For more than six centuries, the austere interior of the chapel of Sant Cristòfol has greeted weary hikers as they make their way through the mountains near Spain’s Costa Blanca.
That was, at least, until “intense” inspiration struck Jesús Cees, who decided to transform the white walls of the remote chapel with a riot of vivid murals that the artist describes as some of his best work.
Not everyone has been as impressed: regional officials are weighing up whether to fine him for painting over a protected heritage site without permission, while Spanish media swiftly likened the chapel’s makeover to the botched “Monkey Christ” restoration.
Cees had long toyed with the idea of splashing colour across the site. Four years ago, he broached the idea with officials in Alcoy, the city responsible for overseeing the chapel, as it is no longer used for religious purposes.
“They told me not to touch it; they forbade me,” said Cees. The 53-year-old attempted to set the idea aside, but the chapel’s stark white walls haunted him. “The inspiration was intense … I decided to do it and ask for forgiveness later.”
It was a strategy that had worked before. Eight years earlier, Cees had painted a colourful, yellow-eyed take on the chapel’s namesake saint – “I did it in my style, you know,” he said – in order to cover up a patch of graffiti scrawled in the entryway.
His latest revamp got under way in the summer of 2020. On a near-daily basis he rose at the crack of dawn, spending hours hiking to and from the chapel in the Sierra de Mariola mountains.
His unauthorised overhaul was made public earlier this month after the city asked Valencia’s regional government to look into the matter, potentially paving the way for fines or a repainting of the chapel.
The municipality of Alcoy confirmed it had rebuffed an earlier proposal from Cees to paint the chapel, describing the artist’s plans as “discordant” with its gothic style and its status as a protected building. “Without disparaging the [artist’s] work, it is anachronistic and could affect the original pigments,” it said in a statement.
Cees said he was surprised at the city’s reaction to his efforts. “What’s better? The way it is now or when the walls were blank?” he asked. “It didn’t cost them a penny. What more do they want?”
He rejected any association between his work and that of the devout parishioner who sought to restore the flaking Ecce Homo painting in a north-eastern Spanish church in 2012. “You can’t compare them. I took on a blank space, she restored a small fresco,” he said.
He was forced to halt his project four months in after he fell from a ladder while trying to paint the ceiling. Cees hit the chapel’s stone floor, breaking both of his wrists.
Once he fully recovered, he was determined to return to the site. “My plan is to finish painting the entire chapel, hopefully this summer,” he said. “Because what I start, I finish.”