The original Monkey Christ
Painting matching fresco that became 'Monkey Christ' resurfaces
Woman whose restoration attempt went badly awry may attend unveiling of Elías García Martínez painting in Zaragoza
Four years ago, 81-year-old Cecilia Giménez noticed that the fresco of a scourged Christ that adorned the wall of the Santuario de la Misericordia in the Spanish city of Borja was looking a little tired, and she decided to do something about it.
Her decision to reach for her paintbrushes was well intentioned but spectacularly misguided. Giménez’s less than expert efforts ruined Elías García Martínez’s fresco, transforming his Ecce Homo into a work dubbed the “Monkey Christ”, unleashing countless memes and setting a new global standard for botched restorations.
However, fears that the divine countenance had been obliterated forever appear to have been premature.
This week the original painting that García is thought to have used as the model for the fresco resurfaced in Zaragoza.
Ricardo Ostalé, an antiques dealer in the Aragonese capital, arrived at his gallery on Tuesday afternoon to find a man waiting for him on the doorstep with a framed miracle.
“He knew it was an Elías García and he said: ‘It’s the same [as the fresco], isn’t it?’” Ostalé told the Guardian. “It’s exactly the same because it was the original and it’s almost certain that this is the painting he used to copy on to the wall of the santuario. It’s even exactly the same size.”
Ostalé describes García, who died in 1934, as “the most important portrait artist of the Zaragozan bourgeoisie”.
“For me, it was really important to find a work that we thought had been destroyed because the fresco can’t be restored. It’s a big thrill for an art lover.”
The painting will go on show to the public at Ostalé’s gallery on 1 December. The unveiling ceremony will be attended by the mayor of Borja, García’s granddaughter and, health permitting, Cecilia Giménez.
The dealer, who estimates the painting’s market value at a few thousand euros – “maybe more, with the media interest” – says there are no plans to sell it, although he hopes a local institution may step in to secure it for the region.
He would like to see it end up next to the fresco in the Santuario de la Misericordia so that people can see the before and the infamous after side by side.
“It’s a work of historical interest and, ideally, it would be exhibited at the santuario,” he said. “That way, the image could be shown alongside Cecilia’s work, which has become an international pop icon.”
News of the painting’s discovery has been bittersweet for Giménez, who is now nearly 86 and no longer paints.
“It’s bringing back some good memories and some bad ones,” she told the Heraldo de Aragón newspaper. “It was difficult at first because I had a really hard time, but everything that’s happened has been very good for me and for the santuario.”
The restoration has brought thousands of tourists to the church. “The unintended change suffered by the church is undeniable: there was a before and an after for the repainted Ecce Homo,” the local tourist board has said.
“Since it happened, a constant stream of visitors, tourists and curious individuals has come to the church to see the unique version and to photograph it. There’s no doubt that a visit never fails to raise a smile.”