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A town, if not a painting, is restored


BORJA, Spain » After an 83-year-old widow and amateur painter tried her hand at restoring a nearly century-old fresco of Jesus crowned with thorns in her local church here, she faced nothing but scorn and ridicule.

News of the earnest, if utterly failed, restoration in 2012 rocketed around the globe on Twitter and Facebook – the image likened variously to a monkey or hedgehog, and superimposed in memes and parodies on the Mona Lisa and a Campbell’s Soup can.

But these days, people in this village of medieval palaces and winding lanes in northeast Spain are giving the artist, Cecilia Giminez, and her work a miraculous reassessment.

Grief has turned to gratitude for divine intervention – the blessing of free publicity – that has made Borja, a town of just 5,000, a magnet for thousands of curious tourists eager to see her handiwork, resurrecting the local economy.

Nearby vineyards are squabbling over rights to splash the image on their wine labels. Her smudgy rendering is now touted as a profound pop art icon.

Giminez – known, Madonna-like, simply as Cecilia – is celebrated each year by residents on Aug. 25, the day of her transfiguration. A comic opera is in the works in the United States, the story of how a woman ruined a fresco and saved a town.

"For me, it’s a story of faith," said Andrew Flack, the opera’s librettist who traveled to Borja for research on the production, which is still in the works. "It’s a miracle how it has boosted tourism."

"Why are people coming to see it if it is such a terrible work of art?" he added. "It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, driven by the media into a phenomenon. God works in mysterious ways. Your disaster could be my miracle."

Since the makeover, the image has attracted more than 150,000 tourists from around the world – Japan, Brazil, the United States – to the gothic 16th-century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy on a mountain overlooking Borja.

Visitors pay one euro, or about $1.25, to study the fresco, encased on a flaking wall behind a clear, bolted cover worthy of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa.

The church’s original "Ecce Homo" ("Behold Man") portrait of a mournful Jesus dated to the 1930s, when Elmas Garcia Martmnez, a Zaragoza art professor, painted it on the church wall.

Borja residents did not much notice the painting because the church is dominated by a gilded 18th century baroque altar. But over the years, it bothered Giminez to see the bottom third of the fresco vanish, crumbling in the humidity of the dank church.

Today, in her home in Borja – in a living room lined with landscapes she has painted – Giminez recounted that she spent her summers in an apartment by the church. She said she touched up the portrait repeatedly over the years – with the knowledge of the parish priest and the caretakers, a family that has lived there for generations.

But eventually, she said, it required major work, which was abruptly halted after someone complained after the first stage of her brushwork. The story appeared in a local newspaper, then all over the world.

In the beginning, after the news broke, her relatives said she cried and refused to eat.

"I felt devastated," Giminez said. "They said it was a crazy, old woman who destroyed a portrait that was worth a lot of money."

Today her celebrity has grown. She hands out prizes for a competition of young artists, who paint their own "Ecce Homo" portraits. Children, she said, come by her apartment near the medieval arch of San Francisco and cry: "Look, Cecilia. That’s Cecilia!"

Meanwhile, the longtime parish priest, who insisted that he did not formally authorize the touch-up, has been exiled to Zaragoza.

In an unrelated case, he has been accused of embezzling 168,000 euros in church funds in a criminal investigation that alleges he was the target of an extortion plot by a Roma clan. In recent months, the judge in charge of the case appealed to the pope to intercede, with the Vatican conducting its own civil investigation.

This Christmas, the image of her "Ecce Homo" is stamped on the town’s local lottery tickets. The portrait also plays a bit part in a popular Spanish movie, with a couple of thieves trying to steal it.

"I can’t explain the reaction. I went to see ‘Ecce Homo’ myself, and still I don’t understand it," said Borja’s mayor, Miguel Arilla, from his art-filled office.

In the economic crisis of the last six years, 300 jobs vanished, he said, but with the tourism boom, restaurants remained stable. Local museums, he added, also benefited. The nearby Museum of Colegiata, housed in a 16th-century Renaissance mansion, experienced a rise in annual visits to 70,000 from 7,000 for its religious, medieval art.

But fame has also provoked bickering. The grandchildren of the original artist ceded any share of their rights to benefit a hospital foundation that manages the church, the mayor said.

But, he said, the great-grandchildren sent a letter through a Valencia lawyer seeking to erase the portrait entirely because the work "damages the honor of the family."

The city already commissioned a professional study that concluded it was impossible to restore the piece.

As president of the hospital foundation, Arilla is also involved in final negotiations to sell the rights for the exact image to the Aragonesas winery in neighboring Magallsn.

The winery moved within hours after the news of the failed restoration broke to secure rights to the image, according to Fernando Cura, commercial director for Aragonesas winery. "The opportunity is that suddenly there is this news that marks this region on the map for the entire world," he said.

But four hours later, the Ruberte Brothers winery also tried to register the mark, provoking a legal struggle.

To settle it, Susana Ruberte said her company commissioned an original work by Giminez for their special label that finally allowed her to create her own version of "Ecce Homo," demonstrating that she could actually paint.

Josi M. Baya, the owner of La Bsveda, in Borja’s market plaza, freely credits her artistry for helping his business flourish.

His restaurant in an old stone cellar attracts high-spending tourists, including, he said, a Japanese film crew that ordered the entire two-page menu to sample dishes like rabbit and morcilla.

"The impact of ‘Ecce Homo’ has been really great for businesses," said Baya, who fared well enough to open a second restaurant. "Sadly, everyone heads to look at a painting that, frankly, is ugly."

Doreen Carvajal, New York Times

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