The Worst Restoration Projects in Christian History
Most of us do things out of sheer goodwill. But when “goodwill” doesn’t translate to good results, more problems are created rather than solved. Artworks fade over time, and many of those who value them would take a well-meaning initiative to bring them back to their former glory. But art restoration is incredibly complex — something that many people don’t realize until they try it themselves.
Unfortunately, instead of restoring it to life, some of these projects end up getting drastically butchered. Sometimes they are seen as blatant disrespect, but at best, they could give us a good laugh.
Here are some of the most atrocious — and iconic — restoration projects throughout Christian art history.
Sculptures of St. Anne, Mary, and Baby Jesus in the Church of El Ranadoiro (Ranadoiro, Spain)
Photo from Catholic News Agency (Source)
Have you ever tried imagining a 15th-century sculpture of St. Anne (Mary’s mother) in fuchsia pink and baby Jesus in celery green? Well, no need to think too hard — these religious figures in Asturias, Spain, have been given a technicolor treatment by a local parishioner.
When María Luisa Menéndez, a regular visitor of the church and tobacco shop owner, proposed a painting job on the wooden sculptures, she said she was given the go signal.
“I am not a professional painter, but I’ve always liked it and the images needed to be painted,” she told Spanish news publication El Comercio. “So I painted them as I could with the colors that seemed right to me.”
Menéndez painted the sculptures in garish neons, adding extra details of what appears like lipstick and eyeliner on the figures. Like most uncanny restoration “projects,” it was met with harsh criticism by the art and history community. “The result is just staggering,” Luis Suárez Saro, the artist who restored the figures some 15 years ago, spoke of the effort. “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
But Menéndez’s feelings about her work do not waver. “The neighbors liked it,” she said. “Ask around and you’ll see.”
The Statue of St. George in the Church of San Miguel de Estella (Navarre, Spain)
Photo from Smithsonian Magazine (Source)
A life-sized walnut wood statue of St. George, a valiant dragon-slaying saint and soldier, quickly turned into a laughingstock after a botched restoration attempt.
The 16th-century figure of the saint in Navarre, Spain had been in dire need of work. But instead of hiring a professional, the local parish and community entrusted the job to an art teacher.
Despite the clear zealousness and good intentions, St. George — who was depicted battling a mythical dragon to save townspeople — ended up looking like a side character from a 1940s cartoon.
Because of the controversy it faced, the local government’s historic heritage department pursued efforts to rectify the damage. The new project ended up costing around €33,000 — far higher than it would have been if a technician had been hired in the first place. Fortunately, the new project was a success, and the pink-skinned and beady-eyed statue is no more.
While the remorsefulness of those involved in the original restoration effort was clear and acknowledged, the ordeal served as a reminder to let more experts take charge of cultural preservation.
The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables (Valencia, Spain)
Photo from House and Garden (Source)
Yet another Catholic painting in Spain had fallen victim to amateur brushwork — twice.
This time, the painting in question was a copy of The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables, painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in 1678.
According to a news report by Europa Press, an art collector in possession of the Baroque painting’s remarkable copy commissioned a furniture restorer to clean up the painting for €1,200. But, to his dismay and surprise, the painting had horrendously made Mary “unrecognizable.” Another attempt had been made to reverse the damage, but it was just as much, if not more, of a failure.
This incident — after one too many — led conservationists and art restorers to denounce these “well-intentioned mistakes.” Calling the failed restoration attempts “attacks on cultural heritage,” they expressed panic over the fact that some damages are irreversible.
“Paradoxically, it shows just how important professional restorers are,” expert and professor Fernando Carrera told The Guardian. “We need to invest in our heritage, but even before we talk about money, we need to make sure that the people who undertake this kind of work have been trained in it.”
St. Anthony of Padua Statue in a Parish (Soledad, Colombia)
Photo from The Daily Mail (Source)
St. Anthony of Padua, shantay, you stay.
