You might remember a story about a botched restoration of a painting of Jesus that went viral about 12 years ago. 

An 81-year-old parishioner in north-eastern Spain attempted to touch-up a flaking painting of Christ on the wall of her local church and ended up making the Son of God look like the son of a lesula monkey.

It became an internet sensation, of course. And an irresistible subject for memes.

And the would-be restorer, Cecilia Giméne, became the target of local anger and international ridicule.

The painting previously known as “Ecce Homo” – Behold the Man – became known as “Ecce Mono”, Behold the Monkey.

Or Monkey Jesus, for short.

The road to Monkey Jesus (Peter Moore)
The other side of the road to Monkey Jesus (Peter Moore)

As we know, however, the Lord – in whatever form he takes – works in mysterious ways.

Tourists began flocking to this church in a forgotten corner of Spain especially to see the painting.

On 9 January this year the total number of visitors hit 250,000.

On Saturday I helped push that total one closer to 300,000.

I was under the impression that the painting was in Borja, a small Aragonese town 65 kilometres north-east of Zaragoza.

But it turns out that Monkey Jesus resides in a small chapel in Santuario de la Misericordia, a tiny hilltop settlement nestled a further 6 kilometres away.

The local tourist office suggested taking a taxi but it was a crisp, relatively clear winter morning so I decided to walk.

Borja is wine country, with its own Denominación de Origen (DO), famous for its garnacha varieties.

My walk out of town took me past tiny rustic cellars and then on through fields of bare vines demarcated by lines of cherry trees just coming into blossom.

The hills to my right were topped by wind turbines. To my left, the snow-capped peaks of the Moncayo mountains.

The sun was out. The sky was clear. It was lovely.

Soon I spotted Santuario de la Misericordia, the village and the 15th century shrine it was named after.

The road switched back a couple of times as it climbed the hill, so I jumped a road barrier and cut straight up a hill.

A sign pointing up a hill saying ‘Ecce Homo’ and featuring a representation of Monkey Jesus told me I was heading in the right direction.

"This way to Ecce Homo" (Peter Moore)
Santuario de la Misericordia (Peter Moore)

Santuario de la Misericordia faced a gravel square with a fountain, trees, benches and panoramic views over the surrounding valley. 

The entrance was marked by a large red banner, again featuring the unmistakable profile of Monkey Jesus, and at the far end there was an unremarkable white-washed building, bearing a sign for Ambar Beer. It was the village bar and a woman emerged from it as I approached.

She was the ticket seller and she beckoned for me to follow her inside.

You had to pass through a vestibule to get to the chapel and it was here that the Santuario had set up a ticket booth.

There was a vending machine that flattened coins and embossed the face of Monkey Jesus on them and maps of the world on the wall with names of visitors pinned next to the cities and countries they come from.

Another wall had a glass cabinet displaying all the Monkey Jesus merch for sale, including mugs, t-shirts, key rings, thumb drives, fridge magnets and a 500-piece jigsaw.

I handed my €3 over and entered the chapel.

The evolution of Monkey Jesus (Peter Moore)
Peter meets Monkey Jesus (Peter Moore)

Like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Monkey Jesus isn’t as big as you expect it to be. 

And like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre it sits behind a sheet of glass, but maybe not bulletproof.

A show card featuring a picture of the original painting and a picture of the sorry state it had gotten into sat on a wooden easel beside the painting.

It effectively mapped the evolution of what has become one of the most famous paintings in the world.

I took a few selfies, peered closely into Monkey Jesus’s eyes and then ‘lit’ one of the coin-operated candles where 20 euro cents bought you absolution or a favour from God.

As I left the chapel the lady in the ticket booth pointed me towards a room at the other end of the building. 

It was the interpretation centre, she said. 

I wasn’t sure what needed interpreting. Woman botches painting and becomes internet sensation, pretty much sums it up. But it turned out to be surprisingly good.

It told the story of the painting and the attempted restoration and chartered the reaction to it around the world. There was a drawing table with paper and crayons where kids could draw their own Ecce Homo.

And two peep boards of Monkey Jesus – one for adults, one for children – where you could put your face in a cut-out hole and become our Simian Saviour too.

Monkey Jesus Interpretation Centre (Peter Moore)
Post-pilgrimage beer (Peter Moore)

After my visit, I bought a post-pilgrimage beer from the bar and sat at a table in the square in the sun, watching life go by. 

Two boys played with marbles in the dirt. Sparrows chirped loudly as they splashed in the fountain. And an old man hobbled across the square using an ornate walking stick for support.

Despite publicity, despite the worldwide infamy, life at Santuario de la Misericordia continues on as it always has.

Except it hasn’t. Monkey Jesus has brought visitors to the town. And with them, a certain level of prosperity.

The money from the entrance fees and the merch has raised millions of euros and used to fund a local care home. And the barman gets business that he otherwise would not have got. I bought two beers from him myself, albeit at the very reasonable price of €1.50 a bottle.

I drained the last of my beer, took my bottles and glass back to the bar and set off back down the hill towards Borja.

As I left the square a handful of Spanish tourists wandered toward the chapel and the ticket seller emerged from the bar again to greet them. I set off down the switchback with the warmth of the sun on my back.

The bar at Santuario de la Misericordia (Peter Moore)
Monkey Jesus fridge magnet (Peter Moore)

About two kilometres in, a passing driver stopped and offered me a lift into Borja. 

He introduced himself as Ramon and the two border collies in the back as Diego and Benito. He asked if I had been to see Ecce Homo and I nodded.

“That old lady, Cecilia, she went on holiday before she was done,” he said to me. “If she had finished it would never have looked that bad.”

He tells me that the family of Emilio García Martínez, the artist who had painted the original fresco, wanted to sue her. She fell into depression and was prescribed medication.

But when the tourists came, the tide turned.

In 2012 the municipality of Borja even hosted a commemorative gala to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Monkey Jesus’s rise to infamy.

“Cecilia was the guest of honour,” said Ramon. “They even performed an opera written especially for the occasion.”

I asked Ramon if Cecilia was still alive and he nodded.

“She is 93,” he said. “She has dementia too. Her family say it is a blessing because she only remembers the good things that happened, that people love her.”

Ramon dropped me off just outside Borja’s historical centre and Diego and Benito gave a yelp.

When I started planning this trip I had called it a pilgrimage as a bit of a laugh.

The absurdity of popping over to Spain for the weekend to see the most famous botch up in art history amused me greatly.

But when I thought about what I’d seen and learned – particularly about Cecilia’s persecution and ultimate redemption – I realised that Monkey Jesus was indeed truly worthy of a pilgrimage.

And that the Lord really does work in mysterious ways.

Monkey Jesus on the wall (Peter Moore)