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Going back to the Mediterranean

See them while you can: Menil returning Byzantine frescoes to Cyprus in February 2012

News_Byzantine Chapel_fresco_Sept 2011
Restored fresco Photo by © Paul Warchol
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Byzantine Chapel Photo by Hester + Hardaway
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The original chapel in Lysi, Cyprus Photo by Laurence Morrocco

When Dominique de Menil constructed a Montrose chapel for a group of 13th-century Byzantine frescoes she had rescued, many assumed that they had found a long-term home in Houston. But that is not to be the case.

The Menil Collection announced late Friday afternoon that the 700-year frescoes will return to Cyprus in February.

Menil acquired the frescoes, which had been stolen from a chapel and cut into 38 pieces, for $522,000 in 1984, on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus. She supervised their meticulous restoration at a cost of more than $530,000 and entered into an agreement with Cyprus religious officials to display them in Houston for a 20-year period, with the frescoes to be housed in a specially built chapel a couple of blocks away from the Menil Collection (on Yupon street at Branard). 

 It seems odd to some observers that Menil would build a chapel in Houston for the frescoes if they were only going to be in the museum's possession for a little more than two decades. Artinfo reports that Menil officials hoped to extend the loan but Cyprus's Archbishop Chrysostomos II wanted the frescoes returned to their land of origin.

 It was the last major project of her life. The chapel, designed by her son, architect Francois de Menil, opened in 1997, the year that she died.

One fresco depicts the Virgin Mary flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Michael. The other fresco shows a haloed Christ circled by a ring of angels. The frescoes originally adorned an 8-foot-wide dome and apse in a 13th-century Orthodox chapel in the north Cyprus town of Lysi.

It seems odd to some observers that Menil would build a chapel in Houston for the frescoes if they were only going to be in the museum's possession for a little more than two decades. Artinfo reports that Menil officials hoped to extend the loan but Cyprus's Archbishop Chrysostomos II wanted the frescoes returned to their land of origin. The works will not be housed in Lysi because the region on the divided island is occupied by Turkey. Instead they will be exhibited in the Byzantine Museum in the capital city of Nicosia.  
 
Menil officials seem unsure what will happen to the chapel. "We are exploring how best to use it in the future, in ways that carry forward our mission. We will also be organizing a number of public programs focused on the frescoes over the next few months, and I hope you will join us for these events," Menil director Josef Helfenstein said in a statement.

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