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The painstaking process of saying goodbye to the Byzantine frescoes: Roof's off and the art is gone

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Via crane, the dome is the first of the two frescoes out of the building. Photo by Clifford Pugh
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Francois de Menil poses with the frescoes for one of the last images of the 13th-century artifacts inside their Texas home. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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The frescoes and their glass chapel display hand independent from the building's structure, making removal safe and relatively easy. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Workers reveal a network of metal tracks, winches and pullies that hasn't been used since the frescoes were installed in the late 1990s. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
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News_Byzantine Chapel_frescos_removal_Francois de Menil

And then they were gone . . .

After nearly two decades in Houston, Menil officials oversaw the careful removal of two of the city's most storied artifacts the 13th century artworks at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel.

On Tuesday, workers detached sections of the building's ceiling to reveal a network of metal tracks, winches and pullies that hasn't been used since the frescoes were installed in 1997 when the chapel opened to the public. By early Wednesday afternoon, both pieces were craned out of the chapel to begin their journey back to the Mediterranean.

"The building was designed with the ability to install and remove the frescoes easily," said Francois de Menil, the chapel's architect. "The works themselves hang independently from the structure. They're positioned into place by rods and an overhead gantry system."

"We always hoped the loan would be extended, but we certainly accept that it isn't," said Francois de Menil. "In the end, the whole arc of the project is profoundly uplifting."

For the man who created a Texas home for the rare artworks, the departure of the frescoes must be bittersweet. The architect was still early in his design career when he worked with his mother, Menil Collection founder Dominique de Menil, to create a building that honored the frescoes' remarkable past while making them accessible and relevant to a new American audience.

"We always hoped the loan would be extended, but we certainly accept that it isn't," de Menil told CultureMap. "In the end, the whole arc of the project is profoundly uplifting . . .  These frescoes are like rock stars now.

"They've gone through this process that's exemplary of how to address issues of cultural heritage."

The frescoes were painted for a small chapel in the Cypriot village of Lysi that Francois de Menil described as "practically abandoned" when thieves haphazardly removed the Byzantine works in the early 1980s. The Menil Foundation arranged to save the delicate pieces from the black market and fully restore them in exchange for a long-term loan from the frescoes' rightful owners, the Orthodox Church of Cyprus.

By the end of the 1990s, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel was an integral part of the Menil campus and a testament to the organization's mission.

"My mother always felt that a strict museum display would omit an important and intangible quality found in the artwork," he said. "They were painted for a spiritual function."

"Whi le much of the building was derived from the frescoes and the glass chapel inside," de Menil noted, "it still has a lot of possibilities."

But with the art gone, their purpose-built chapel is left behind.

"While much of the building was derived from the frescoes and the glass chapel inside, it still has a lot of possibilities," de Menil said, suggesting that the rather theatrical interior space still demands a second life. "It could be a kind of experimental annex to the museum with new media and different types of artwork than may not be conducive to the museum setting."

The architect mentioned the Tate Modern as a point of comparison. "That building was designed for a power turbine," he said. "They weren't thinking at the time that it was ever going to become a museum. We weren't thinking that far ahead either."

He said the chapel will always maintain a unique "aura" or "spiritual and reflective quality," even without the frescoes and their iconic glass display.

"Ultimately, I think the space will lend itself to a variety of other uses, but we're only just working that out now."

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