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The 10 Worst Art Restorations in History

by George Smith
fact checked by Rachel Jones

Art restoration is a delicate dance between preserving history and breathing new life into the past. But sometimes, well-intentioned efforts result in downright disasters. While some pieces have been mutilated, others have been lost altogether. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that you should never send art to Spain for restoration.

From amateur touch-ups to misguided attempts, the top ten worst art restorations in history left the art world cringing and the rest of us scratching our heads.

Related: 10 Rare Discoveries About Famous Artists And Their Art

10 Ecce Homo, Spain

Bungled restoration attempt destroys painting

Ah, Ecce Homo, or as some might affectionately (or not-so-affectionately) call it, “Ecce Catastrophe!” Picture a sleepy town in Spain, the quaint Santuario de Misericordia, and Elias Garcia Martinez’s serene fresco of Jesus watching over the congregation. Now, fast forward to 2012, when an elderly parishioner named Cecilia Gimenez decided the iconic image needed a facelift.

In a stroke of artistic enthusiasm (or perhaps madness), Cecilia unleashed her inner Picasso on poor Ecce Homo. What ensued was nothing short of a restoration disaster. The once-sublime Jesus transformed into what can only be described as a blurry monkey with facial features that seemed to have done a few rounds in a boxing ring.

The botched restoration turned the unassuming town into a global punchline, drawing crowds of tourists eager to witness the “masterpiece.” The hilarious part? The authorities contemplated restoring Cecilia’s restoration to its original state, turning the entire ordeal into a meta-commentary on the very nature of art and its subjective interpretation.

So, there you have it, a tale of good intentions gone haywire, leaving behind a transformed Ecce Homo that’s now arguably more famous in its botched form than in its original splendor. The lesson? Sometimes, art should just be left alone to age gracefully, wrinkles and all.

9 St. George Statue, Spain

500 Year Old statue Of St George Botched Restoration Job In Spain

The St. George statue in Spain is a masterpiece that underwent a restoration worthy of a tragic comedy. This poor knight in shining armor, originally gracing the streets of Estella, found itself in the hands of a well-intentioned but utterly misguided restorer. Imagine a brave St. George, ready to slay the dragon, now sporting a look that screams, “I’ve seen things, man.”

The restoration, or should I say, the transformation, took an unexpected turn when the restorer decided to channel Picasso’s abstract period. St. George’s face became a cubist puzzle, with eyes that seemed to wander in different directions, perhaps searching for the dragon that had gone MIA. The once-imposing sword now resembled a poorly melted candlestick.

What makes this restoration particularly cringe-worthy is the sheer audacity to give a medieval hero a makeover inspired by modern art. It’s like putting a knight in skinny jeans and expecting him to joust with style. The St. George statue recently had a $34,000 “unrestoration” to return it to its knightly glory. Note to future restorers: Dragons are mythical, but a disastrous restoration is all too real.

8 Santa Bárbara Statue, Brazil

Santa Barbara Statue Flies Over Italy to Celebrate Feast Day

The Santa Bárbara wood statue in Brazil is a masterpiece that fell victim to one of history’s most eyebrow-raising art restorations. Just to set the stage, imagine a serene, centuries-old wooden figure representing Santa Bárbara, the patron saint of lightning, storms, and, oh, apparently questionable restoration choices.

Originally crafted by an unknown artist in the 18th century, this sacred statue found its way into the hands of a well-intentioned but perhaps misguided restorer. The 2012 restoration attempt transformed Santa Bárbara into something that could only be described as the result of a collaboration between Picasso and Salvador Dali on a particularly surreal day.

The delicate features of the original sculpture were replaced with a face that looked like it had seen one too many storms—and not in the weather sense. Santa Bárbara resembled more of a modern art experiment gone awry than a venerated religious artifact.

7 Mosaics at the Hatay Archaeology Museum in Turkey

Ancient mosaics seriously damaged during restoration in Turkey’s Hatay

The restoration of the mosaics at the Hatay Archaeology Museum in Turkey resulted in significant damage to at least ten priceless Roman mosaics, some dating back to the second century. The restoration attempt, which aimed to repair the mosaics, led to the distortion of their features and left them looking markedly different from the valuable originals.

The restoration involved the addition of mosaic pieces into the originals, resulting in the loss of originality and value. The botched repair job raised concerns about the extent of the damage, leading to an investigation and the suspension of all restoration work at the museum. The restorers denied claims of wrongdoing and argued that the before and after images were manipulated in the Turkish press. Can you imagine destroying priceless art like that and then trying to gaslight an entire country into believing it never happened?

