Expatica news

Spanish widow who botched fresco makeover inspires opera

When an elderly widow in a tiny Spanish town decided to restore a church fresco of Christ, the result was so disastrous that it went viral and she became a global laughing stock.

Fast-forward a few years, and the tables have turned considerably for Cecilia Gimenez, now 85, whose “restoration” in Borja resembles a pale-faced ape with cartoon-style eyes and a crooked smudge for a mouth.

Her makeover has sparked such interest that people are flocking to the northern town, mugs and t-shirts bearing the botched image are on sale and the incident has inspired an opera — excerpts of which will be performed for the first time in Borja on Saturday.

“It’s a hybrid, it has music from Bach, Gregorian chants, and then it has some numbers that sound like Lady Gaga or Frank Sinatra,” says Andrew Flack, the American playwright who wrote the opera along with composer Paul Fowler.

The two friends saw the story go viral in August 2012 and decided there and then to create an opera called “Behold the Man”, the English translation of the words reportedly shouted by Roman governor Pontius Pilate to Jesus Christ shortly before his Crucifixion.

The Latin version of these words, “Ecce Homo”, is the title of numerous works of art including that of the fresco in Borja, originally painted in 1930.

“I could see that she was going to go from a villain to the hero,” says Flack.

– ‘Feels like it’s a miracle’ –

“We were writing it like a turn-around story before it was a turn-around story.”

According to Mayor Eduardo Arilla Pablo, Borja has had 170,000 visitors since the incident went viral — a boon for a town of just under 5,000 residents that was once far from the well-trodden tourist track.

The opera will be interpreted Saturday by the local choir and professional singers from the region, and Flack and Fowler will start marketing it to US companies in September.

Gimenez will be seated at the front row of the show in the plaza next to the church where her “restored” fresco is now on show for 2 euros ($2.27) — a departure from her initial shame.

“She sought therapy,” says Flack, who has travelled several times to Borja since starting to write the opera and has got to know Gimenez and her family.

“This was a fresco in her local church that was dear to her and no one was paying attention to it.

“When she began her ‘restoration’, there wasn’t a whole lot of fresco left. She was just trying to help out,” he adds.

“So when it went viral and she was made fun of, she felt terrible.

“Now she feels like it’s a miracle.”