After a year’s exile and hundreds of hours of painstaking work, a 16th-century polychrome statue of Saint George and the dragon from northern Spain that made the news for all the wrong reasons has been lovingly and carefully unrestored.
Last summer the Church of St Michael in Estella, Navarre, became the latest holy place to fall victim to some well-intentioned but ill-advised brushwork. A local artist’s efforts to freshen up the walnut wood statue did not go entirely according to plan.
The saint was left with a rosy pink face and a strikingly bold suit of armour that reminded some of Tintin and others of a Playmobil figure. It also elicited comparisons with the infamous “Monkey Christ” restoration six years earlier.
Now, however, the statue has been returned as closely to its pre-2018 state as possible. Carlos Martínez Álava, the head of the Navarre government’s historic heritage department, said the latest intervention had finished two weeks ago and the plan was to get the statue to Estella in the next few days.
“It’s been a long process because we had to do preliminary tests and take samples to see how we could go about cleaning it and to determine which would be the best materials and methods,” he said. “Today, the statue has the same colours it had before last year’s extremely unfortunate intervention. But we know that we’ve lost part of the original paint along the way.”
Martínez Álava said that although he was a historian and not a restorer, he thought things had turned out really well. “The bits of paint that were lost have been filled in and from a distance it all looks the same,” he said. “But when you get up close, you can see very clear what’s original and what’s not.”
He said the restoration process had been time-consuming, estimating that it had taken all those involved with the project about 1,000 hours to undo the damage and restore the work.
“It’s been a big effort economically as well,” he said. “The archdiocese of Pamplona and the parish have assumed the costs, which have come to around €32,000 or €33,000 (about (£29,000). If they’d done things properly in the first place, it would have cost around €10,000 to €12,000. That mistake has ended up costing three times as much it should have. There was also a €6,000 fine they had to pay.”
But he said he had been struck by the panic and remorse of those behind the botched job. “When it came in, what I noticed most wasn’t just how inadequate the restoration had been, but how much the people responsible were suffering and how worried they were that there was no way of fixing it.
“Our cultural heritage needs to be looked after by people who are qualified and trained. We need to know our heritage as throughly as possible to protect it, and we need to be alert. The alarm in this case was raised by somebody in the town telling us what had happened.”
Estella’s last mayor said the town did not relish the notoriety that the statue’s restoration had brought it and would prefer that people came to see its historic Jewish quarter instead. “We don’t want to attract visitors because of the poor treatment of our heritage,” Koldo Leoz said last year. “We haven’t publicised it and nor will we.”
Others, however, have been keen to find opportunity in adversity. The town of Borja managed to capitalise on the attention it drew after a devout parishioner, Cecilia Giménez, tried to restore the face of the scourged Christ that had been painted on the wall of a local church almost a century earlier.
Her well-meant but incomplete labours may have resulted in Monkey Christ memes, much mockery and global coverage, but they have undoubtedly benefited Borja. About 16,000 people a year now visit the town – more than four times the number who came before Giménez did her restoration – and the church gift shop is full of merchandise bearing the instantly recognisable results of her brushwork.
The “restoration” has provided jobs for the sanctuary-museum’s two caretakers and helps fund places at Borja’s care home for older people.