Botched art is an online sensation

But octogenarian's escapade could end in legal action

The Spanish pensioner who has achieved worldwide notoriety for her botched attempts to spruce up a 19th-century fresco of Christ is herself in need of some restoration. So unrelenting has been the attention focused on her less-than-professional brushstrokes that Cecilia Giménez, an 81-year-old grandmother, has reportedly suffered an anxiety attack and taken to her bed.

Pastiches of her handiwork have become an online craze. Versions of the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and The Scream bearing the same vacant face that Mrs Giménez painted on Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), are now being gleefully exchanged. And her work is not without its appreciators. More than 10,000 people have subscribed to a petition calling for the fresco to be left as it is. Some even claim to see artistic merit in it. The Giménez version, says the petition, "reveals a subtle criticism of the church's creationist theories while questioning a resurgence of new idols". Another supporter, a self-described art historian, wrote that the revamp is "completely modern, reflecting a simple and naive popular mysticism".

Yet the relatives of Elías García Martínez, the painter of the fresco, are rather less able to see the joke. A panel of art experts is due to examine it to see if the restoration work can be reversed, and there is talk of legal action being taken.

The painting – of a wistful-looking Christ wearing a crown of thorns – was created about a century ago, on the wall of the church in Borja, near Zaragoza. Mrs Giménez, a regular worshipper who had always been drawn to the fresco, had been unsettled for some time by the steady deterioration in its condition. She was determined to repair the ravages of time and, she says, sought and obtained permission from the priest to do so. "We have always repaired everything ourselves here," she told Spanish television.

So, having limbered up by practising on a copy of the García Martínez painting, she set to work. As she points out: "Anybody who entered the church was able to see me painting." The result was, well, unique. In place of the battered, but deft, face of Christ in a robe, there was now what looked like a very early Modigliani in a hooded Babygro. This, however, is possibly a premature judgement, since, Mrs Giménez's family says, she was taking a breather and the face would have been OK when she finished it.

It is unlikely now she will ever get the chance. Even if she recovers her appetite for giving devotional paintings a new lick of paint, the spotlight on the Borja church means she will no longer be left to her own devices. The priest, Fr Florencio Garces, thinks the fresco should be covered up for the time being to deter sniggering rubber-neckers. But, should Mrs Giménez recover her equilibrium, her artistic career may now take off. She told Spanish media that she once had a "four-room exhibition" and sold 40 of her works. Aided by the publicity of the past few days, she may now find collectors beating a hurried path to her door.

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