Stolen Byzantine frescoes to return to Cyprus

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After more than two decades in Houston, the beloved Byzantine frescoes will go back to Cyprus in 2012. While this moment is bittersweet, the story of these frescoes—from their rescue, to their long-term loan to the Menil, and now to their return—very much reflects the essence of the Menil Collection, its focus on the aesthetic and the spiritual, and our responsible stewardship of works from other nations and cultures. 

Lysi Apse restored. Virgin and Archangels [Credit: ©Hester and Hardaway Photography 1990]

In 1983, Dominique de Menil, founder of the Menil Collection, was presented with an extraordinary prospect: to acquire two 13th century frescoes from Cyprus. Mrs. de Menil was struck by their beauty and understood immediately their art historical significance. However, after further research Mrs. de Menil learned that the frescoes had been stolen from their home in a small votive chapel in Lysi, Cyprus. 

That knowledge led to an act of extraordinary generosity—in fact, a series of generous actions that eventually engaged many other people. First, the frescoes were acquired by the Menil Collection on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. Then, the Menil Foundation supervised the restoration of the frescoes, which had been cut into more than 30 pieces when they were stolen. In gratitude, the Church lent the frescoes to the Menil on a long-term basis, for presentation in a consecrated chapel in Houston. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel opened to the public in 1997, with support for its construction provided by donors in Houston and across the country. 

Lysi dome fresco, restored. Christ pantokrator and angels [Credit: ©Hester and Hardaway Photography 1990]

Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have seen the frescoes and experienced the majesty of Cypriot Byzantine art and religion. Moreover, the frescoes’ installation in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel—a consecrated space that simultaneously honors their sacred origins and the tragic history of their looting from their true home church in Lysi—includes a profound, sacred dimension and is therefore different from traditional museum presentations of antiquities. 

While the loan of the frescoes formally concludes in February 2012, this will not be the end of their story—or the story of the building. The Menil is exploring how best to use it in the future, in ways that carry forward the museum’s mission. 

Source: Art Daily [September 25, 2011]

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