News of Cecilia Gimenez’s “restoration” of an ecce homo fresco in a Catholic church in Borja, Spain, has been making the media rounds. Ecce homo (“behold the man”) is its own genre that depicts Jesus before the crucifixion, often wearing a crown of thorns. As the image below demonstrates, Gimenez took some creative liberties with the original work by the 18th-century painter Elías García Martínez. Though it has been suggested that Gimenez turned Jesus into a simian, she insists that her intentions were pure. It’s a moot point, really, because now, according to this Los Angeles Times article, the fresco has its own Twitter account, with a robust following no less. It has also gotten people to actually talk about art; some critics have asked what would happen if such a restoration was applied to an important artwork. Over on Pinterest, the Cecilia Prize has inspired hundreds of faux restorations, borrowing from topical news like Pussy Riot to pop culture icons like Darth Vader and Homer Simpson.
I’m no stranger to the idea of people finding religious iconography in unlikely places. And as incongruous as Gimenez’s vision of the repaired fresco is when compared to the original, her take isn’t that far off from many of the water stains, patches of rust, and gnarled pieces of wood that over the years have been dubbed notable, if not holy, because there is some semblance of what at least one person sees as a manifestation of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, if not Jerry Garcia.
Dwelling on these phenomena, know as pareidolia, for as long as I have has resulted in me being almost disturbingly tuned in to how an individual’s distinctive vision can incite a media frenzy, such as the case with Gimenez’s handiwork.
What’s interesting, and worthy of debate, is why ridicule is so often the outcome of stories like Gimenez’s, or Diana Duyser’s infamous $28,000 eBay payday with her Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese—but when it comes to vernacular design, like Chicago gang sweaters or movie posters from Ghana, we bestow folk art dignity and respect. True, the sweaters and posters are crafted by people, while the iconic visuals appear for reasons unknown (or as a result of climatic circumstances). But, as I see it, both sets of visual material engage viewers, speak to personal tastes and opinions, and incite actions on the part of viewers. Neither one abides by the commonly accepted classical rules and protocol of the established frameworks of religion and design. So why is one more of a punch line and the other the next trend? Or does something like the Gimenez example blur the lines?
The new monograph Mirko Ilic: Fist to Face, out in October, is now available for pre-order at MyDesignShop.com.