By now, you must live under a rock if you haven’t heard about the poor Spanish elderly lady who took it upon herself to restore a badly damaged 19th century portrait of Jesus in a church in Borja, Spain. You probably have seen the appallingly funny before and after pictures.
The story is very touching. She did it with the permission of the priest. According to her, people would walk into church and watch her at work and no one said a peep until she finished her masterpiece, which is now her gift to the world. While it is true that the poor soul became a laughingstock worldwide, something more interesting happened. Had we not lived in the day of internet and memes, we would have seen her in the evening news, shaken our heads, and moved on. But Señora Cecilia’s good intentions have unleashed a wave of memes that are not only very funny, but that put art where it hasn’t been in ages, at the forefront of popular culture EVERYWHERE.
While funny memes are born every day, memes about art are rare, and the ones inspired by Señora Cecilia’s artistic inclinations help people remember how difficult it is to achieve good art. The idea that anybody can sidle up to an old fresco and retouch it is surreal. Who walks into a church, looks at a peeling antique and thinks they can fix it? She singlehandedly has made people appreciate how challenging it is to make art. Even unprepossessing art, like the one she fixed. It’s not like she defaced a Velázquez. Her masterpiece is also now gracing some of the most iconic art in the history of Western civilization.
There are many people, including me, who feel sorry for her. But I don’t feel so sorry that I’m not enjoying immensely some of the viral things people are coming up with. The purity of her intentions have made her a hero to many. I’m not ready to give her such a pass. Such epic cluelessness has to be addressed. But her touching desire to help is just as epic. I hope she takes it all in stride and people forgive her. She should be proud of how inspiring she has been to the world!
The memes are not personal affronts to her. At this point they transcend laughing at her. A lot has to do with Spanish culture, where already there is talk of squadrons of señoras that are itching to restore stuff. Check any Almodóvar movie. There is always one such essential, folkloric Spanish old lady. She is usually played by the genius actress Chus Lampreave (who should play Señora Cecilia whenever Hollywood options the rights). These Spanish small town señoras are miraculously untainted by malice, they are enterprising and well-meaning and a little dim, and they are all a hoot, because they live with one foot in the modern world and the other one in the 18th century. Beyond Spain, the memes are a comment on the nature of art itself. Take a masterpiece and try to make it better. Jesus ends up looking like a monkey.
Señora Cecilia has unleashed a global wave of creativity where art is at the forefront of the popular buzz, so we have much to thank her for. For one, the restored painting is far more interesting now. It has a sweet art naif quality and it certainly doesn’t look like the trillion other suffering Christs that exist in abundance in every church in every Catholic country and are virtually undistinguishable from one another. The town of Borja should be grateful: she just put it on the map. There should be busloads of tourists flocking to that church like pilgrims going to Lourdes in search of miracles.
Imagine the headlines: “New Face of Christ Discovered on Old Face of Christ”. In this case, it’s worth trying to emulate the saintly goodness of Señora Cecilia, the lady who wanted to make Jesus look better.