Virgin Mary With Turquoise Hair? Church Statues Get an Eye-Popping Paint Job

A shopkeeper in Rañadorio, Spain, repainted three wooden sculptures from the 15th century in bright colors, and could face legal action.CreditCreditJ L Cereijido/EPA, via Shutterstock

MADRID — St. Anne, the patron saint of the village of Rañadorio in northwestern Spain, has fuchsia lips, black eyeliner and a bright dress. The Virgin Mary has turquoise hair. Baby Jesus resembles a Playmobil figure.

The figures, part of a set of 15th-century wooden statues in a chapel in the Asturias region, had recently drawn the attention of a local shopkeeper, who decided they looked “horrible” and needed to be repainted.

“I’m not a professional painter, but I’ve always enjoyed it, and these images really were in need of painting,” the shopkeeper, María Luisa Menéndez, told the newspaper El Comercio, adding that the local clergy had given her permission to proceed. “So I painted them the best I could, with the colors that seemed right, and the neighbors like it.”

Local news outlets did, indeed, quote residents defending the restoration. But that reaction to the handling of religious artifacts was hardly universal.

The work on the statues of Rañadorio looks more like “a vengeance than a restoration,” said Genaro Alonso, the regional minister for culture and education in Asturias, according to the newspaper La Voz de Asturias.

The Spanish art conservation association known as ACRE tweeted, “Does nobody care about this continued plunder in our country?”

It is unclear if the paint Ms. Menéndez applied to the figures in Rañadorio could be removed, and the original polychrome paint recovered. The regional authorities said they would initiate legal action, citing laws protecting Spanish cultural heritage and requiring full authorization for any alterations, even in cases of good intentions.

The paint job on the statues is just the latest in a series of attempts by devotees in Spain to apply their artistic talents — however limited — to the preservation or restoration of decaying religious works of art.

In 2012, the botched restoration of an “ecce homo” fresco of Jesus in a Roman Catholic church in Borja, in northeastern Spain, was of such poor quality that it was initially treated by the local authorities as an act of vandalism. It turned out to be the work of Cecilia Giménez, a woman in her 80s who decided to restore the fresco because she was upset that the representation of Jesus was flaking off as a result of moisture on the church’s walls.

In June this year, the restoration of a 16th-century wooden figure of St. George in a church in Estella, in northern Spain, drew indignation after it was left looking more like a childish model of a cartoon character than a precious piece of art.

Such uproars can have surprising results, however. The revamped “ecce homo” fresco ended up giving a significant boost to tourism in Borja, as visitors flocked to see what was described as the worst art restoration project of all time. Four years after the fresco was repainted, the episode was celebrated in the town with a comic opera performed by professional singers and a local choir.

Rañadorio is tiny, home to just 16 people. But it is along a major tourism and pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, which leads pilgrims to the shrine of St. James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Whether the repainted statues can draw those travelers to the small town remains to be seen.

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