Anyone who still doubts that internet memes can have an impact on the real world should pay a visit to the small town of Borja, in northeastern Spain. Thousands of tourists have been doing just that ever since local amateur art restorer Cecilia Giménez blessed us with Beast Jesus. According to a new report in the New York Times, about 150,000 people have visited the town of 5,000 and made the trek to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy, the 16th-century chapel that houses the beloved fresco since it first came to international attention in 2012.
Many locals were initially unhappy about the attention Giménez had brought to the town, but they have since come around and made of her something akin to a new patron saint. “The impact of ‘Ecce Homo’ has been really great for businesses,” José M. Baya, owner of local eatery La Bóveda, told the Times. His business has been so successful he’s planning to open a second restaurant. “Sadly, everyone heads to look at a painting that, frankly, is ugly.”
Aesthetic judgments aside, Borja has embraced Giménez and her handiwork. She is the focus of a local holiday every year on August 25 to commemorate the day of her momentous restoration effort. She judges an “Ecce Homo” painting competition in which local children paint their own versions of the fresco. And an image of the work appears on the municipal lottery tickets. The increased visibility has also been a boon to the nearby Museum of Colegiata, which has seen its attendance increase tenfold to 70,000 visitors per year.
In spite of the trickle-down effects of “Ecce Homo” tourism, some locals still don’t get it. “I can’t explain the reaction,” Miguel Arilla, Borja’s mayor, told the Times. “I went to see ‘Ecce Homo’ myself, and still I don’t understand it.”