From phenomenon to social purpose: ten years of the economic miracle of Borja's 'Ecce Homo'

Five kilometers from the scene of the events, signs indicate the way to reach the Misericordia Sanctuary. At five hundred meters the signs don't beat around the bush: "Ecce Homo". Next to the arrow, another indication warns that there is parking at the top of the mountain. Every year 11,000 people pass through this sanctuary, which they say is the oldest inn in Europe, from the 16th century. Today the 36 rooms for rent are the second residence of those fleeing the Aragonese summer and the noise of the city. That also changed in the summer of 2012: peace did not return to this viewpoint from which you can see the farm fields, the Moncayo mountain range and the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees.

Ten years ago, Cecilia Giménez climbed the road that crosses the Garnacha empire. Some vine fields with a protected designation of origin that employ 600 people in the town. The other source of employment is the polygon, with a thousand workers in factories such as Mondo Tufting, the world leader in artificial grass for sports use. That day of extreme heat seemed perfect to put an end to the deformed face of Christ, mistreated by the tortures of the Romans in Judea and by the humidity that eats away at the whitewashed walls of the Borja sanctuary church. Before finishing the repainting that would change the destiny of her town forever, Cecilia went on vacation. She left the work pending and when she returned, Borja was no longer the same.

First, the people from the village went up to check what they had read in the newspaper and seen on television. Then came the rest of the world. In a few days there were 4,000 people at the door of the church of the sanctuary, queuing to laugh and be photographed together with the Christ that had been mounted. The first year of life of the new Ecce Homo de Borja, the temple to which the town of 5,000 inhabitants marches on pilgrimage on Saint Bartholomew's day had 45,000 visits.

More than 300,000 visitors have followed Cecilia's journey to revive the face painted 80 years earlier by Elías García Giménez (1858-1934), another illustrious neighbor of Borja. A tourist pilgrimage in which there are no shortage of buses loaded with Japanese and citizens from a hundred other countries, who have turned Borja's Ecce Homo into the town's Gioconda. And that generates more than 40,000 euros a year in ticket sales, at three euros. The income is managed by the City Council, through a public foundation that invests it in the maintenance of the sanctuary, in the salary of the two guides who proudly show Cecilia's work and in aid for older people without resources. "We have made a social phenomenon a social purpose," Eduardo Arillo, mayor of Borja since 2015, rightly repeats.

Today Cecilia Giménez is prostrated in a wheelchair, in the nursing home that the Aragonese Institute of Social Services has in the town. She had a bad fall and has lost a lot of mobility. The first symptoms of senile dementia have taken her out of her house and she now lives together with her eldest son, who has cerebral palsy. Her young son died very young, from muscular dystrophy. Cecilia referred to them as "my ecce homos." Very close to where the author of the most famous Ecce Homo in history resides is the Sancti Spiritus Hospital, a residence for about sixty people that is managed by the City Council with more affordable prices for low pensions. Two of the elderly who reside there live thanks to Cecilia's painting.

The locker generated by the aberration turned into an involuntary work of art, and protected by a methacrylate, allows the council to pay 15,000 euros for the residence of the most needy elderly. There were years when they helped up to five people. At this time the money assists a farmer who worked in the fields of Borja all his life without contributing. He now has a pension of 500 euros. They also help a woman who was left without financial resources when she was widowed. "Here they take care of them, they feed them and they are happy," says the mayor, proud of the well-being of his neighbors.

This helpline is possible thanks to the fact that Cecilia has renounced half of the benefits that correspond to her for the intellectual property of Ecce Homo. It was not an easy decision. First, it was necessary to end the war that had been created between the two families facing each other over the Ecce Homo case: the heiresses of Elías García Giménez and those of Cecilia Giménez. The success of one came at the cost of the destruction of the work of the other. "They did not speak to each other," says the mayor, the socialist Eduardo Arillo. He counts it and breathes with relief. It was a pending matter that had divided the town. "It was the first thing we did when we got to the mayor's office. We met with them at the town hall to turn around a situation that seemed to have no solution," says Arillo.

After so many interviews and contempt thrown on the pages of the newspapers between both families, Elías's granddaughter and Cecilia's niece had to forgive each other too many years of dislikes. "The point is that a painting that had been destroyed for years had been destroyed. So we valued the work of the artist Elías García Giménez with an exhibition that recognized his career. Peace was made and they apologized," explains the mayor to the sanctuary gate.

"At first there were threats and lawyers," says Marisa Ibáñez Giménez, Cecilia's niece. The disputes have been forgotten and what has remained of these ten years is "people's affection for Cecilia." Not only from Borsaonenses. The sanctuary is the center of her life. There she got married, her children took communion, she has been very happy there. And she is now part of that place. "He has turned the story upside down. Now he says that what he has done is a work of art and that the whole world knows it for it. He does not think that he spoiled it. He says that the Virgin of Mercy appeared to him and She asked for help. That's why she did it. I don't believe in miracles, but she does," says Marisa.

