Art restoration is well… an art. And when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. The latest botched job to make the headlines is a restoration of Piero della Francesca’s Nativity, which has been described by The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones as “a pastiche of Renaissance art by a very cheap, very bad app”. This latest fail attracted all the more ire because it wasn’t done by an inexperienced restorer trying their luck with our how to draw series, but rather brought back to life by the team at Britain’s National Gallery.
The “vacant and gormless, even constipated” new version of a shepherd has not only caused us to chortle into our coffee, but has reminded us of all the other times that art restoration has gone wrong, or in one case, gone so right it feels wrong. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite art restoration fails below for your viewing pleasure.
01. Monkey Christ disaster
Known as ‘Monkey Christ’, this disastrous restoration happened when 81-year-old Cecilia Giménez took it upon herself to ‘rescue’ a fresco painted in 1930 by Elías García Martínez, which was hanging in her local church. Giménez actually hadn’t finished her restoration job when a local historical association came across her work and brought it to the attention of the world’s media. With Jesus’ face seemingly morphed into a monkey, this was very much the OG botched restoration of the internet age. Much hilarity and memes followed the revelation.
Despite initially causing stress and embarrassment, Monkey Christ has boosted tourism to Giménez’s town of Borja (opens in new tab) in Spain, with plenty flocking to the church to see the err… masterpiece. We’re still not sure we can say it was worth it, though.
02. Less than immaculate conception
The Immaculate Conception by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo has suffered not one, but two failed restoration attempts. A Valencia-based art collector apparently paid €1,200 to have the painting cleared up by a furniture restorer, proving, if nothing else, that furniture restoration and art restoration are two very different beasts.
The first attempt sees the Virgin Mary looking rather youthful, while the second does something very strange to her eyes. Needless to say, it’s not an immaculate attempt.
03. Potato head in Palencia
This carved figure that adorns an early 20th century building in Spain’s Palencia received a rather terrifying facelift in 2020. The ‘restored’ stonework has been described as everything from a sand man from Star Wars to Donald Trump to a potato head. Not quite what the restorer was aiming for, we’re sure.
04. Sassy Ghent altarpiece lamb
This one isn’t exactly a botched job, but bear with us… The Ghent Altarpiece was painted by brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck in the 15th century, but over the centuries, the priceless 12-panel polyptych had become yellowed, and the centrepiece of the scene, the lamb, had notably been painted over by a different artist.
You can probably guess where this is going. That lamb was restored as part of a four year project, and the results really got people talking. We should note that this restoration was by no means an art restoration fail, it did in fact restore what the Van Eyck brothers had painted so long ago. But the human nature of the lamb’s face caused a whole load of hilarity and confusion, with many asking the question – ‘why is this lamb so sassy?’ We’ll never know.
05. Virgin Mary and baby Maggie Simpson
Over in Canada, a statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus caused a stir back in 2016. Vandals had targeted the statue, knocking off the head of baby Jesus and leaving it nearby, until eventually someone took the head completely. A local artist took it upon herself to create a new one and the results were… interesting. Many people noticed a resemblance between the baby Jesus and Maggie Simpson, and we’re certainly not arguing.