6 Buddhist frescoes, Chaoyang China

Restored or ruined? Botched Buddha restoration sparks outcry in China

The restoration of the nearly 300-year-old Buddhist frescoes at the Yunjie Temple in Chaoyang, Liaoning Province, China, resulted in a botched effort that sparked outrage. The unauthorized restoration involved painting over the 270-year-old frescoes with cartoon-like images, leading to the distortion and erasure of the original historical and cultural artifacts.

This incident led to the dismissal of two officials and a reprimand for another, highlighting the significance of preserving cultural heritage with proper restoration techniques. The frescoes were ultimately recognized as needing restoration to their original state by experts from the provincial cultural heritage government.

5 Mary and Baby Jesus Statue, Canada

Jesus’ Head Stolen

The restoration of the Mary and Baby Jesus statue at the Ste. Anne-des-Pins Catholic Church in Sudbury, Canada, attracted attention and mixed reactions. The original white stone statue of Mary and baby Jesus had been targeted by vandals, leaving the head of baby Jesus missing. A local artist, Heather Wise, crafted a bright orange clay head to replace the missing one.

However, the new head sparked bemusement and disappointment among parishioners and global attention due to its appearance and the contrast in colors. The terracotta head began to erode from the rain about a week after it was attached. Eventually, the original missing head was returned to the church, and it was reattached to the statue. The restoration attempt led to ridicule and disappointment, with some likening the new head to the cartoon character Maggie Simpson.

4 15th Century Wooden Sculptures, Ranadoiro, Spain

Spain parishioner botches Jesus and Mary statue restoration, before and after

The restoration of the 15th-century wooden sculptures in Ranadoiro, Spain, resulted in a controversial and botched outcome. The set of wooden sculptures, which originally depicted Saint Anna, the Virgin Mary with Jesus Christ, and St. Peter in natural, muted tones, was painted over in garish hues by an amateur restorer, Maria Luisa Menendez.

No offense to Menendez, but the outcome was a hot mess. The unauthorized restoration led to the statues being depicted in unconventionally bright colors, with Jesus in a neon green robe and the Virgin Mary wearing bright pink. The changes were widely criticized, with art restoration experts expressing dismay and referring to it as a “huge tragedy” and a “lack of sensitivity.” Efforts were made to assess the damage and explore the possibility of undoing the restoration.

3 The Immaculate Conception by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Unrecognisable ‘Virgin Mary’ The Latest Botched Art Restoration In Spain

The restoration of The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables by the 17th-century Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in Spain resulted in a botched outcome. It was done in 1813 when the Marshal Soult collection acquired it. They tried to remove the varnish incorrectly, which ruined the artists’ transparent glaze effect. From there, they thought it would be a “good idea” to just paint over it. Nope.

So this is one painting that actually had to be restored twice… and both attempts failed. The painting was later acquired by the Museo del Prado in 1941. This time, the restoration team had the idea to add strips of linen to the edges. They also tried to remove the old varnish again and take off the added paint job. But they quickly realized that the surface was so worn down that old images were showing through, so they stopped it.

Third time’s the charm?

2 Stone Figure on the Palencia in Spain

‘Madre Mia’ : Botched restoration in Spain turns shepherdess into ‘potato head’

The restoration of a stone figure on a building in Palencia, Spain, resulted in a controversial and widely criticized outcome. The sculpture, which originally had human-like features, was transformed into a disfigured representation that some likened to a cartoon character, a potato, or even President Donald Trump. The restoration attempt was carried out by an unnamed “restoration expert.”

The locals weren’t exactly thrilled with this avant-garde approach to restoration. I mean, who would be? The figure went from looking like art to a pile of trash. They might as well have put up a sign saying, “Welcome to Palencia, where even the stone figures need a makeover.”

1 Leonardo da Vinci’s Orpheus Being Attacked by the Furies

The tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice – Brendan Pelsue

Did you know that there is a piece of da Vince artwork that you’ve never seen? Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing Orpheus Being Attacked by the Furies was in a privately owned collection in 1998. It was based on the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice. However, its restoration attempt resulted in a significant controversy. The restorers tried to loosen the sketch from its backing with a solution of alcohol and water.

Unfortunately, the mixture on the paper caused a chemical reaction. All the ink began to disappear, causing irreversible damage to the valuable artwork. The botched restoration raised concerns about the need for proper restoration techniques and expertise in handling priceless works of art.

fact checked by Rachel Jones