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Transcript of In Focus: Conservation Horror Stories

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Happy Halloween, everyone! Welcome to a bonus episode of Art History for All. I’m Allyson Healey. I wanted to try something a little different and give you a bonus episode that suits the spooky season vibe. I want to tell you some conservation horror stories—tales of well-intentioned acts of destruction in the name of saving art that give art conservators a big old headache later on. This topic was inspired by a suggestion from fellow podcaster and Lady Pod Squad member Elaine, who hosts Angus Eye Tea, a podcast about anxiety, depression, and other cheerful topics. I highly recommend you check it out, I eagerly anticipate every episode.

I want to start with a couple of stories from a friend of mine who I went to undergrad with named Gretchen Allen. She’s currently a book and paper conservator working in Collection Care at Cambridge University Library, though these stories happened before she began working there. Story the first is pretty short, but it has a pretty clear moral:

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“I was working on a large painting of Jesus by Polish artist Jan Styka the had a two-foot long slash in it. Normally if that was the issue it wouldn’t be such a difficult repair, as painting conservators would knit the fibers of the canvas back together. But unfortunately someone had taken it upon themselves to “fix” it and cut away all of the loose ends, expanding the rip to over na inch wide in places, then gluing in a cloth patch of entirely the wrong weave. They then proceeded to cover the patch with black acrylic paint (it was a dark background) and in order to camouflage that they covered a good chunk of the background in black and purple acrylic paint. I was taking the stuff off for months.”

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That story is several art conservation no-nos wrapped up into one—please, I beg of you, friends, do not take it upon yourself to fix a painting. Call a professional.

But even professionals have a learning curve, as Gretchen’s second story illustrates:

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“So ultramarine blue is made of ground lapis lazuli as you know, which makes it super expensive and therefore the pigment of choice for the Madonna’s robes in much of medieval and Renaissance paintings. However, lapis is a tricky pigment because if it is ground too finely, the color will lose its brilliance and become very washed out. Because of this, ultramarine is often made of much coarser grains than your average pigment, which allows it to retain its deep color. However, the larger grain size means it is much easier to accidentally remove when cleaning a painting, to the point where some conservators and restorers have accidentally removed the blue completely. These black and white Madonnas have earned the nickname ‘Juventus Madonnas’ after the Italian soccer team and their black and white jerseys.

Of course I knew none of this until my professor told me to clean the robe of the madonna smack in the middle of the large late renaissance painting we were working on. When the swab predictably came away with blue on it I proceeded to have the requisite student conservator panic attack, which my prof wanted to happen in order to give her a chance to explain all this to the class.

The moral of the story is that Italian conservation teachers consider regularly scaring the sh*t out of you to be a valid pedagogical technique, but hey, I never forgot that lesson.”

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Again, dear listeners, please make sure whoever’s cleaning or conserving your artwork knows what they’re doing. Art conservation is not for the faint of heart.

To further emphasize this point, I’d like to share with you the story of a Spanish artwork whose conservator took their enthusiasm for restoration a little too far. You may have seen this painting online several years ago, when the story made the news, but some horror stories are worth telling over and over again. Around 1930, Elías García Martínez painted a fresco of Jesus Christ crowned with thorns, titled “Ecce Homo.”[1] The phrase “ecce homo,” meaning “behold the man,” refers to the point in the story of Jesus when Roman governor Pontius Pilate brings Jesus, who has been whipped and crowned with thorns, in front of a crowd before his crucifixion.[2] Lots of artists have painted this scene, and for good reason, since there’s a lot of drama and tension in it that makes for great images. Martínez’s Ecce Homo fresco was in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, Spain, and a number of people have commented that it wasn’t particularly notable, including Guardian art writer Jonathan Jones, who called the fresco “second-rate” and said it was, quote, “a minor painting in the dregs of an academic tradition.”[3] End quote. Harsh, but fair. As many paintings do, over time the fresco started to suffer some damage, likely from moisture, with a photograph from 2010 showing some flaking on Jesus’ robe and beard.[4] In 2012, the flaking had apparently increased significantly, and Martínez’s granddaughter made a donation to a local archive of religious artworks towards the painting’s upkeep, which then prompted staff to go and assess the damage. What they found was more than just flaking paint:  Jesus had transformed into a beady-eyed, primate-like beast with a lopsided mouth and a fuzzy wreath of hair where his crown of thorns had been! (Thunderclap) Well, I say beast, but really it looked kind of like a weird monkey stuffed animal. The perpetrator of this unauthorized restoration turned out to be 81-year-old Cecilia Gimenez, who claimed that the local priest had given her permission to undertake the restoration.[5] Apparently this wasn’t Gimenez’s first offense, either: she had also attempted to restore the tunic portion of the painting in the past, and some believe that the extensive flaking observed just a month or so before the “restoration” was discovered was the result of Gimenez scraping away old paint in preparation for her work.[6] The image of Gimenez’s work took the internet by storm, boosting both Gimenez and Martínez’s names to such a degree that Jonathan Jones jokingly suggested that “even older, far greater paintings” should perhaps be botched in a similar fashion in order to draw attention to them.[7] The media coverage was so intense that Gimenez reportedly had multiple anxiety attacks in the days after the story broke.[8] The church began charging visitors to see Beast Jesus, which then prompted Gimenez to claim copyright and seek a portion of the funds raised to be given to charity.[9] As of 2013, officials claimed that over 40,000 people visited the painting, raising over 50,000 euros for charity.[10] Professionals ultimately determined that it wasn’t possible to restore the fresco to its original state, and the town of Borja apparently leaned into it, establishing an interpretation center for the painting in 2016.[11] If you use the right keywords, you can still find merchandise related to the painting on Amazon today.

