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Menil Collection Celebrates Return of Byzantine Frescoes with Public Events Honoring Sacred Works

Interior detail, Byzantine Fresco Chapel

Interior detail, Byzantine Fresco Chapel

Byzantine Fresco Chapel
The Menil Collection
Closes Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Menil Collection announced that March 4, 2012 will be the final day to see the Byzantine frescoes currently housed on its campus in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, after which time they will be returned to the Orthodox Church of Cyprus.  In celebration of the frescoes, their time in Houston, and the purpose-built Chapel that has been their home for fifteen years, the Menil will present special public events commemorating the return of this sacred art.

The works, the largest intact Byzantine frescoes in the Western hemisphere, have been on long-term loan to the Menil from the Orthodox Church of Cyprus following their rescue by the Menil Foundation twenty-eight years ago. They are being returned to Cyprus following the conclusion of the loan agreement between the two parties.

At the heart of the Menil’s mission is the belief that art and spirituality are powerful forces in contemporary society and central to a shared human experience—and that institutions have a responsibility to preserve and present objects as stewards, safeguarding their future. In November of this year, the museum hosted a panel discussion, Cultural Heritage 2.0: Participatory Stewardship, exploring how stewardship issues are being handled across disciplines outside of the museum field and what museums can learn from these other examples. (A video of this discussion can be viewed at  In 2010, the Menil published Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil, which chronicles the founders’ work in this realm.

“We are honored to have been entrusted as stewards of these extraordinary frescoes and to have exhibited them for the people of Houston and the world in a remarkable building,” said Menil Director Josef Helfenstein.  “The return of the frescoes to Cyprus is just one chapter in their long history. I hope everyone will join us for these programs as we celebrate the frescoes’ time in Houston and their return to their home country.”

Public Programs

Sunday, February 12, 2012 at 5:30 p.m.

Menil Collection Foyer

A Musical Tribute to the Byzantine Frescos
This concert begins at sundown with a procession from the Menil Collection to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, by singers from St. Paul’s Methodist Choir (Mark Edenfield, director) chanting sacred texts.  At the Chapel, a concert of Bach’s Cello Suite #2 in D Minor and Mariel (a duet for marimba and cello by Osvaldo Golijov), will be performed by Craig Hauschildt (marimba) and Eva Lymenstull (cello) from Da Camera of Houston.

Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 7 p.m.

Menil Collection Foyer

A Scholarly Consideration of Sacred Art

Serving as moderator, Menil Director Josef Helfenstein brings together an art historian, an anthropologist, and a theologian for a discussion of the ways in which the Byzantine Fresco Chapel and the larger Menil campus reflect the vision of Menil founders, Dominique and John de Menil, of art as a means of reintegrating the sacred and secular worlds.  Speakers include:

  • Annemarie Weyl Carr, University Distinguished Professor of Art History at Southern Methodist University.  Ms. Weyl Carr organized Imprinting the Divine: Byzantine and Russian Icons from the Menil Collection, on view through March 18, 2012.
  • Pamela Smart, Professor of Anthropology and Art History at SUNY Binghamton and author of Sacred Modern: Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics in the Menil Collection
  • William Vendley, Secretary General of the World Conference for Religions of Peace

Admission for both events is free; seating is available on a first come, first served basis.

About the Byzantine Fresco Chapel

In 1983 Dominique de Menil was presented with the opportunity of purchasing two frescoes dating from the 13th century, which had been dismantled into 38 pieces. The exceptional quality and spiritual significance of the works immediately struck Mrs. de Menil, who resolved to rescue the frescoes, which were purportedly being sold on behalf of an art dealer. Provenance research revealed Cyprus as their place of origin and, with this knowledge in hand and permission from the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, the Menil purchased the frescoes on behalf of the Church.  The Menil subsequently entered into a formal agreement with the Church, which granted permission to restore the frescoes (a three-year process), resulting in a long-term loan of the works so they might be exhibited in Houston.

A key aspect of the shared vision of the Menil Foundation and the Orthodox Church of Cyprus was that the original spiritual purpose of the frescoes be restored.  To this end, a consecrated chapel was constructed on the Menil campus especially for the exhibition of the works—a space that honors the spiritual significance of the frescoes without creating a mere replica of their original home. Designed by architect Francois de Menil, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel opened to the public in 1997; hundreds of thousands have visited since.  As announced in September of this year, the frescoes will be returned to Cyprus following the conclusion of the loan agreement. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel has served as a place of peace and contemplation, as well as host to liturgical ceremonies, sacred music performance, and education programs.  An integral part of the Menil’s mission and a beloved presence on the Menil campus and in the Houston community, the Chapel will be de-consecrated in a ceremony on Sunday, March 4, 2012.  The Menil is currently exploring options for the Chapel’s continued use within the larger context of the Menil campus master site plan.

More information on the Byzantine Fresco Chapel may be found at

Interior detail, Byzantine Fresco Chapel

Interior detail, Byzantine Fresco Chapel

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