Woman claiming royalties after ruining “Ecce Homo”
Internet users, or at least 9gag and Reddit fans, are familiar with “Ecce Homo,” Elias Garcia Martinez’s depiction of Jesus that can be found in the Santuario de Misericordia in the village of Borja, near Zaragoza, Spain. This audience may also be familiar with the new version of the painting of “Beast Jesus.” For those of you who are not, here are the facts.
“Ecce Homo” was given to the Santuario by Martinez, a local artist and professor at the School or Art of Zaragoza, about 120 years ago. Unfortunately, the humidity and moisture in the Church caused the surface of the painting to deteriorate. So, a sweet old lady, parishioner Cecilia Gimenez – 81 years old – took it upon herself to restore the artwork, with devastating results. She completed her “restoration” without anyone noticing, and her work was only discovered when descendants of the artist made a donation towards its upkeep and an expert was sent to examine the painting. They were obviously expecting to find a deteriorated painting, but they were definitely not expecting to find what some have come to refer to as “a furry alien Neanderthal.” At first, church authorities thought it had been vandalized, until the octogenarian came forward and turned herself to the police.
The Centro de Estudios Borjanos, a local cultural organization responsible for the preservation of artistic heritage in the town, called for a full investigation into how this unauthorized “restoration” was allowed to happen. According to a spokesman from the Center, “the value of the original work was not very high but is was more of a sentimental value. As incredible as it may seem, this is all that remains of the work of an artist whose descendants still live in our city. We do not know whether this unspeakable deed can be remedied, but there can be no doubt whatsoever that someone should take the necessary action to ensure that such behavior is not repeated. Whatever the motives were, it must be roundly condemned.” According to Javier Silvestre, the councilor of Culture at Borja town hall: “Unfortunately a local resident with very good intentions decided without consulting anyone that she would restore the fresco. The result is disastrous and we are consulting experts to see what can be done.” After expert investigation, the restoration seems to be irreversible: The original face has been almost completely painted over with amateur brushstrokes, causing Gimenez’s efforts to be dubbed “the worst restoration in history,” “a botched job,” and “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.” Personally, my favorite is the “Ewok Jesus.”
The restoration made headlines across the world, became an Internet sensation, and sent thousands of curious sightseers to the church. But it also caused the authorities and Martinez’s family to threaten to sue Gimenez for her unauthorized attempt, which she insisted had been carried out with only good intentions because the painting was in need of repair. One could almost feel sad about the fate of a nice old lady who was simply trying to help. Her unwanted notoriety, and the threat of legal action from both the artist’s family and the authorities, originally ruined Gimenez’s life who was reported to have had anxiety attacks. According to neighbors and relatives, she felt overwhelmed because of the media frenzy over the unintentional damage she caused to the mural. She claimed that the priest knew about her attempts to restore the painting, and told Spanish television that she had done nothing in secret. “The priest knew it and everyone who came into the church could see I was painting.”
Despite all the negative press and public outcry, it did not take long for Gimenez to get back on her feet. She seems to be feeling better, since she is now claiming rights in her “artwork” and has announced on September 19th that she intended to sue the Church in order to obtain royalties. To be more accurate, to get economic compensation out of the destruction of someone else’s intellectual property. This newly acquired pride in her work may have arisen from the fact that, as surprising as it may sound, a part of the art world has fallen in love with this particular version of the painting. Devotees went as far as launching a petition attempting to halt the restoration of the “restoration.” As Gimenez’s artwork went viral, and many media outlets referred to the painting as “the worst restoration in history,” the “Best Jesus Restoration Society” came to life. Jonathan Jones from the Guardian hailed Gimenez for bringing a virtually invisible work into the pop culture purview. He even cheekily suggested that “the well-meaning restorer of this obscure Spanish painting should be turned loose on a couple of works that actually matter. Many true masterpieces are starved of the global attention this second-rate Ecce Homo has now got.” And many people agree. Over 5,000 people, referred to as “ironic art fans” by the Associated Foreign Press, have signed a change.org petition attempted to save Ewok Jesus. This petition states that Gimenez’s masterpiece “reveals a subtle criticism of the Church’s creationist theories while questioning a resurgence of new idols.”
Ever since late august, Ecce Homo has become a tourist attraction and Internet fans are now flocking the little Sanctuary of Merci Church in Borja. According to the northern newspaper El Correo, tourists started flocking to the Church, but most of them were not leaving any donations. This led the Santi Spiritus Hospital Foundation, which owns the sanctuary, to charge a 4€ fee (about $5) to see Ecce Mono – a.k.a. Behold the Monkey. In four days, the Foundation made 2000 Euros (about $2600). This angered Gimenez and her family, who have sought lawyers to claim royalties for her work. According to Enrique Trebolle, the lawyer hired by Gimenez, “she just wants the church to conform with the law.” The Santuario de Misericordia intends to defend its earnings as well, and has retained lawyers. In addition, the family of the original artist, who had let go of its original lawsuit threat given the fact the sweet old lady seemed of good faith and explained that she was just acting out of good faith and trying to help the church, have now reiterated their intention to seek legal action against her for destroying the work.
The Foundation is not the only entity making money out of the restoration of the painting. Budget airline Ryanair also got in on the act, laying on a special flight to Zaragoza Airport. And, for those of you that enjoy playing The Sims, you will be happy to hear that you can now acquire your very own “Furry Jesus” to decorate your virtual house.
Needless to say that this is an unprecedented case. No case law seems to deal with the question of what to do in situation where and “artist” does not simply copy another person’s work and transforms it, in which case a fair use argument can definitely be made. Here, Gimenez painted a very hairy monkey on the sole and only original painting of Elias Garcia Martinez’s Ecce Homo. And it is also still unclear whether the family of the original artist will get anything out of the mounting entry fees, or whether the church will be reimbursed for the ruining of a work of art.
Let’s just hope that Gimenez will not also bring legal action for copyright infringement against the millions of Internet users who have shared and spoofed her “masterpiece.”