When this 17th-century statue was “restored” in 2018, it made waves in the Colombian community after featuring one thing that wasn’t there before: loads and loads of makeup.
The artist who worked on the figure of St. Anthony — the “patron saint of lost things” — was reportedly paid $328. He obviously failed to use the very specific techniques required for an aged wooden statue.
While the painting job itself is technically a mess, waves in social media are quite mixed. Many parishioners in the area were angry about the “effeminate” treatment of the wooden statue. One reportedly commented, “He is no longer the same patron that I have prayed to for the last 12 years.”
The same Daily Mail article reports that some people, on the other hand, saw it as “a saint of modern times — a transsexual saint.” At least a few others found a silver lining in the whole situation.
‘Ecce Homo’ Fresco in Sanctuary of Mercy Church (Zaragoza, Spain)
Photo from Business Insider (Source)
Strangely enough, the world’s most infamous art restoration project is also unironically the most beloved.
As with most restoration efforts, it all started with a well-meaning desire to preserve a fading fresco, which was painted by Elias Garcia Martinez in the 1930s. Cecilia Giménez, a local parishioner in her 80s from Zaragoza, Spain, took on the challenge after securing permission from the parish clergy.
What came about would be one of the most notorious — and iconic — renders in Christian art history. The features of the odd-looking Jesus are often compared to that of a monkey’s.
The fresco, originally called ‘Ecce Homo’ (based on the famous lines of Pontius Pilate, meaning “Behold the man”), had been altered forever. Other unkind pseudonyms include: “Behold the Monkey,” “Beast Jesus,” “Monkey Jesus,” and “Potato Man.”
The fresco became a viral sensation, turned into a popular tourist attraction, and raised around £43,000 for charity. Overall, the effort certainly brought joy to the town.
Despite the initial feeling of humiliation over the incident, Giménez tells The Guardian that the work now brings her a sense of pride. She fondly calls it “a handsome face; a face that she loves.”
Mary & Jesus Statue in Ste. Anne des Pins Church (Ontario, Canada)
Photo from Time Magazine (Source)
Someone momentarily joined the Simpsons — or so the people of social media said.
Ste. Anne des Pins Church, located in Ontario, Canada, had been facing a decade-long vandalism problem with local delinquents. In 2015, the head of a baby Jesus statue outside the church was knocked off and stolen.
Dismayed by the disappearance, an artist named Heather Wise offered to fix the statue for free. “I was so sad,” Wise told Sudbury.com. “It’s just not a positive feeling to see that. I said, ‘I’m an artist, I would like to fix it.’”
But the statue ended up with a “temporary” terracotta head, which was a problem for many reasons. First, the rest of the statues were made of white stone, so the brownish-red clay looked out-of-place.
Second, the image itself was strikingly peculiar — many parishioners expressed their shock at the visual, and people on social media compared the head with cartoon character Maggie Simpson.
However, parish priest Gérald Lajeunesse remained optimistic — and it paid off. “It’s a first try. It’s a first go,” he told CBC News. “Hopefully what is done at the end will please everyone.”
Turns out there was no need for another sculpting attempt after all: the stone head of baby Jesus was safely returned by a woman, who reportedly took a personal interest in it. Lajeunesse no longer filed a complaint of theft — he was just more than happy to have it back.
How These ‘Butchered’ Artworks Make Waves in the World
Many experts and conservationists continue to insist on stricter laws and standards of restoration projects. Essentially, they argue, a piece of cultural heritage is at stake here. They’re right, of course: these significant relics should be taken far more seriously.
In the end, however, there might be a more hopeful way to view the botched art projects. Sure, they were atrocious, but at the very least, it got people talking. It’s not every day that people talk about religious art in a highly secular age.
In the words of Giménez, the hand behind ‘Ecce Homo’: “People from all over the world are visiting the sanctuary now — that’s the best medicine.”