Behold, the Monkey – When Painting Restoration Goes Viral

While “going viral” is a phrase more likely to be used in reference to musicians such as PSY (of “Gangnam Style” fame), a painting  has received world-wide notoriety due to a bungled restoration job at the hands of a senior citizen.

The said painting, called “The Ecce Homo” (or, “Behold the Man”), is a Spanish fresco depicting Christ that has been residing inside a church in the small town of Borja, Spain.  Unfortunately, the Ecce Homo had been deteriorating progressively during the last few years due to the damp church air. Cecilia Gimenez, an 81 year-old resident of the town, decided to do something about it. As can be seen here, her attempts at fixing the painting were not very successful. However, what at first was an unfortunate error on the part of Cecilia has turned into a lucrative tourist attraction for the town. Ecce Mono (“Behold the Monkey”), as the painting is now lovingly referred to, is now being featured on t-shirts, wine bottles, and has caused the church to begin charging admission for those who want to observe the interesting piece. The business the painting now represents for the town has locals asking themselves “Who has the copyright over the painting?” and “What do we do now?”.

Gimenez, who originally claimed she had permission of the priest to restore the painting while simultaneously having anxiety attacks over the negative attention she was receiving due to the painting, has now obtained lawyers to help her claim copyright on the work she has done. She does claim that any money she potentially earns from this endeavor will go to charity. At the same time, the town of Borja has claimed trademark over the image in all its forms; this does not yet consider the grandchildren of the original artist, Elias Garcia Martinez, and the group that owns the church which both may have claims to the original that lies beneath.

The most interesting aspect of this story is the intersection and intertwining of moral rights, economic rights, and the rights of the “restorer”, Ms. Gimenez. While Ecce Homo was beloved by the people of Borja before the alteration, its presence in the local church had not benefitted the town in any substantial economic way. The perceived value of the painting only increased due to Cecilia’s “work”, but did this alteration not infringe on the moral rights that the original painter and his living kin retain? While it seems that those that work on restoring works of art retain no copyright with relation to the pieces they work on, can Ms. Gimenez’ contribution be considered so different from the original that it stands as an expression on its own? Many questions need to be considered thoroughly before attempting to attribute the rights related to the painting.

The Sancti Spiritus foundation (the group that runs the church) also has no idea what to do in relation to the ongoing developments concerning the painting. While some people believe it should be restored to its original state and some say it should be left as it is, there may be a solution that simultaneously keeps the Ecce Mono and returns the Ecce Homo so that it may be properly restored. Some experts say that it might be possible to separate the new painting from the old; which seems like it would please almost everyone involved, especially the avid internet users who don’t want to lose their Ecce Mono memes anytime soon.

Adam Del Gobbo is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.