By Louis Casiano
Worshippers and art lovers crowded into a small chapel Saturday to get a final glimpse of two 700-year-old Byzantine frescoes set to return to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus later this month.
The frescoes have been on display at the chapel for the last 15 years. The 13th-century pieces were acquired by the Menil Collection’s founder, the late Dominique de Menil.
Her son Francois de Menil, an architect, designed the consecrated chapel specifically as a place to exhibit the pieces of art. How to use the building after the frescoes are gone still hasn’t been decided.
“Buildings do get re-purposed all the time,” de Menil said. “This won’t be the first time.”
The frescoes, a dome featuring Christ Pantokrator and an apse with the Virgin Mary flanked by archangels Gabriel and Michael, are both suspended from an overhead track. They will be rolled to the back of the chapel and lowered before being loaded into a double-walled crate for their journey back home.
The return of the frescoes to Cyprus is the end of a saga that began in 1983, when a colleague showed Dominique de Menil photographs of the 13th-century artwork cut into 38 pieces.
After meeting with a businessman in Munich, who told her the frescoes were found at a construction site in Turkey, de Menil agreed to buy them. Through lawyers and other contacts, however, she discovered that the frescoes actually had been stolen from a tiny chapel in Lysi, Cyprus, where the thieves broke them into pieces.
His mother “not only recognized the beauty of the frescoes but also the spiritual and asthenic necessity of the story,” Francois de Menil said.
Not wanting the frescoes to be destroyed or sold separately, de Menil bought them, then had them restored in London in a process that took three years. The de Menils and their backers spent $1.75 million to save the frescoes.
Grateful for the compassion and care, the Church of Cyprus lent the frescoes to the Menil Foundation, and both parties agreed to a 20-year loan that would start in 1992 and let Menil keep them in Houston.
Though everyone agreed that the frescoes needed to be returned, the emotion was evident as Francois choked up at a banquet preceding Saturday’s services.
The Menil Collection’s director, Josef Helfenstein, said the feeling is bittersweet, but returning the frescoes is the right thing to do.
“This has been part of our campus here, so to lose them is sad,” Helfenstein said. “Also, the feeling is really good because we did the right thing. We didn’t steal them; we never owned them – we were only the stewards.”
The frescoes will be on display for the last time Sunday.