BY TYLER RUDICK
“The return of the frescoes to Cyprus is just one chapter in their long history,” Menil director Josef Helfenstein said.
The Menil Collection has revealed that March 4, 2012 will be the final day to see its Byzantine frescoes, which will be returned to Cyprus after a 28-year loan to the museum.
To commemorate the frescoes and the purpose-built Chapel that has housed them for 15 years, the Menil will present several special public events in February.
“We are honored to have been entrusted as stewards of these extraordinary frescoes and to have exhibited them for the people of Houston and the world in a remarkable building,” Menil director Josef Helfenstein said in a statement. “The return of the frescoes to Cyprus is just one chapter in their long history.”
Stolen from a Cypriot chapel in the early 1980s and cut into 38 pieces, the frescoes were purchased by the Menil Foundation on behalf of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus before the works entered the black market. In recognition of the rescue effort, the church granted the Menil a long-term loan to restore the frescoes and exhibit them in Houston.
Since the completion of a three-year conservation program, the works have represented the largest intact examples of Byzantine frescoes found in the western hemisphere.
Designed by architect Francois de Menil, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum opened to the public in 1997 as a means to return the frescoes to their intended spiritual purpose.
The last major project completed by Dominique de Menil in her lifetime, the consecrated chapel-museum, like the Rothko Chapel before it, is infused with belief that art and spirituality remain powerful forces in contemporary society and continue to be central to the shared human experience.
Museum officials are exploring future options for the chapel, particularly as the building relates to the Menil’s master campus plan designed by architect David Chipperfield.
Upon their return, the frescoes will be exhibited in the Byzantine Museum in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, rather than in the original chapel in the Turkish-controlled town of Lysi — a reminder of the political and cultural rifts that remain in Cyprus to this day.
“This remarkable transition shows how innovative the Menil has been in dealing with issues of cultural property,” University of Houston School of Art director Rex Koontz told CultureMap. In November, Koontz took part in a panel discussion at the Menil entitled Cultural Heritage 2.0: Participatory Stewardship, exploring notions of stewardship within and without the museum world.
On Sunday, March 4, 2012, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel will be de-consecrated in a special public ceremony. See the Menil Collection website for details on additional programing.