Steady hands! Cleaning the feet of a 350-year-old baby Jesus

Any legitimate antique restorer or person who has dabbled in furniture restoration (the latter of whom I belong) have heard about Ecce Homo, one of the most catastrophic attempts at restoration, as well as one of the most virally successful faux pas of all time.

Ecce Homo, in case anyone wonders, is a religious fresco of Christ by the century Spanish painter Elías García Martínez. It was hanging in the Santuario de Misericordia in the town of Borja in Zaragoza for almost a century without any worldly recognition. Then in 2012, an 81-year-old parishioner and self proclaimed artist decided to ‘fix’ it because she was upset by it’s peeling paint. The result may have been an artistic travesty, but it certainly was a welcome blooper for the news-hungry worldwide web. The Before and After pictures (see below) prompted international mockery. A flaked, but genuine and moving portrait turned into an altogether altered Jesus, whose facial hair looked like a pelt, with beadlike, shifty eyes and a drooping mouth smeared over by the ‘alternist’. One can assume she hadn’t gotten to fix that part yet, as she later claimed that she hadn’t finished her work on it (when she was so rudely interrupted…).

The story does not end there. The poor restoration has inadvertently provided a massive boost to Borja, making this once insignificant village a popular tourist destination. People from all over are flocking to see Ecce Homo. Legal action against the ‘artist’ was proposed, as well as trying to peel back layers of over-painting to restore Christ to his original state, but the so-far 150 000 people who has paid the entrance fee to see the ruined fresco naturally put it on the back burner. Meanwhile, the artist had a nervous breakdown due to the media hype, then proceeded to require for royalties for her ‘handiwork’ from the visitor fees, so she could give them on to her chosen charity. A celebrity of sorts, the restorer is credited with the stabilization of the local economy. Her own paintings are now growing in appeal, especially with the ones of a rather macabre taste. The latest is the NY (Off Broadway??) comic opera about the unfortunate fresco. I am sure it will be a raving success. As the director claimed, “God works in mysterious ways.”

So, what does Ecce Homo have to do with my story? Nothing really, if it had not been for the mother superior of our local convent sending a message to ask if I could help them with a restoration project. Immediately thinking of Ecce Homo, I prayed it would be a broken chair and not a 500-year-old painting of a Madonna. I went and saw ‘our’ nuns and the madre told me how grateful they were that I could have a look at their restoration piece. Sor Clara, one of the more swift-moving sisters was asked to go and show me the object, me still hoping for that three-legged chair, dreading the century old canvas of a virgin…

Sor Clara brought me up some stairs, passing several carved and painted niches. She stopped at one of these, the content of which they wanted me to fix. It was a statue of baby Jesus standing on a plinth, about 50 cm tall. The baby had curiously adult features the way one see in old religious paintings. Sor Clara and I brought the treasure carefully down the stairs and into the nun’s official visitation room. Madre, now joined by Sor Nieves (sister Snow) was waiting, anxious to hear my most sought-after opinion. I told them immediately that I am not a professional restorer, simply someone who enjoys fixing old things, primarily broken and worm-ridden farm furniture. I asked them how old they thought the statue was, and they said it was about 350 years old. Three hundred and fifty! Even if their estimation was off by a few decades, I could see the uproar. Ecce Homo was barely hundred years old and he was an adult Jesus. This was an innocent baby! Knowing the devoted Catholics of Ronda, I would be lynched, tarred and excommunicated if I as much as made a single nick on their baby. And the last thing I wanted was a Ronda sequel of the Ecce Homo affair…

I observed the statue closer. The figure and its base had obvious damages and mis-colouring, in addition to having a lot of wax droppings from centuries of annual Christmas masses and Easter processions. I asked the sisters to carefully undress him, so I would not be the first one to break off his arm or unburden him of a finger. The outer robe was newer (I dare say in some synthetic fibre), but as we peeled off yet another white gown, the fabric and the embroidered edge got finer and more delicate, until finally we had him down to his century-old peach-coloured loincloth.

Curiously, baby Jesus, like other young children, had dirt in the places that most kids gets grimy; between his toes, on his hands, behind his knees, in the ears etc. In addition to the dirt, he had a big crack running along his face, and several places where he was lacking paint. I told the nuns that I would do what I could to help them, yet not promising anything. They were all content, saying that their baby Jesus would be ‘like new’ after I would be done with him. Absolutely Not!, I said. They should not wish him to become new. He is lovely as he is with his scars of time. I said that I could carefully try to clean the dirt of him, but I would not touch the paint. If they wanted somebody to repaint him, they would have to look for professional help. To me, a complete restoration would ruin the statue.

As I knew that the old baby Jesus would fare badly with an unnecessary trip across the San Fransisco plaza to our restoration workshop, I brought my restoration teacher, ironically named María Jesus, to see the statue instead. She agreed with me fully, and told the nuns that it was a real treasure. There was nobody in our town, she said, who could do this type of fragile restoration, not that she would dare to recommend anyhow. Ronda has many wood carvers and gilders who are excellent at what they do, but this statue needed a top-notch restoration painter and when it comes to that one has to look to Cordoba, Granada or Sevilla.

The next few days I went to the nunnery to perform my volunteer job as a Jesus cleaner. The nuns let me pick my work spot and found me a worktable that we placed in one of their lovely blossoming courtyards. We also went up to their stash of clothing for the poor to find some cotton T-shirts that I ripped into shreds and used as cleaning cloths. I brought a couple of liquids, recommended by my teacher, and started carefully cleansing the surface of dirt, millimetre by millimetre. The object is to do it without bringing up paint or dissolving the old varnish which protects it and gives it its lovely old gleam. With Q-Tips and Japanese toothpicks as my primary tools, I managed to unearth some of its original colour and rid the young lad of a not-insignificant amount of candle wax from his blond locks. Of course, at the time when this statue was made, it was generally believed that an angelic creature like this must be blue-eyed and golden haired, in spite of that the subject in question was Middle Eastern.

Cleaning ‘my’ baby Jesus in in the courtyard in peace and serene calm, I was almost ready to sign up for the order. At least I could see the attraction of this life. Though of course while spending hours working on a dirty fingernail, a stubborn ear canal spot or an especially grimy toe, one cannot help but also overhear the more everyday shall we say squabbling of the nuns as they patiently go on with their monastic life.

One day upon my arrival, the priest was there. He told me that they had decided to send Jesus to a professional restorer in Seville. The nuns regretted it profusely, as though I was not the one who immediately told them that this was a job for a professional. Sor Nieve told me that they wanted to also send the virgin in the hall, who seem to have mysteriously developed a maquillage-ed and rose-coloured complexion. Virgins, as we all know, are supposed to be pure white. Why not send her along for a two for one mother/son deal, I thought, but did not say out loud.

My work with Baby Jesus ended with cleaning his toes, and having read the bible many moons ago, I know I should be honoured. And I am! I am trilled to have been allowed to be part of the journey to restore baby Jesus back to health.  It is rather ironic that they would ask me to help, a nordic heathen, neither Catholic nor Christian. But I am always glad to help, and I love history, art and antiques. I would volunteer again in a heartbeat if I were asked to clean a statue of Krishna, an imprint of Buddha’s foot, a marble carving from the Koran or a Viking ship. Not that anyone will be crazy enough to ask me…

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