Saturday, September 22, 2012

Monkeying Around with Jesus: More on the Spanish Fresco Story

And speaking of remaking Jesus in our own (?) image (I'm referring here to what I just posted about Jesus and his wife): the story of the botched Spanish fresco in which Ecce Homo has been, according to some wits, transformed into Ecce Mono, continues.  Yesterday, Fiona Govan reported in The Telegraph that the Sanctuario de Misercordia in Borja, Spain, where artist Cecilia Gimenez restored the Ecce Homo fresco, is now charging admission to see the painting.  And tourists are flocking to the area for a sight of the botched artwork.

Ms. Gimenez now wants a cut of the profits.

And as I read this story, I think that something about it is a very familiar trope.  Catholicism has long had a frankly commercial side (some might say a frankly tawdry side) when it comes to the industry of shrines and tourism.  Chaucer wrote about the commercial aspects of medieval pilgrimage in his Canterbury Tales.  In tracing my own family history, I've found that my Winn (or Wynne) ancestors, who were wool merchants in Shropshire on the Welsh border up to the 16th century, moved across England to Canterbury in the latter half of the 1500s precisely because the Canterbury pilgrimages (though they had by that point been suppressed) had created a lively market for wool in the city, as country folks bought city clothes when they reached their pilgrim destination.

The linking of pilgrimage and profit is an ancient one, and in charging tourists admission to see the Ecce Mono fresco, the church in Borja is carrying on a venerable Catholic tradition.  What may be new about this particular pilgrim site, however, is that it is in key respects an anti-pilgrim shrine.  Tourists are coming to Borja to see a fresco that bowdlerizes a traditional image of the suffering Christ.

This suggests to me that there may well be, on the horizon, a postmodern form of pilgrimage in some parts of the previously Christianized West, in which people come to various shrines not primarily to pray or worship, but to look and think about how representations of Jesus have shifted over the centuries--often in ways that either mock or enshrine the core values of the surrounding culture.

And perhaps that development would not be altogether bad (after all, it appears it might still bring money to church coffers.)

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