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

Wipe Out: A Lesson in Being Human

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.

Original, Underway, and After images of
“Ecce Homo” by Elías García Martínez (c.1890)
Santuario de N.S. de la Misericordia, Borja, Spain