The shade of some huge trees refresh the first days of a suffocating summer. They also host a meal for almost 200 retired neighbors. They have made a "ranch" and are eating a generous plate of potatoes with meat for one euro. The stage is empty, but the speakers spit out a pasodoble at full volume. After dessert there will be bingo. Cecilia Giménez still does not have a street in Borja, but there are already those who think that this square would be a good recognition of her work.

"We are on the verge of becoming a big city where people lose contact with each other," says the mayor, who previously worked in food and in the automotive industry. To have a population of 5,000 inhabitants he says that it is one of the largest in Aragon. And he underlines with a gesture the scourge of depopulation suffered by the province. In the 1990s, Borja hit rock bottom and since then the population has grown by 20%. The hospitals are in Zaragoza, 40 minutes away, and it seems that the town has recovered its clothing stores. "It's a symptom of a good economy," he says. His bet is for cultural tourism that moves Cecilia's Ecce Homo.

"People no longer come to laugh at the painting. They come to see a social phenomenon and we have to sell Borja's cultural heritage," says the mayor, who wants more. "We have become a landmark, a tourist stop." How to make tickets go beyond the hotel industry? How to prevent them from eating a sandwich and leaving without knowing Borja? That turns around. The day the Japanese discover that Jewish quarter, which is preserved in perfect condition, they will have to spend the night in Borja. How to retain visitors from failed restoration. He wants them to visit the Archaeological Museum or the Sacred Art Museum. Arillo has invested one and a half million euros from the public treasury in the restoration of the Casa de las Conchas, an immense Renaissance palace in the center of Borja, which will house a library, a reading room, as well as conference rooms and a wine cellar for tastings. He has even commissioned an Ecce Homo relief for the blind... to be a leader in "accessible tourism."

Cecilia also receives half of the profits from the merchandising. She has not given up on these. T-shirts, mugs, thimbles, bookmarks, badges, toiletry bags, pencils, pens, wine, flash drives... Cecilia earns just over 2,000 euros a year from these sales. At the entrance there is a machine that makes copper medals for one euro and five cents. You can choose between four images to stamp at the moment, among which is the Virgin of Mercy. "Imagine which one is the most printed", answers María José, one of the two guides who are in charge of explaining Cecilia's work.

María José does not like to be called Pepa, although no one in town respects her. María José tells that she used to work in a textile cooperative. She prefers this. "Because I like talking a lot," she says. She explains to the visitors what happened that summer ten years ago. She says that the pagan miracle that put Borja on the map could only happen in August. Then the drought floods the newspapers and the pages hardly drink from the parties and verbenas. "At another time, they would not have paid attention to him," says María José. She estimates that this July and August they will serve about 5,000 people.

The guide to the shortest guided tour of a museum or a church recalls a marketing savant who came to understand what had happened. He told her that to turn a restoration disaster into a pop icon, the town would have had to pay "a million" for the campaign. "Hahahahaha", laughs María José. "She was free for us!" She adds, leaning against one of the last pews in the small church. The effect caused by this indeterminate face is similar to that of La Gioconda in the Louvre room where it is shown: The Marriage at Cana, by Veronese, the Country Concert and The Man with the Glove, by Titian, become invisible. The fame of the mural meme hides the rest of the nave, devoured by the humidity caused by a nearby aquifer that gives fame to the water from its sources.

Every two years, a team of conservators and restorers from the government of Aragon travels with their instruments to the building to check the health of Cecilia's Ecce Homo. They have managed to cut the capillarity of the wall in which the work of Elías García Giménez was and that Cecilia Giménez covered with hers. The specialists have stopped the humidity by removing from the lower part of the wall the cement that did not allow the wall to breathe. They take great care of the painting of a neighbor who supplanted her trade with more volunteerism than knowledge. The news mobilized the conservation and restoration sector like never before. "It is true that it was a decisive turning point," says Rosa Tera, restorer and then president of the Association of Conservators and Restorers of Spain (ACRE).

This association was founded a few weeks before the catastrophe became known and since then they have strongly claimed their essential role in keeping Spanish artistic heritage safe. "The outrage was very important for the social awareness of our trade and for our trade to become aware of its role in society and to vindicate itself," adds Ana Galán, conservative and former president of ACRE. From that indignation arose the drafting of a manifesto in support of a neglected trade. However, Galán believes that there was also a knock-on effect and when summer came she would tremble before a new Ecce Homo. "We claim a lot, but nothing has been fulfilled. Surely there is more awareness, but there are no laws: the restoration is still not regulated. It is intervened without care and without professionals in charge, and we have the same problems in public tenders. Ten years later we have nothing to celebrate", laments Rosa Tera.

The mayor opens the door of one of the halls of the Town Hall. It is the plenary hall and civil weddings are also officiated here. It is presided over by a portrait of Felipe VI, made by another neighboring painter from Borja. It is a disturbing picture due to that face of mysterious green color with which he has represented the son of Juan Carlos I. A reptilian king is what this town lacked.

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