A few weeks ago my husband and I vacationed in northern Spain. The focus of our trip was Romanesque churches, sculptures, and frescos. We saw some memorable artworks on the first part of our trip, among them a sculpture of a cheerful saint holding her detached breasts in one hand while waving hello with the other and a 12th-century Mozarabic relief depicting an old man pulling a unicorn’s tail. We then decided to take a break from art and head to the Pyrenees to go hiking. There, we discovered that in Spain — and only in Spain, I believe — stray cats cling to the sheer, rocky mountain bluffs like Alpine goats. I posted a picture of some of these felines on Facebook with the question, “How many cats do you see?” (Evolution seems to have favored those cats whose fur color matches the rock surface, making it hard even for catsplainers like me to answer correctly.) People took several (wrong) guesses, until friend and Hyperallergic News Editor Benjamin Sutton chimed in with the correct number: five. I told Ben that he had won first prize: a basket of mountain kittens.
“Woohoo!” Benjamin responded, before adding somewhat ungratefully: “That would be great, but honestly, the biggest prize you could give me would be for you to go see Beast Jesus. Google Maps says the town where it is (Borja) is only three hours away!” It was night in the Spanish mountains, and my legs hurt from that week’s record hike of 13 miles. But who am I to question editorial wisdom? We packed our bags and left early in the morning for Borja, where, in 2012, the then-82-year-old local amateur artist Cecilia Giménez Zueco transformed Elías García Martínez’s fresco of Jesus into a fresco of a monkey, creating a worldwide internet sensation. “Ecce Homo” — “Behold the man,” in Latin — became Monkey Jesus, aka Beast Jesus.
On our way to Borja, my husband double-checked the hours of Santuario de Misericordia, where Monkey Jesus resides. This led to our first fight in an otherwise harmonious two-week trip. Not accustomed to Europe’s common use of military time, he had gotten the hours wrong. The sanctuary would close at 1pm, not 2. I was fuming. Was he trying to destroy what might very well become the best day of my life? If I could keep up with the GPS’s prediction, we’d have exactly 45 minutes at the sanctuary. I stepped on the gas, stewing in the silent tension between us.
From Borja, a curvy, uphill country road leads to the sanctuary. The road narrowed as I drove along it, the golden fields encroaching upon us. Like a mirage, two Arabs in bright white garb appeared by the side of the road. The weather was perfect; the air smelled like hay and sun. This was Spain at its best. I began to soften. We parked behind the sanctuary, which, looming on top of the hill, oversees the small town below whose beginnings date back to the 5th century BCE. Initially a Celtiberian settlement, Borja was conquered by the Romans, then by the Muslims, and then by the Christians, who, in the 15th century, turned it into a military fortress to protect themselves against Castilian invasions. The same thing that makes for Spain’s bloody history also makes for its beauty. The country has Celtic, Roman, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian heritages, all of them reflected in the various colors of people’s skin, the shapes of their features, their culinary and artistic traditions. You might find it disorienting at first — until you embrace it and make it part of your own story.
Having built fortresses on top of mosques on top of churches, Spain is good at creating new stories. When, in 2012, the staff of Santuario de Misericordia returned from its summer break to find Elías García’s Jesus fresco altered beyond recognition, it adopted Cecilia Giménez’s “restoration” as its own.
Admittedly, Elías’s fresco was not a charmingly weathered Renaissance masterpiece to begin with. It wasn’t even from the 19th century, as NPR reported, but from 1930. When Cecilia came along with her broad brushstrokes, the flaking, moldy piece of art barely resembled “the result of two hours of devotion to the Virgin of Mercy” that it had originally been, according to the wall text. Two hours? It took Cecilia a whole summer of devotion to restore the painting! Defending herself against the initial astonishment at her creation, she said that she hadn’t been finished when the priest made her stop.
Visitors to the sanctuary get a lot of bang for their buck. Just €2 affords access to an entry area with a fantastic souvenir shop and a little information booth operated by a wonderful woman; an unimpressive chapel, where Cecilia’s Monkey Jesus can be found next to photographs of the original and the version that, by 2012, had suffered the aforementioned damage due to moisture and mildew; a room outfitted as a traditional Spanish country kitchen; and an exhibition that tells about the artists’ lives and the viral internet sensation that put Borja on the map. Cecilia’s Monkey Jesus is exhibited behind plexiglass, presumably to protect it from any further restorations.
Born in 1858, Elías, the artist who made “Ecce Homo,” went to art school and taught at the Provincial School of Fine Arts of Zaragoza. He worked as a restorer (foreshadowing?) and was hired to paint portraits of the king for various schools as well as the Royal Academy of Medicine. Two of his seven children followed in his footsteps, also becoming locally known artists. Some of his family still lives in Borja.
