Lonely Planet Writer

Botched Jesus mural inspires comic opera and tourism boom in Spain

A pensioner’s disastrous attempt to repair an image of Christ will be celebrated with the staging of a comic opera in Borja, the Spanish town in which the farcical restoration took place.

The ruined Jesus fresco at Borja, Spain.
The ruined Jesus fresco at Borja, Spain. Image by cea + / CC BY 2.0

Cecilia Giménez, now 86, became an internet sensation in 2012 after her mission to upgrade an Elías García Martínez fresco of Christ that had fallen into disrepair went badly wrong.

The original image, called Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), depicted Christ with a crown of thorns, but after Giménez’s intervention it ended up resembling a hairy monkey and earned the nickname Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey). The image went viral and was recreated on t-shirts, mugs and keyrings.

Despite the initial ridicule, Giménez has become a celebrity in Borja, near Zaragoza. The town was badly hit by the economic crash but now visitors flock in their thousands to see the botched mural.

Now American composer Paul Fowler and librettist Andrew Flack have immortalised the story in a comic opera called Behold the Man. Flack has spent time over the last two years getting to know Giménez. “I can tell she’s stricken, horrified by what’s happened, and I feel so badly for her – that her well-intended mission has gone so wrong”, he told The Local. “We approach the story with reverence, but also humour. The family is honoured we’ve found inspiration in the story and Cecilia gives her full blessing to the project”.

Borja, Spain
Borja, Spain Image by Miguel Ángel García / CC BY 2.0

The opera will be performed on Saturday, four years to the day since the octogenarian’s ill-fated restoration attempt caught the world’s attention. Among the cast are eight professional opera singers from the Aragon  region and a 30-strong choir of Borja residents. The one-off performance takes place in the courtyard of the town’s 16th-century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy, where the notorious fresco is housed. And Giménez is expected to occupy a front-row seat.