Oh my, this restoration fail is 'Monkey Christ' all over again

Art restoration is a delicate business, especially when we're talking about a 15th century masterpiece considered one of the greatest depictions of the Nativity. That's a responsibility we don't envy of anyone. We need only recall the infamous 'monkey Christ' from a decade ago to see how the reaction can be to a bad job (see our favourite botched art restorations for more examples).

Now, just in time for Christmas, a restoration of Italian Early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca's Nativity is generating comparisons with that debacle. But this time it isn't a well-meaning amateur restorer behind the job. It's Britain's National Gallery being accused of a makeover that looks like it has been done in a photo app.

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Back in 2012, the topic of art restoration was thrown into the limelight when Spain's infamous 'monkey Christ' went viral. You might think that the newfound international media attention might make restorers more careful, but we've seen plenty more botched restoration jobs since then, including attempts to restore Murillo's Immaculate Conception that made it look like something that could have been spat out by one the latest AI image generators.

Fortunately, this recent example is a lot more considered than that. But some art critics aren't impressed. Piero della Francesca’s Nativity depicts Mary adoring the baby Jesus in front of a stable, with a choir of angels and two shepherds whose faces had long been obliterated.

The painting has been put on view at the National Gallery in London for the festive period following a three-year restoration that gallery describes as "careful" and "revealing". The Guardian's art writer Jonathan Jones describes it as an "idiotic botch" and a "pastiche of Renaissance art by a very cheap, very bad app". And he has particular criticism for the replacement of the missing faces.

Jones reckons the "orange-faced man looks vacant and gormless, even constipated, his barely human eyes unfocused and lifeless. It’s like he’s trying to remember where he parked the donkey". Meanwhile, the other shepherd "looks like a very earnest teenager throwing shapes at a school disco." And I can see his point. They look somehow modern yet lifeless. Perhaps something so severely damaged should be left alone.

But the restoration job involves more than just replacing missing faces. Other details have been sharpened and colours made more vibrant. Some of the decisions seem to have been made on the basis of a new theory that the painting was a finished piece (it was previously believed to be unfinished). But Jones says it's been "polished up as if it was for sale at Frieze Masters" and claims the gallery has enforced its own interpretation of the painting.

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Restoring such important historic works requires great sensitivity, and the National Gallery surely thought long and hard about how to approach the Nativity, as well as what it thinks will appeal most to visitors. But sometimes perhaps it's better not to repair the damage rather than risk changing the artist's vision.

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Joseph Foley

Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He writes news and features, updates buying guides and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to accessories and office supplies. A writer and translator, he also works as a project manager at London and Buenos Aires-based design, production and branding agency Hermana Creatives, where he manages a team of designers, photographers and video editors who specialise in producing photography, video content, graphic design and collaterals for the hospitality sector. He enjoys photography, particularly nature photography, wellness and he dances Argentine tango.