Compared to Elías’s, Cecilia’s life hasn’t been easy. She took care of her family and worked at a local bar. Her two sons were gravely ill. Born in 1958, José suffered from cerebral palsy and later polio. Her younger son, Jesús, was diagnosed with progressive muscular dystrophy and died in 1984 at the age of 20. Both boys received their first communion at the sanctuary. Cecilia’s husband died in 1994. The maker of Monkey Jesus, it seems, didn’t make art to survive; she survived to make art.
“In her free time, she started to paint, although she had had an artistic streak since she was young,” one of the English exhibition panels informs us awkwardly. “She has painted many pictures of landscapes and several pictorial retouches in religious buildings. The artist could never imagine that in one of these pictorial retouches, which she made with the best of intentions, it happened what happened in 2012.”
It happened what happened. By December 2012, the sanctuary had welcomed 45,824 visitors. “Cecilia,” the panel continues, “became in one of the most well-known people in 2012, together with Barack Obama, Veicente de Bosque and Leo Messi, among other.” (I had to look up the latter. It turns out that Vicente del Bosque and Lionel Messi aren’t two Italian bros riding around Brooklyn in a convertible blasting techno, as I imagined. They are soccer stars who evidently made headlines in 2012.)
Apart from the explanatory panels, the exhibition’s highlights include a touching music video, in which Cecilia appears alongside the singer Ángel Petisme, and two “Ecce Homo” cutouts with holes for visitors to stick their heads in. (One could argue that the “Ecce Homo” cutouts amount to the most literal interpretation of the phrase, but I’ll leave it to the academics to explore this theory.)
For tourists who feel like getting crafty, there is a canvas on an easel, with paint and brushes and an invitation to create their own version of “Ecce Homo” (or “restore” whatever version the previous tourist left). “When the picture is finished, it will be shown to everybody,” the panel promises. “Don’t forget to sign at the end of your visit at the signature book, below the written: I PAINTED A NEW ECCE HOMO.” Several “Ecce Homines” are exhibited in the chapel alongside Monkey Jesus.
About which — well, what can I say? Monkey Jesus looks like “Ecce Homo” got into a car crash, suffering a slight brain injury and partial paralysis. Nothing a crew of good trauma specialists couldn’t fix. At first, I thought that I had forgotten to put on my glasses, so smooth were its contours, so dull its contrasts (as if Francis Bacon had designed a Walt Disney character). While “Ecce Homo” had his gaze averted from the viewer, Monkey Jesus looks you right in the eyes, which makes the encounter a bit uncomfortable, considering his tragic condition. He seems slightly embarrassed, as if he was aware of what had happened to him.
The absolute highlight of the sanctuary is the souvenir shop. The cashier was quick to emerge from her glass booth to answer questions. Warm yet professional, she unlocked the shelves so we could choose the appropriate gift for Ben. It was hard to make a selection, so good were the options. There were children’s books that explained how “Ecce Homo” became Monkey Jesus. Cecilia’s painting was printed on coffee mugs, jewelry, wine bottles, pens, T-shirts, mouse pads, teddy bears, buttons … We chose a Monkey Jesus pillow for Benjamin and for myself, a notebook. Its cover features a before-and-after picture with “Search the differences” and “Game errors” written above and below.
“Where is Cecilia now? When have you last seen her? What happened to her? Was she punished for what she did?” I asked the cashier. (At my Spanish-speaking husband I yelled, “Quick, quick, translate!” Still rattled from our fight in the car, he complied without protest.) Cecilia, the cashier said, still visits the sanctuary two or three times a year. The last time she came was in January. She is old now, 85, and can’t make it up quite as often as she used to. At first, the children of Elías García wanted to sue her for destroying their father’s painting — sue for what, one wonders; Cecilia didn’t have any money, and it’s unclear whether the painting could have been restored — but they eventually let off. In fact, when tourists started to flood the sanctuary and the poor little church saw more money than it ever had before, Cecilia wasn’t shy about demanding a cut. She now lives in an assisted living facility, and her head isn’t quite there anymore. (I envisioned the inside of Cecilia’s head becoming a distorted version of what it once had been, Monkey Jesus style.) “She is an old lady,” the cashier said, as if apologizing for Cecilia while trying to temper my journalistic enthusiasm.
“Don’t forget to add your little flag,” she said, pointing at a world map of visitors’ origins overflowing with flags. We planted our flag in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between New York and Borja — two places that embrace change and, in artistic terms, aren’t as far removed from each other as one might have thought. Both know that it’s crucial to remain flexible, and how to monetize bad art.