Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Menil's Byzantine Frescoes are going back home

A couple of weekends ago, my girlfriend and I went to the Menil (she had never been and I hadn't been in years) to look at the artwork. We then walked over to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel to see the restored thirteenth-century Greek Cypriot frescoes on exhibit there. I'm glad we got to see them when we did, because they are leaving Houston soon:
In 1987, the Menil Foundation and the Church of Cyprus reached an agreement. De Menil, the parties agreed, did not own the frescoes, but had acquired them and restored them on behalf of the Church of Cyprus. By then, the de Menils and their backers (including former President George H.W. Bush) had spent $1.75 million to save the frescoes. In exchange, the church agreed, it would allow them to reside for 20 years in Houston, where the Menil Foundation would show them in a chapel consecrated as an Eastern Orthodox church. That 20-year clock began ticking on Jan. 1, 1992.
The frescoes were looted from a Cypriot church shortly after Turkey invaded the island in 1974. Dominique de Menil discovered the frescoes in 1984. She realized that the people selling the frescoes weren't being honest about their provenance, but decided to purchase them anyway in order to preserve them. She discovered that the Church of Cyprus was the rightful owner of the frescoes, and reached the agreement with them described above. The frescoes were then restored and placed in the building designed by her son, Fran├žois:
In a book about the painted churches of Cyprus, he found photos that inspired him - photos, oddly, of newer structures sometimes built around the ancient chapels to protect them.

That's it, he thought: There should be a modern building around an interior "chapel" that holds the frescoes.

The building's exterior would be the modern protective shell, boxy and heavy-looking, with stone at the base (a nod to Cyprus) and rough, modern concrete above. Inside that box, he designed a black steel box, lit from above by skylights. And inside the steel box, he designed a "chapel," an arching, domed metal frame that holds the Christ fresco at the dome and Mary at the apse. But where the original chapel's walls would have been completely covered, top to bottom, with yet more frescoes, these walls were made of frosted glass.
The chapel opened in 1997. After March 4th, the chapel will be closed, and the frescoes removed and returned to Cyprus for eventual display (the chapel from which the frescoes were originally taken lies on the Turkish-controlled side of the island, so they won't be returning there). The metal frame that holds the frescoes will be dismantled as well, and the building will be repurposed.

I admit that I wasn't aware of the history behind the frescoes, or that their exhibition here in Houston was meant to be temporary. And while I'm sad to see them leave, it makes me happy to know the role the Menil Foundation, as well as the city as a whole, played in restoring, preserving, and repatriating these priceless medieval works of art.

If you haven't seen them yet, you have three and a half weeks to do so. Go check them out.

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