MADRID — Ironic art fans have launched a petition to save the "world's worst restoration": a retouched, century-old church painting of Christ that has become an international joke.
Cecilia Gimenez, described as being in her 80s, has won global fame with her horribly botched impromptu attempt to restore an oil painting of Christ crowned with thorns, his sorrowful gaze raised to heaven.
The "restored" painting looks like a pale monkey's face surrounded by fur, with mishapen eyes and nose, and a crooked smudge for a mouth, a style some wits have compared to Picasso's.
Titled "Ecce Homo" (Behold the Man), the original was painted in oil in 1910 directly onto a column in the Iglesia del Santuario de Misericordia church in Borja, northeastern Spain.
It was showing its age as the paint deteriorated over the years.
But the "restored" version has provided grist for an explosion of jokes across the world this week.
Online commentators in Spain inserted the faces of King Juan Carlos or Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy into their own, digital versions of the restored painting.
More than 5,000 people have now signed an online petition to halt the town's plan to return the painting to its pre-restoration glory.
The restoration "reveals a subtle criticism of the Church's creationist theories while questioning a resurgence of new idols," says the petition launched by a user on http://www.change.org, comparing the retouched painting to the work of Goya, Munch and Modigliani.
Gimenez herself said she had been patching up the painting for years, with the church's knowledge.
"The priest knew," the elderly, neatly dressed lady in spectacles told public television TVE.
"Everyone who came in could see me painting."
Despite the derisive coverage, with some media calling it worst restoration in history, Gimenez said she was an accomplished artist. "I had a four-room exhibition -- I sold 40 paintings," Gimenez said.
The church painting was no masterpiece, completed in two hours by a local man, Elias Garcia Martinez just over a century ago.
But the original artist's granddaughter, Teresa Garcia, was unimpressed by the brushed-up version.
"Until now the only thing she had touched was the tunic," Garcia told TVE.
"The problem is that now she has meddled with the head and, clearly, she has destroyed the painting."
The town hall has not yet decided whether to sue over the botch job, which was performed a month ago. "It would be different if it was vandalism," said the town councillor for culture, Juan Maria de Ojeda.
"She did it with the best faith in the world," the restorer's sister, Esperanza Gimenez Zueco, told daily newspaper El Mundo.
"She just wanted to give it a bit of colour."