Exploring the Visual Qualities of Literature
It’s the art story of the year. No, not the discovery of a missing Turner or even of a new Mona Lisa. It’s the sensational tale of a botched restoration job conducted by a Spanish pensioner on an otherwise uncelebrated 19th century fresco. By rights it really shouldn’t be so and yet, and yet…
For years, Elias Garcia Martinez‘s unremarkable fresco had been quietly decaying on a wall of the Santuario de Misericodia (Sanctuary of Mercy) Church in the town of Borja (Zaragoza, Spain). His depiction of Christ crowned with thorns entitled Ecce Homo is just one of countless works on the same subject, a mainstay of Western Art for centuries. Badly damaged and in need of restoration, it gained global attention earlier this year when octogenarian parishioner Cecilia Giménez made her now infamous artistic intervention.
Derived from a written source – the Vulgate translation of John 19:5 – which in turn records the words spoken by Pontius Pilate upon presenting a scourged Christ to the masses, this re-visualisation has ensured that what was once Ecce Homo has now become Ecce Simia. While purists may decry this act of, for want of a better word, vandalism it has nonetheless called into question the ethics of conservation. At the heart of any such project the conservationist is expected to remain sensitive to the integrity of the original work but, of course, this is not the first instance of over-zealous restoration.
Michael J. O’Kelly‘s interventions at Newgrange (Co. Meath, Ireland) famously involved reconstructing the Neolithic structure’s distinctive quartz façade. Regardless of how appropriate O’Kelly’s restoration work really is one thing is certain: Newgrange as it currently appears is quite simply iconic. The same can be said of Giménez‘s results. While showing little (Christ’s robe is still quite fetching) or no sensitivity to the integrity of the original artwork, Giménez’s obliteration of Martinez’s Ecce Homo has taken an otherwise humdrum devotional image and out of it has made nothing short of a global comedy icon.
So, quite the monkey puzzle (sorry!), where does the value of art truly lie: integrity or popularity?
In 2005, Lynn Catterson suggested that the fabled ancient sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons was in fact a Renaissance forgery by the hand of Michelangelo with the result that, if true, it would be worth ten times what it currently is. When questions of integrity and monetary value are raised we need, of course, go no further than Damien Hirst to see how that game can be played. Taking his lead from Dada and Marcel Duchamp, Hirst’s work interrogates the fine line between art and commerce and, indeed, his name now means more than his art.
This question of integrity and value has now been placed front and centre by the interventions of Giménez and, even more recently, by Vladimir Umanets who has just defaced Mark Rothko‘s Black on Maroon at the Tate Modern. Calling it “a potential piece of yellowism,” Umanets claims that this act has added value to the work. And while time will tell whether this is true, for her part, what Giménez has created is a contemporary art sensation in that, by making a monkey (again, sorry!) out of Christ, her Ecce Simia has not only inadvertently written evolution into the Biblical narrative but is attracting considerable tourism to boot!
After the initial shame, and with her local church now charging visitors to see the fruit of her labours, Giménez now wants a piece of the action. And why not?! The iconic blunder of her artistic monkeying around has transformed a quaint piece of insignificance into a veritable cause célèbre. Apart from isolated pockets of shock, public reaction to this irreverent bungle – popularly known as Behold the Monkey or Beast Jesus – has been of sheer glee and hilarity as the internet has gone wild for it. And now it has infiltrated mainstream popular culture too, with Saturday Night Live getting in on the act.
While there have been suggestions that Giménez’s work may yet be reversed or even concealed, for now Ecce Simia is here to stay… and I love it!