The poet John Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” However, several art restoration projects gone awry in recent years suggest otherwise.
Consider, for example, the seventeenth-century Spanish artist Bartolomé Murillo’s painting of the Virgin Mary disfigured by a furniture restorer in 2020; a wooden fifteenth-century statue of Mary, St. Anne, and the Child Jesus painted over in neon colors by a shop owner in 2018; a fresco of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns in a Spanish Catholic church distorted by an amateur in 2012, now derisively known as the “Monkey Christ”; a Spanish sixteenth-century statue of St. George painted by a tyro to resemble a toy soldier in 2018, but now mercifully re-restored to its pre-2018 state; and a century-old smiling woman statue ridiculed on social media as “The Potato Head of Palencia” after a botched restoration project last year.
Conversely, recall the Vatican’s commission of the world’s leading professional restorers when a madman attacked the statue of Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer in 1972, damaging Mary’s arm, eyelid, and nose.
Well-intentioned but incompetent art restorers are advised to heed the humble confession of Leonardo da Vinci: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
In 2015, Pope Francis was asked if he ever felt pressure to sell the treasures of the Church—such as its repository of religious art. He responded that they weren’t the Church’s treasures but “the treasures of humanity.”
Sacred art should be seen as the priceless patrimony of humanity because it turns our minds devoutly toward God and draws us “to adoration, to prayer and to the love of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2502).
The fine arts, especially sacred art, “of their nature are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands” (CCC 2513). In other words, Catholic theology and sacred art are complementary. “There is something of Rembrandt in the Gospel, or something of the Gospel in Rembrandt,” suggested Vincent van Gogh.
Are the examples I cited of inferior restoration—as well as many others—another indication of Christianity’s decline in Western cultures? Does it confirm the Church’s diminishing influence on our so-called “post-Christian” world? Not necessarily.
The failed restorers weren’t neo-pagan secularists with a sinister disdain for the Church, determined to erase a part of its rich legacy. Rather, these projects point specifically to the urgent need for stricter regulations on caring for art in an early cradle of Christianity like Spain, where so much of its patrimony is at risk. By extension, botched refurbishments also illustrate a more widespread reality—namely, a threadbare knowledge of and appreciation for the past.
As parishes close or consolidate at home and abroad, sacred treasures in deconsecrated historic churches are often relocated to other churches and religious institutions. This traditional custom of dissemination is a sign of solidarity with the larger Church and in continuity with its heritage to honor the faith and sacrifices of the charter members when the original church was built. However, any sacred authentic items left behind are better off cared for by or with the counsel of professional curators. Otherwise, their aesthetic transcendence and historical value may be compromised by the uninformed, the unscrupulous, or the untrained.