction to her mistake is so grossly out of proportion to its significance, that it begs the question: is laughing at the mistake of a private individual worth sending them to their sick bed for?  This is not the case of a public figure like Prince Harry or Kim Kardashian behaving badly, but rather one of a private person whose life is being scrutinized and pored over by new media solely for the purpose of mockery.

In addition to which, this is fundamentally a local matter, made utterly distasteful thanks to the insidious influence of new media, which so often seems to turn off people’s sense of decency.  I will be the first to admit that sometimes, perhaps more often than I would like to admit, I am just as guilty of indulging in this sort of long-distance cruelty as anyone else.  I need to be reminded that I am commenting on actual, living human beings, not characters in a work of fiction.

For centuries, it was common practice in this country for someone who had done wrong to be placed in the stocks in the center of town. People would then be able to come by and publicly mock the person, as both a punishment and a deterrent.  This practice was later eliminated, as we came to realize that it was cruel, but cruel as it was it always a local matter for the community.

New media, it seems, is giving us the chance to revive this old form of torture, only to be able to do so from the other side of the planet with the click of a button.  In this case, we are putting an old woman none of us will ever ever meet into a kind of virtual stocks, to suffer and be humiliated for doing something wrong which has nothing whatsoever to do with any of us – and all with no consequence to ourselves.  That, to me, is a very troubling development indeed.

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy (XVI century)
Borja, Spain

6 thoughts on “Wipe Out II: When New Media Attacks

    • Thanks, Mark. I do think that the human tendency to be mean-spirited when there are no consequences to our actions is part of what brings new media down, at times, into little more than a shouting match.


  1. Pingback: In “defense” of a hack-job restoration | Florence and the Historian

  2. This is one of the most thoughtful, poignant articles I’ve seen in Old or New media. Your treatment of the topic yesterday was about a lesson to come from an unfortunate incident, and therefore not one of the odious ones. I haven’t seen the other articles, but no doubt some had to have been in callous damnation of this poor woman.

    “I shoot my arrow in the air, and where it lands, I do not care.” Such behavior ends up in what is called involuntary manslaughter when one of the New Years’ Eve bullets comes through a roof of someone trying to watch the Times Square party on TV. Now this woman, who unlike pro athletes and entertainers, did not sign on to be on stage, will end her days as a global laughing stock and source of scorn. And the blogosphere can be much like the shooting on New Years’ Eve, but legal. Not everything illegal is all that bad, and not everything legal is good.


  3. William, as usual, your blog was worth reading. I enjoy how you are able to examine events and find a spiritual nugget within. You have definitely made a powerful observation of our world. May it be a wake up call to Christians to self-check their reactions to mistakes and sins of those around us.


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