MADRID -- It appears on T-shirts and cellphone covers, coffee mugs and wine labels. You can even use it as an avatar in online games.
The church fresco of Christ in the town of Borja was for decades a little-known piece of religious art by a minor Spanish artist. Now that it’s been disfigured in a botched restoration attempt revealed a month ago, it has found a new fate as a global icon — used to sell products around the world.
And Cecilia Gimenez, the 80-year-old pensioner behind the disastrous touch-up, is exploring her intellectual property rights.
The fresco depicts Christ with a crown of thorns before crucifixion, in a style known as Ecce Homo (Behold the Man). It stood in peaceful obscurity in the Misericordia Sanctuary since its creation in 1930 by García Martínez— until Gimenez, a longtime devotee of the work, decided it needed to be rescued from flaking caused by the damp church air.
The result was so awful that it could only be destined for one thing: worldwide fame.
The solemn Ecce Homo quickly took on a less dignified identity, as “Ecce Mono.” Behold the Monkey.
Gimenez has gone into hiding in her hometown of Borja, about a four-hour drive from Madrid, to avoid countless international media interview requests. The town itself has morphed into a tourism destination for people who want to see her restoration. The crush has been so big that the Santi Spiritus foundation that owns the church and sanctuary recently started charging admission: one euro per visitor.
Meanwhile, Internet entrepreneurs have quickly moved in to cash in on the phenomenon, printing “Ecce Mono” on a seemingly endless range of products to sell online.
Gimenez’s lawyers say she has no interest in a cut of what the foundation is charging people to see the fresco. But they are gearing up to put a stop to potential copyright violations of what she created — even though she had not set out to create anything at all.
“We want to put some order to this anarchy,” said Antonio Val Carreras Rivera, one of her lawyers. “You do this little by little under legality, and our job is to coordinate to prevent third parties from profiting. We are at the beginning now, we can’t say if she has rights.”
If the lawyers determine she does, Gimenez could pursue payments from those using the image to sell products, Carreras Rivera said, adding that whatever she earns will go to charity. She’s most interested in funding groups that help people with congenital muscular dystrophy, because she has a son with the disorder.
While Gimenez’s lawyers research her legal rights, the Sancti Spiritus foundation is stuck in its own legal bind about what to do with the fresco. Should it restore the painting to its original state? Or leave Gimenez’s image on the church walls? Or try, as experts say is possible, to separate the two?
Gimenez herself is thankful for the many messages of support she’s received from around the world, her lawyers said in a statement. And she “regrets and deplores that commercial brands are financially exploiting a situation that began in total good faith, and which should be restricted to the human level beyond business or commercial interests,” the statement said.
The nonprofit Sancti Spiritus foundation plans to seek a second opinion from art experts on what to do about the painting, before getting the view of lawyers, said foundation president Francisco Miguel Arilla, who is also the mayor of Borja, population about 5,000.
“Everyone wants to solve this, but no one knows the solution,” Arilla said.
While Gimenez could end up with ownership of what she painted on top of the fresco, the foundation isn’t sure who owns the original. It’s either the foundation or the 16 grandchildren of the painter. And Martínez’s heirs live all across Spain, Arilla said. “This seems like it’s going to be a long process,” Arilla said.
Meanwhile, Borja is trying to cope with its newfound fame. While known for its wine, this is the first time it’s ever been a big tourism draw.
The influx of visitors hasn’t shown any sign of letting up since news of the fresco rocketed around the world, Arrilla said. About 1,000 people paid admission one recent weekend, and the number of visitors has averaged 100 daily. The charge was put in place to cover the cost of additional workers needed at the sanctuary to manage the crowds.
“I thought this would slow down by now, but we still have a steady flow of people,” Arilla said.