Beast Jesus is not the only overly enthusiastic Spanish art restoration, however—I’m not exactly sure what it is about Spain, but there are a lot of people there who seem to want to try this whole conservation thing out. Two separate instances of botched restorations in Spanish churches cropped up in 2018: the first was in June, when a priest in the town of Estella hired a group of craftsmen to clean a 16th century wooden sculpture of St. George.[12] Without telling officials or even the priest who hired them, the group, known as Karmacolor, entirely repainted the sculpture in bright colors, even apparently applying plaster to the surface of the sculpture. It took a year and around 30,000 euros for the sculpture to be fully “unrestored,” and it looks blessedly normal today.[13] The second messed-up restoration of 2018 came in September, when 15th century wooden sculptures in the chapel of a 28-person community in Northern Spain were “restored” by another local parishioner. While the statues were initially unpainted (and presumably had been for the six-hundred-or-so years prior) local woman Maria Luisa Menendez said, quote, “I’m not a professional, but I always liked to do it, and the figures really needed to be painted.”[14] End quote. She said she painted them with colors that “looked good to her,” which apparently included bright neon pink, acid green, and turquoise. I haven’t been able to find any information regarding whether these statues were able to be returned to their original state.

Somehow that last story is the most painful of all to me, because it absolutely did not need to happen—whatever Menendez says, those figurines did not need to be painted, and I don’t know what possessed the local priest to give her permission to do so.[15] Fernando Carrera, president of the Association of Conservators and Restorers of Spain, or ACRE, said to ABC News at the time that, quote, “despite legal protections for Spanish patrimony, ‘the church in Spain sometimes forgets it’s not just their heritage but all of our heritage.’ As such, he said, the church sometimes will accept the assistance of ‘devotees’ with no consideration of potential long-term damage.”[16] End quote. The ACRE has been particularly harsh in their condemnation of the amateur restoration attempts, calling it a “pillaging” of Spanish heritage.[17] Hopefully these incidents have been well-publicized enough to prevent similar things from happening in the future.

Perhaps these stories weren’t particularly scary per se, but they are certainly horror stories of a sort, and I’d love to be able to share more of them in episodes of this podcast! If you’d like to share a story of restoration gone wrong, or somebody sticking their elbow through a painting like Steve Wynn did that one time, or any other wild and wacky art-related stories, feel free to e-mail me at allysonh[at] Make sure to tell me if you’d like identifying info omitted: I totally get that not everyone wants to be associated with some of these things. I hope you enjoy my version of horror stories, and that you never, ever take it upon yourself to restore a thing unless you have the proper training. Who knows what terrors could emerge if you do…


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I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode of Art History for All, and thank you so much for listening! As with regular episodes, the transcript of this podcast, complete with citations and links, is available on Go ahead and subscribe to Art History for All wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider leaving a tip at We also now have a channel on the Flick Chat app, where you can listen to the podcast and chat with me and other listeners about arty stuff! Just download the app and use the code arthistoryforall, all one word, to be added.

This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. New episodes go up on the last Monday of every month. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.

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Additional Music Credit:

“Ride of the Valkyries,” performed by American Symphony Orchestra, 1921, from’s collection of 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings:

“Pale Moon (Indian Love Song),” performed by Fritz Kreisler, 1919, from’s collection of 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Ecce Homo (Martínez and Giménez, Borja),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,,_Borja)&oldid=916982276 (accessed October 23, 2019).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Ecce homo,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 23, 2019).

[3] Jonathan Jones, “Great Art Needs a Few Restoration Disasters | Jonathan Jones,” The Guardian, August 23, 2012, sec. Opinion,

[4] John Hall, “Elderly Woman Destroys 19th-Century Spanish Fresco by Elias Garcia Martinez in Botched Restoration | The Independent,” August 22, 2012,

[5] “Restoration Amateur Ruins Fresco,” BBC News, August 23, 2012, sec. Europe,

[6] Hall, “Elderly Woman…”.

[7] Jones, “Great Art…”

[8] Katherine Brooks, “‘Beast Jesus’ Woman Wants A Share Of The Profits,” HuffPost, 20:50 400AD,

[9] Barry Neild, “Ecce Homo ‘restorer’ Wants a Slice of the Royalties,” The Guardian, September 20, 2012, sec. World news,

[10] Emily Thomas, “‘Monkey Christ’ Fresco Boosts Tourism,” BBC News, accessed October 23, 2019,

[11] Aitor Bengoa, “El eccehomo de Borja ya tiene quien lo explique,” El País, March 16, 2016, sec. Cultura,

[12] “Botched Spanish Art Restoration Criticised,” BBC News, June 26, 2018, sec. Europe,

[13] Palko Karasz, “Botched Statue of St. George Is ‘Unrestored’ to Its Dignity,” The New York Times, June 22, 2019, sec. World,

[14] Benjamin Sutton, “Amateur Restorer Gives 15th Century Sculptures a Cartoonish Makeover—Again,” Artsy, September 7, 2018,

[15] Aicha El Hammar Castano, “‘Huge Tragedy’: Parishioner Botches Restoration of 15th-Century Statue Set,” ABC News, accessed October 23, 2019,

[16] El Hammar Castano, “Huge Tragedy…”

[17] Ibid.