The Spanish village of Borja, population 4,931, has experienced an unexpected tourist boom of late. But the estimated 30,000 annual visitors aren’t there to seek out the town’s medieval architecture, or its archeological museum, or even the region’s emerging local wines. Instead, they’re in Borja to see Ecce homo, a fresco in the town’s Sanctuary of Mercy church that was famously botched in a 2012 restoration.
In an unexpected turn of events, one of the most notable failures in art history has revitalized Borja’s economy by turning it into a tourist destination. Ecce homo (Behold the man), a 1930 fresco depicting Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, became a global phenomenon four years ago when it was discovered that one of the church’s parishioners, the octogenarian Cecilia Giménez, had attempted to repair the aging artwork by touching up the paint. The result of her work, the BBC correspondent Christian Fraser reported, was that the painting now resembled not the son of God, but a “crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey.” Ecce homo was soon dubbed Ecce mono (Behold the monkey), and became known colloquially as “Beast Jesus.”
Initial responses to Giménez’s handiwork were confused at best. The descendants of the artist who painted the original work, Elias Garcia Martinez, were unhappy that his painting had been destroyed. The Center for Borja Studies first reported the news as an act of vandalism, describing it as an “unspeakable deed.” Giménez, threatened with legal action by the city council, had an anxiety attack and took to her bed. But inevitably, as Ecce homo evolved from local news into a viral Internet meme, both the artist and the town have seen the upside of embracing their unlikely mascot. An image of the work now appears on the city’s lottery tickets. Borja has recently opened a cultural center dedicated to the painting. Giménez has struck a deal allotting her a share of the profits. And visitors have flocked to the town from all over the world in order to see one of the most epic art fails of all time.